A few years back I purchased the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain, collecting everything that Twain published in his lifetime. Since then it has followed me from Washington state to New York to Massachusetts but I'd kept putting off starting in, since I'd actually bought the set in order to do research for a project. But finally I accepted that that might not get off the ground for years yet, so what the hell.
The first volume is The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Stories, collecting a bunch of little comedy pieces Twain wrote when he was just starting out. You know how after making it big a band will often try to cash in by throwing together a compilation CD of demo tapes and B-sides? That's basically what this is, only it came out first — and Twain was none too happy with it, fearing that every successful story about hicks pulling pranks on each other would make it that much harder for the public to accept his name on something more serious.
Not only that, but Twain didn't even like the material; while the New York press hailed Twain as having instantly seized the mantle of America's leading humorist, Twain called the frog story (title track?) "a villainous backwoods sketch" — and Twain's the one who had it right. The book as a whole is a pretty mixed bag, with many stories that are nothing more than one joke, or not even a joke but merely a vaguely humorous idea, expanded to half a dozen pages... shaggy-dog stories more than anything else. Others do contain some chuckles. I found myself taking notes on what worked and what didn't, partly to see how Twain's style would develop in future volumes, and partly because I found myself dwelling on what exactly separates the funny from the unfunny.
Mainly I wondered about the unfunny. It's easy to make a deliberately stupid joke — a quick "huh-huh, you said 'butt'" will suffice. It's also easy to point out jokes that have become unfunny because their formula is tired: witness, for example, the Onion, whose "let's treat a sorta-kinda-maybe amusing slice of life as if it were a news story" schtick got old after about three issues. (I mean, c'mon, you can write these yourself, on the spot. "Area Man Astonished by Variety of Pants. Mel Kramnik, 57, was stunned and indeed bewildered by the dazzling array of choices available to him in the men's pants section of the Schaumberg, Ill., JC Penney store. 'I just went in to get a pair of pants, but then I had to choose: stain-guard or no stain-guard? full-cut or original-cut?'" Etc., etc., etc. By contrast, the Ironic Times is dependably brilliant, relying instead on the inexhaustible comedy staple of animadversion, aka riffing on stuff.) Harder is figuring out what exactly constitutes a lame joke. It's really quite difficult to intentionally come up with a riff that isn't screamingly defective but just falls sort of... flat.
Admittedly, here I'm hopping back and forth between two different comedic contexts. There's comedy writing — you've got a blank page and have to fill it with something funny — and then there's wit in conversation. Perhaps I tend to conflate the two because I am often (though less often these days) on ifMUD, an endless text-based conversation, and one which features some of the funniest people I've ever encountered and several of the least funny, all of them trying to make jokes at nearly every opportunity. So I hung out for a bit and tried to collect some examples of unfunny lines to see what I could determine. I'm not sure such a small sample really says a lot, but hey, you're reading this for free.
What I found is that, at least in the past few days, the weakest jokes have been those that attempt wordplay that is a real reach and don't add anything to make up for the fact that the wordplay is a reach. Examples:
A: there's something very noisy outside B: They're your adoring fans! C (A's gf): he is not allowed to have adoring fans! especially female ones D: Fans are just little pieces of paper not male or female.
E looks at the huge list of channels to chat on. E: I am constantly amazed with the channels here. F: Here's a channel made by water in sand, over here's the English Channel...
G: Newspaper headline: Bush to visit Jordan as broker of peace H: I did not know that Michael was at war!
In all these cases, the would-be comedian makes a joke in which the entirety of the humor derives from the supposed misunderstanding of a word — but there's nothing intrinsically humorous about the situation as misunderstood, and misunderstanding something is not especially funny all by itself. If one wanted to attempt to reply to, say, the fan exchange in an amusing manner by pretending to misunderstand what sort of fan was meant — well, heaven help you, frankly, but perhaps something like "Now I'm picturing you opening up a paper fan and seeing 'I WUV OO' printed on it" might do the trick. It adds a bit of self-sufficient wackiness to the otherwise unfunny misunderstanding. But it's still far from hilarious.
Plays on words tend to need a lot of help to be funny. Twain manages to get away with a fair bit of it, as when in his "Californian Almanac" he writes, "Oct. 19.—Look out for rain. It would be absurd to look in for it." Pithy. A page later there's a fun instance of zeugma: "Nov. 2.—Spasmodic but exhilarating earthquakes, accompanied by occasional showers of rain and churches and things." But note that these are cleverer plays on words than mere puns. There is nothing less funny than a pun cascade. Rwandan genocide had more laughs.
That, of course, was exaggeration (however slight), a technique also used extensively by Twain, often in an offhand manner, as when he casually mentions that when his neighbors took up musical instruments he would go over and set fire to their houses. This sketch is also emblematic of Twain's early inclination toward observational humor, with many of his pieces serving as the 19th-century equivalent of every comedian's routine about airline travel. (He has an essay on chambermaids that is a clear forerunner of the famous "Soap Opera" piece misattributed to Douglas Adams.)
But Twain's main calling card in Frog is the way he cheerfully tears into the conventions of sentimental 19th-century American culture, mocking children's stories, credulous rubes, young lovers, temperance, education, even letters from mom. And while judging from my email inbox, mothers' correspondence hasn't changed in 150 years, some of this stuff doesn't age well. I'm really hoping that the remaining 28 volumes are higher-quality stuff.