There was a story out a few weeks ago. I’m sure you read about in your local newspaper or heard it mentioned on the radio or on television. The man who developed the canister for Pringles potato chips – Frederic Baur – was so proud of his invention; he requested his ashes be stored in a Pringles can after he died.
I didn’t feel bad chuckling about it when I read the story. I didn’t know Mr. Baur personally, but my guess is he was good natured. He’s probably laughing along with us at the gag in some better place. What I did feel bad about was the way the media handled the story. I heard it on NPR, on CNN, read about it in the local Rockford paper and in USA Today. Each time, the writer essentially wrote the same story: man who invented Pringles can is interred in one. And each time, the writer felt they had to end it with a completely unnecessary punch line.
Some jokes do require a punch line. It would be hard to tell a knock-knock joke without someone asking, “Who’s there?” But have you ever heard a comedian set up a story and the audience begins to laugh in anticipation of the payoff? If the comedian is smart, they won’t say anything more and let the laughter build on its own. I think our brains can process humor in a similar fashion as terror. What is scarier: the monster shown clearly in the light or something moving among the shadows… something even darker? Our mind fills in the gaps of our perceptions not only with something scary, but something personally scary. Something scary from our own heads that can never be topped by Hollywood special effects.
A really good setup works on us the same way. My wife found a website the other day called Garfield Minus Garfield. Garfield the cat is well known for his caustic comments and the strip has been consistently funny for thirty years. However, on this website, Garfield and all of his witty asides have been Photoshopped out of existence. There are no punch lines except in the mind. Surprisingly, the remaining Jon Arbuckle panels are demented, almost painful in their portrayal and some of the most hilarious things I have read in a long time. I can’t tell you why; I won’t even try. To pin down the humor, freeze it into language, would destroy it.