by Joseph Prever
Today I spent fifteen minutes of my evening commute meditating on twelve seconds of dialogue from Parks & Recreation. The line “Well I doth proclaim to be a stupid fartface” kept presenting itself to my mind, and every time it did, I laughed, as if the joke were a magical orange that replenished itself with each fresh squeezing.
Come to think of it, the same thing happened recently with this story from—I was about to say Reddit, but googling shows that it is one of those stories that was spontaneously generated from everywhere on the internet at once, so no attribution is possible. Anyway, I was making the long walk from my cubicle to the coffee machine when the story flashed upon my inward eye:
“Today in math class I had the urge to fart. I thought that if I dropped my book and farted at the same time, no one would hear it. I dropped my textbook and everyone looked at me. Then I farted. Loudly.”
I thought about this seven times, and every time I thought of it again, I laughed again, like I was being drenched and then dried and then re-drenched by waves from an endless sea. If laughter had a second law of thermodynamics, this story would be violating it. The fifth time I laughed at it, I laughed so hard that I had to lean against a wall. How can the fifth time be funnier than the first? What about the law of diminishing returns, for Pete’s sake?
Was I discovering new, subtle depths of funniness in these two fart-related anecdotes? Were they inexhaustible in their comedic riches? Is it possible that they were in fact not so much stories as fitfully traced portals to a realm of infinite funniness?
I realize that when people ask a series of exaggerated questions like that, they are usually implying that the answer is obviously “no”, but I think the answer is probably “maybe”.
One of the things that people will say about jokes like these (usually when they’re done completely losing it, but sometimes gasping the words out in the throes of their laughter) is “That’s classic,” or sometimes just “Classic!” This expression might seem odd if you consider that the word “classic” usually means something old, formal, and probably difficult.
But what really makes a classic? Italo Calvino says that a classic is “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”; and again, “a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.” This is not because the classic has a very large amount of things to say, like maybe 1,000,000,000, so that every time we hear one of the things, there are still 999,999,999 things to hear.
On the contrary: the classic (whether book or joke) is, by nature, inexhaustible. When we enjoy a classic, no part of it is consumed. This is the case because to enjoy a classic is not to eat and digest it, but to bathe in it, willomy in it; not so much to drink it, as to be drunk by it, or even, if it were possible, to be wholly dissolved in it.
Speaking of Douglas Adams, this whole thing is summed up pretty well by something Grubby said to me about twelve years ago, regarding The Agrajag Joke in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series—a joke that is built up to for the first two books, reaches its climax in the third book, and reverberates until the end of the fifth and final(ish) book.
He said: “I don’t just want to laugh at that joke. I want to live in it.”