Wednesday, October 06, 2010


In Steven Martin's wonderfully entertaining and insightful (as the critics might say) memoir Born Standing Up, he discusses the origin of his early stand-up routine, a performance that left the audience more than a little puzzled, if not pissed. Martin had once learned in a university class that the punchline of your classic joke was designed to relieve the tension that had been built up through the telling of the tale; Martin's genius was to ask: What if you didn't release that tension at all? Told punchline-less jokes, in other words? Today we're used to comedy that comes in various abstract, even unfunny forms -- but Martin was one of the first to make jokes that were so bizarrely unfunny, in the conventional sense, that they thereby reached a whole new level of hilarity that had never been truly seen, nor attempted, in the western world. He pulled our legs, and it took us awhile to figure out what, exactly, he was yanking, and why.

Which gets me thinking: Is God doing the same thing?

Perhaps we -- meaning us, the world, the galaxy, the universe, space and time and all its divergent variants -- are merely a joke without a punchline. All of our searching leads back to ourselves. Most of are yearnings are left unfulfilled. We have learned more about science than any other culture in the history of humanity, yet the divide between believers and rationalists has never been wider. Everything is separated.

Most of our thinking is that of the traditional-joke variety: we set up (or are given), a scenario, and we follow it through to its inevitable conclusion. The result is usually not funny -- but it's always there. The test is taken, the score comes back. The vows are made, the marriage is legal. The punch is thrown, the cops are called. Cause, effect, period. The result may make us uneasy in the deepest parts of ourselves, but we are given an ending that decides things for us.


That greatest of endings, our lives, remains a mystery. The final punch-line we're waiting for, dreading, longing for, evading. A great joke is all about withdrawal, withholding, not giving up the treasure we hold dear, so perhaps the last moment of life will leave us in stitches.

I wonder.

What if we're all part of a grand cosmic scheme whose plan is in part a joke left untold? We may be Steve Martin's original audience, writ large, for eternity. Waiting for the gag to begin. Bewildered when we realize that the act has not only begun, but it's over, and the headliner has already moved on to the next puzzling bit. Time is so relative that even a god may contain within his pinky finger a span of light years that passes for him in the length of a piss. Perhaps this god is telling a joke whose answer, when (of if) it's revealed, will puzzle us even more than we're puzzled already.

I just hope that it's at least a little bit funny.