I’m no good at cracking jokes though I’m quite the ideal audience for displays of humor. I laugh easily and tend to laugh again and again over the same jokes (must be the Forgetful Jones in me). A surefire way to kill a joke is to analyze it–when it comes to humor, it seems, the slightest gloss is already over-explaining–but analysis becomes necessary in cases where the tone is unclear, a.k.a. are you kidding me or do you actually mean what you’re saying?

Granted, humor, at times, springs precisely from the simultaneous existence of sincere and not-sincere, as in the following paraphrases of conversations I had through text recently:

Friend 1: Saan makakabili ng magandang papel?
Me: May magagandang papel sa [Tindahan 1] and [Tindahan 2].
Friend 1: Sarado na yung [Tindahan 1]. Parang ang puso ko. Dyowk! Na hindi.
Me: Hahaha!

or

Me: Sa bahay tayo uminom mamaya.
Friend 2: Yes! Para raid ko na rin bookshelf mo! Joke! Na half-meant.
Me: Hahaha!

Easy, of course, to do the joke-na-hindi qualifier when goofing around through text, and especially if it is of the pa-cute variety, where nothing is at stake. But in an extended piece of writing, when humor is pursued via flirting with the possibility of irritating (at the very least) or offending people of a particular class, race, gender, etc., more work needs to be done to ensure that while the language of the piece may be ambiguous, the tone it exudes is not. This is difficult to pull off, a lesson learned recently by Chip Tsao. Even works that by all indications are satirical, say Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, continue to be taken literally, while essays that are downright wrong, as in that piece by Malu Fernandez are defended (in this case, initially, by her) as misunderstood samples of “acerbic wit.” Humor, it seems, like porn, is in the eye of the beholder. And when the joke doesn’t quite work, who’s to blame? Is it you (pompous, elitist, bigoted, second-rate author) or is it me (oversensitive, humorless, literal-minded reader)?

I’m thinking about these things because of two essays from the 2005 edition of an anthology we’re currently discussing in class which caused quite a stir: “Confessions of a Q.C. House-Husband” by Alfred A. Yuson (first published in the Manila Chronicle, 6 November 1988) and “Toilet Training and Progress” by Antonio A. Hidalgo (first published in Money Asia, 1996). Yuson’s essay is primarily a catalogue of great grocery shopping deals in and in the vicinity of Teachers’ Village, while Hidalgo’s essay makes the argument that a country’s particular rung in the ladder of progress can be gauged according to “the level of toilet training among the people in a society.” The more incidences of public urination in a country, the less toilet trained its people are, the more uncivilized it is, the farther it is from progress.

Both essays make use of humor to get their points across. In the case of “Confessions,” published in 1988 and anthologized close to twenty years later, humor (and how successfully executed it is) becomes of vital importance since practically all its information (where to get the cheapest food deals) is stale. If we can no longer read it for its substance, then we must read it for its style. And if it’s meant to be funny (not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, more the light, charming, amusing kind) , then the question is, is it? “Toilet Training,” on the other hand, is social commentary, where logic of argument takes top priority. Hidalgo uses occasional wisecracks to spice up his prose, but the essay is primarily straightforward, and its humor is ultimately meant to be in the service of a sound argument.

Both essays caused a furor in class (with “Toilet Training” drawing far more impassioned, violent objections than “Confessions”), I think, because of a certain muddiness of tone, begging the question, are you kidding me or do you actually mean what you’re saying? “Confessions” opens with, “I’m a tough guy, so I live in that part of Quezon City called Teachers’ Village”–a statement that elicited quite a few laughs for its exaggerated macho stance in a relatively safe and well-to-do residential area. But what to do when the statement is followed by a litany of not particularly hyperbolically rendered difficulties in Teachers’ Village (“dogs and tricycles zipping about like crazy,” “wailing babies by the block,” “rustic road ruts that sprout after a storm,” etc.) as well as a rundown of a daily routine that involves feeding carp, managing a staff of yayas, and humming Mozart while tending to vandas and dendrobiums? Nagpapatawa ka ba o seryoso ka? (Fascinating side quote: “she brings home the eight-to-five bacon, while I only make a few thousand a week from my poetry. And you know how it is with coffee money–it disappears faster than clever Rightists.” This in 1988! Where does one make a few thousand a week from poetry in 2009? I’d like to know.)

Here’s the ruckus-inducing paragraph from “Toilet Training”: “Tender hearts sometimes excuse the widespread practice of public urination in a country by pointing out that there are no public toilets. This may be putting the caretela before the horse, for there may be very well be no public toilets because no one feels strongly about the practice. Besides, if the lack of toilets truly caused public peeing, then why don’t the women in afflicted countries do as their menfolk do? Come to think of it, they could become a formidable tourist attraction if they did.” Again, the question: nagpapatawa ka ba o seryoso ka? In an essay which falls silent on matters of poverty, homelessness, inhuman living conditions, or the luxury of hygiene and health, it is difficult to accept the logic it offers as anything more than simplistic, let alone its punchline as anything other than ghastly.

Or am I being a humorless, oversensitive reader? Humor is a tricky thing. Even the smallest decisions in wording an idea can alter the tone from funny to not, can shift the position of the narrator in relation to reader from one beside you to one above you, from one laughing with you to one laughing at you. And so when the laughs just aren’t there, is it you or is it me?