By this I mean that each community has, within limits, its own particular ways of being funny and its own particular conception of a joke. Thus, a Scotchman likes best a joke which he has all to himself or which he shares reluctantly with a few; the thing is too rich to distribute. The American loves particularly as his line of joke an anecdote with the point all concentrated at the end and exploding in a phrase. The Englishman loves best as his joke the narration of something that actually did happen and that depends, of course; for its point on its reality.
There are plenty of minor differences, too, in point of mere form, and very naturally each community finds the particular form used by the others less pleasing than its own. In fact, for this very reason each people is apt to think its own humour the best.
Thus, on our side of the Atlantic, to cite our own faults first, we still cling to the supposed humour of bad spelling. We have, indeed, told ourselves a thousand times over that bad spelling is not funny, but is very tiresome. Yet it is no sooner laid aside and buried than it gets resurrected. I suppose the real reason is that it is funny, at least to our eyes. When Bill Nye spells wife with "yph" we can't help being amused. Now Bill Nye's bad spelling had absolutely no point to it except its oddity. At times it was extremely funny, but as a mode it led easily to widespread and pointless imitation. It was the kind of thing--like poetry--that anybody can do badly. It was most deservedly abandoned with execration. No American editor would print it to-day. But witness the new and excellent effect produced with bad spelling by Mr. Ring W. Lardner. Here, however, the case is altered; it is not the falseness of Mr. Lardner's spelling that is the amusing feature of it, but the truth of it. When he writes, "dear friend, Al, I would of rote sooner," etc., he is truer to actual sound and intonation than the lexicon. The mode is excellent. But the imitations will soon debase it into such bad coin that it will fail to pass current. In England, however, the humour of bad spelling does not and has never, I believe, flourished. Bad spelling is only used in England as an attempt to reproduce phonetically a dialect; it is not intended that the spelling itself should be thought funny, but the dialect that it represents. But the effect, on the whole, is tiresome. A little dose of the humour of Lancashire or Somerset or Yorkshire pronunciation may be all right, but a whole page of it looks like the gibbering of chimpanzees set down on paper.
In America also we run perpetually to the (supposed) humour of slang, a form not used in England. If we were to analyse what we mean by slang I think it would be found to consist of the introduction of new metaphors or new forms of language of a metaphorical character, strained almost to the breaking point. Sometimes we do it with a single word. When some genius discovers that a "hat" is really only "a lid" placed on top of a human being, straightway the word "lid" goes rippling over the continent. Similarly a woman becomes a "skirt," and so on ad infinitum.
These words presently either disappear or else retain a permanent place, being slang no longer. No doubt half our words, if not all of them, were once slang. Even within our own memory we can see the whole process carried through; "cinch" once sounded funny; it is now standard American-English. But other slang is made up of descriptive phrases. At the best, these slang phrases are--at least we think they are--extremely funny. But they are funniest when newly coined, and it takes a master hand to coin them well. For a supreme example of wild vagaries of language used for humour, one might take O. Henry's "Gentle Grafter." But here the imitation is as easy as it is tiresome. The invention of pointless slang phrases without real suggestion or merit is one of our most familiar forms of factory-made humour. Now the English people are apt to turn away from the whole field of slang. In the first place it puzzles them--they don't know whether each particular word or phrase is a sort of idiom already known to Americans, or something (as with O. Henry) never said before and to be analysed for its own sake. The result is that with the English public the great mass of American slang writing (genius apart) doesn't go. I have even found English people of undoubted literary taste repelled from such a master as O. Henry (now read by millions in England) because at first sight they get the impression that it is "all American slang."
Another point in which American humour, or at least the form which it takes, differs notably from British, is in the matter of story telling. It was a great surprise to me the first time I went out to a dinner party in London to find that my host did not open the dinner by telling a funny story; that the guests did not then sit silent trying to "think of another"; that some one did not presently break silence by saying, "I heard a good one the other day,"--and so forth. And I realised that in this respect English society is luckier than ours.
It is my candid opinion that no man ought to be allowed to tell a funny story or anecdote without a license. We insist rightly enough that every taxi-driver must have a license, and the same principle should apply to anybody who proposes to act as a raconteur. Telling a story is a difficult thing--quite as difficult as driving a taxi. And the risks of failure and accident and the unfortunate consequences of such to the public, if not exactly identical, are, at any rate, analogous.
This is a point of view not generally appreciated. A man is apt to think that just because he has heard a good story he is able and entitled to repeat it. He might as well undertake to do a snake dance merely because he has seen Madame Pavlowa do one. The point of a story is apt to lie in the telling, or at least to depend upon it in a, high degree. Certain stories, it is true, depend so much on the final point, or "nub," as we Americans call it, that they are almost fool-proof. But even these can be made so prolix and tiresome, can be so messed up with irrelevant detail, that the general effect is utter weariness relieved by a kind of shock at the end. Let me illustrate what I mean by a story with a "nub" or point. I will take one of the best known, so as to make no claim to originality--for example, the famous anecdote of the man who wanted to be "put off at Buffalo." Here it is: