"It's always fun until someone puts an eye out," as Mother always said, and goodness only knows what she was talking about.
Yet that line has come to form the center of my theory about humor: great humor is satisfying because it's dangerous. Humor is gratifying in direct proportion to its rebelliousness. It is at its best after someone puts out an eye, or loses the collective "I," or finds it.
The best humor isn't found in jokes, it's found in stories. Great humor is about loss, refusal, and recovery. It's not about two guys walking into a bar where there's a twelve-inch pianist or a talking dog; it isn't about memorizing limericks. Humor that remains humorous-and memorable--after fifteen minutes or a hundred years --is material that's slightly dangerous and more than slightly smart.
All great humorists run towards their pain and their sorrow-and they trip over it. Some do a pratfall, some a subtle stumble, some an apoplectic version of St. Vitus dance, some a soft-shoe, but none--and this is the important part--remain on their knees.
Excessive, playful, blasphemous, indulgent, insurgent, and fiercely courageous, great humorists have one crucial thing in common: they know humor is the shortest and most electric line between two--or more--points. They set about connecting the wires so the rest of us could hear the noise inside their heads. To them, nothing is sacred. Nothing scares them. The only thing they have to fear, perhaps, is the grim, tight-lipped, earnest specter of humorlessness itself.