The Dead Joke and the Funny Man

James Whitcomb Riley
1849 – 1916

It’s no coincidence the masks of Comedy and Tragedy hang side by side. Laughter and tears are first cousins––if not flip sides of the same emotional response. Both behaviors can be socially appropriate or inappropriate at certain times in every culture. Both are strangely contagious. Beyond the general connections to mental and emotional health, scientists are now discovering specific physiological benefits we derive from laughter and tears. (The study of the physiology of laughter is called Gelotology. I don’t know of a term for the study of the physiology of crying.) Of course, clinical study will never replace artistic sensibility. Which reminds me . . . .

James Whitcomb Riley enjoyed commercial success during his lifetime because he wrote poems with resonant humor and sentimentality.  He is remembered as “The Children’s Poet” and is best known for his poems, “Little Orphan Annie” and “The Raggedy Man.” (Both of those works were based on servants in his childhood home.)  One my personal favorites is a more grownup piece below–– a simple, “slice of life” look at the intricacy and ambiguity of our visceral reactions.

The Dead Joke and the Funny Man

     by: James Whitcomb Riley

Long years ago, a funny man,
Flushed with a strange delight,
Sat down and wrote a funny thing
All in the solemn night;
And as he wrote he clapped his hands
And laughed with all his might.
For it was such a funny thing,
O, such a very funny thing,
This wonderfully funny thing,
He
Laughed
Outright.

And so it was this funny man
Printed this funny thing–
Forgot it, too, nor ever thought
It worth remembering,
Till but a day or two ago.
(Ah! what may changes bring!)
He found this selfsame funny thing
In an exchange–“O, funny thing!”
He cried, “You dear old funny thing!”
And
Sobbed
Outright.

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