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Carpenter's Column: In search of the first guffaw

Carpenter's Column: In search of the first guffaw

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Carpenters Column

It is a not-unpleasant consequence of advancing age that the seasoned intellect is induced to contemplate First Things — a first word, a first step, a first kiss, a first shredded-beef taco. The universe is nothing but First Things.

AARP doesn’t promote this, but one of the blessings of accumulated years is the time available now to ponder. An afternoon pondering First Things is not an idle pursuit (unless the kitchen needs titivation while a load of laundry lingers in the dryer). Chores will keep; we have pondering to do.

About what First Thing, then, should we ponder? How about the First Laugh. It seems reasonable to assume that somewhere in the distant past an early ancestor laughed out loud for the first time. What triggered it? Was it a neanderthal ancestor of Buster Keaton performing a bit of slapstick by firelight at the back of the cave? I’m not a paleoanthropologist, nor do I play one on TV, so I can only opine atop a shaky foundation of ignorance and assumption (Perhaps if this writing gig doesn’t work out, I can run for political office).

I suspect that some small calamity induced the first guffaw — a pratfall into a tarpit, perhaps, or a cave-dwelling companion knocked himself unconscious at the entrance to the cave while running to escape a saber-tooth tiger. His chums in the back of the cave slapping their knees and howling with glee as the entertainer is dragged away from the mouth of the cave by the straight man of the act. Thus, dawn broke on the Age of Slapstick.

I also suspect that human development was still in the pre-language period when our erstwhile ancestors began adorning their caves with art. A recent discovery in a cave on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia reveals figurative art that is at least 40,000 years old. Researchers have surmised that the figurative drawings depict a pig hunt. I beg to differ. I have seen photographs of the images. What I see is an early example of sequential art telling a humorous story like we find in a three-panel comic. It looks to me like a prehistoric Blondie and Dagwood are chasing their dog Daisy. That Dagwood. He’s a hoot, even forty-thousand years ago.

Along comes language, and with it, the pun. “To the guy who invented zero, thanks for nothing.” There is consensus among paleoanthropologists that word play is not the cause of the “Great Leap Forward” in behavioral modernity, but to them I say, “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the precipitate.”

And the first “Budda Bing” in the history of the world was heard that day.

And so it seems that slapstick begat cave-art comics; cave-art comics begat the first use of language (“I don’t get it.”); language begat puns; puns begat word play; word play begat satire, (and all the variations therein contained); satire begat the lampoon; the lampoon begat “Saturday Night Live.” And onward to the present moment where First Things continue to accrete.

Really? Now this?


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