The Natural Divide

Last week I was watching the movie Ninotchka.  Greta Garbo portrays a scowling Russian envoy who’s in Paris to negotiate the sale of jewels confiscated from the aristocracy to provide hard currency to capitalize the communist regime.  There she meets Melvyn Douglas playing the French nobleman Count Leon d’Algout.  He is working to return the jewels to his friend the former Grande Duchess Swana.  And of course, he falls in love with Garbo.  As a good soviet citizen, she despises his mercenary business practices.  But he does what he can to ingratiate himself to her.  Finally, he manages to manufacture a “coincidental” restaurant encounter.  While attempting to lighten the mood he offers to tell a joke to get her to laugh.  Several attempts fall flat without even a smile from her sullen face.  Finally he tells her his best joke:

“A man walks into a restaurant, calls over the waiter and says I want a cup of coffee without cream.  The waiter goes into the kitchen and returns a minute later and says I’m very sorry but we’re all out of cream can it be without milk?”

The rest of the patrons of the restaurant overhear the joke and all burst out laughing at the punchline.  But from Ninotchka, nothing.  Leon is incensed.  He hectors her, “Everyone else laughed.  Why didn’t you?”  She replies, “Because it isn’t funny.”  He becomes flustered and says he’ll tell it again more slowly and make sure she understands it.  He retells it, stumbling over the details and finally asks, “Well?”  “It’s not funny” she says.  Exasperated, he tells her she doesn’t have a drop of humor in her.  He leans back in his chair puts his elbow on the table behind him and goes crashing to the floor along with the table and chair.  The whole restaurant bursts out in laughter at him.  Leon gets off the floor and tries to gather his shattered dignity in the face of the uproar of laughter.  And then he sees that Ninotchka is almost falling over with laughter at his plight.  He looks down with a scowl that combines anger and hurt pride.  Ninotchka stops laughing and seems slightly contrite when Leon bursts out laughing himself and they share a good laugh.

So why am I telling you this old movie scene?  It’s a good enough scene and the acting was fine.  But retelling movies is a waste of time.  I relate it because it occurred to me that it illustrates a dichotomy that I have seen in my own acquaintance.

The world divides itself very clearly into two groups.  People who find that joke at least slightly amusing and those who see absolutely no humor in it at all.  Within my own marriage this difference exists.  Even among my children, the dichotomy is there.  Among friends and colleagues the same thing .  Two camps.  So, what is this characteristic?  I’m not entirely sure.  Maybe it has to do with the way people use language.  It seems that those who are quieter do not find the joke funny.  It may be something well known or maybe it’s meaningless.  But I throw it out there and encourage you all to try it out.  Tell someone the joke and then ask him if it is not at all funny or at least somewhat funny.  See if you can determine some grouping within these camps that explains the dichotomy.  If you come up with a theory pass it along to me.  And tell me who you think are the happier group.  Those that laugh at it or those that don’t.  For the sake of complete disclosure I think it’s funny.