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Humor has changed among Americans

When I was a kid, somewhere back during the Ice Age (well, no, 1945-1970), we swapped jokes all the time. I was bullied a lot, but if I could get in there with a good joke, everybody would crack up, me included, and then everybody swapped jokes for several minutes, and we all went home happy for the day. To laugh with others was protective and energizing, and we all did it. So did our parents.

Today you tell a joke to someone under the age of 30 and chances are that he or she will need to have you explain why it's funny. Except . . . if it's told on TV, or in a movie, or during a siege of stand-up comedy, they usually get it. And I think I know why.

When you watch something on TV or in the movies or maybe on your smart phone, or hear it on the radio or during a stage performance, that is supposed to be funny, the format in which it is presented, the presence of laugh-tracks, the context of the joke or humorous skit makes it clear it's supposed to be funny and you're supposed to laugh. Moreover, the context will make it abundantly clear why it's funny. So you ride along with it, laughing at everything that is supposed to be funny, and have no problem with it.

But when someone tells you a joke face-to-face, where's the context? The laugh-track? The standardized format? Well, they aren't there. It's just one person telling another person a joke. For those of us over 40, for sure, no problem as long as the joke or story is funny. Your audience, generally friends, relatives, co-workers, or acquaintances, burst into laughter, or, in the case of some horrible pun, utters heartfelt appreciative groans. We don't need laugh-tracks or contexts. Funny is funny. But so many people under forty need them.

When we were young, there was no Internet, and TV was a rarity. We did listen to the radio, but not at school, and it was at school that we swapped jokes and laughed. Not so for younger people, who often were given smart phones at the age of 3 and had the TV as baby-sitter. And thus the difference between generations when it comes to humor: we didn't need gadgets to give us a good laugh, but they do.

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