Literal-Minded Women, and the Men Who Love Them

April 29, 2019 Updated: April 29, 2019

There have been, in my life, several women who thought I was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

Above all the others, there was Nora. We worked together for four years and, because of our shared history of kidding around, I could make her break up across a crowded conference room just by lifting an eyebrow at the right moment in a boring business meeting. I saw her the other day on a train platform two tracks away from mine and—unless it was my outfit—I did it again. Like riding a bicycle, once you know where someone’s funny bone is, you never forget it.

Then there was Robin, from Kentucky, who could put on a pitch-perfect parody of a Southern belle at the drop of a mint julep. Slyer than me by a photo-finish, we’d batter each other with verbal sallies like two club fighters, then collapse after the final round, exhausted.

And Nina—the ballerina with the Hungarian intellectual DNA. We’d talk our mouths dry bantering back and forth.

But these are all, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, a female wit with no equal, The Women I’m Not Married To. The woman I am married to, a no-nonsense type without peer, takes me literally when I’m speaking figuratively, and seriously when I’m trying to be funny. It’s frustrating, but it spurs me on, as the car rental company used to say, to try harder.

There is something about a man who can’t keep himself from kidding around that is attracted, then repelled—like those black and white Scottie dog magnets—by a wise-cracking female soulmate. First comes infatuation when you seem to have found your distaff doppelganger. Then comes the realization that you wouldn’t want to live with someone as potentially annoying—after long exposure—as yourself.

You may recall the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry meets a female comedian and becomes infatuated because she seems his distaff carbon copy. The two break up when they realize they could never live together—it would be like sharing an apartment with your doppelganger.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In the 1860s Mark Twain met two cousins, Harriet Lewis Paff and Olivia Lewis Langdon. Harriet saw the point of Clemens’s every joke, high or low, but Olivia could not “see anything to laugh at in the wittiest sayings unless” Harriet explained them in detail. Explaining a joke, of course, kills it, as E.B. White so ably explained: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” he wrote, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

Harriet finally gave up after realizing that her “quickness at seeing the point of a joke and the witty sayings that I had considered almost irresistible were simply nothing in comparison to my cousin’s gifts. Mr. C evidently preferred her sense to my nonsense.”

Dave Barry, one of the few American males who actually makes a living writing humor, sometimes injects his wife into one of his pieces. It is clear when he does so that she’s not exactly cracked up by him.

Perhaps it’s the search for the toughest audience in the world, the way Sir Edmund Hillary wouldn’t be satisfied until he climbed Mt. Everest, just because it was the highest mountain in the world.

Of course, people who don’t get jokes are nothing new. For those keeping score at home, as the radio sportscasters used to say, the earliest recorded instance of a joke flying over someone’s head was in 1494, found in Sebastian Brant’s “Ship of Fools.” Brant said if you’re going to play with a fool, you must “abide by folly’s rules.” I don’t make the rules, I just want to play by them.

To the fraternity of males I’m talking about, of which I consider myself a member in good standing, there are four words that act like a magnet of verbal attraction. The woman who seeks to cast an irresistible spell on such a man should try saying them the next time she finds herself seated next to the life of the dinner party, the guy who’s cracking one joke after another, keeping everybody in stitches:

“I don’t get it.”

Con Chapman is a Boston writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. His biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s alto saxophonist, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.