This old joke, paraphrasing a quip by a Leo Rosten about W.C. Fields,* seems to need to be explained to some people these days, and I, as an experienced if amateur joke writer, am just the man to do it.
A joke is a sudden and startling contradiction or reversal of our expectations. The above quip about W. C. Fields has entered the pantheon of jokes by virtue of its exemplary execution of this reversal. But the point to be noted is that it *is* a reversal of expectations. So – pay attention, ye possessor of a modern mind – the joke only works because normal people are known to *love* dogs and babies (especially babies – listing dogs *and* babies together is humorous in itself, and kicks the joke up a notch).
In the 1930s and 40s, an iconic American comedian could build an entire career on playing off the startling humor in his hatred of dogs and babies – and love of liqueur. But it was not lost on his audience that a man who hated dogs and babies would be just the sort of miserable wretch to require constant drowning of his sorrows. Great, lasting humor requires tragedy (just ask a Jew or an Irishman) – W. C. Fields, who found no love for dogs and babies, was ultimately tragic.
So, going back to Miss Friedman’s rather amazing essay, it seems she’s missing a basic point: normal people love babies. I love babies. My wife and family love babies. Our friends and acquaintances love babies. It’s practically definitional: All normal people love babies. If you don’t love babies, there’s something wrong.
One of the gaping holes in modern life is the shortage of babies. At our school, for a number of years, a few babies – little brothers and sisters of the students – have spent a good deal of time. What happens when you introduce a baby into a social group of 40 kids age 5 to 19? They pretty much drop everything and wait in line to hold, talk to, play with the baby. They kids coo and laugh and make fools of themselves to try to get a reaction out of the properly called ‘little bundle of joy’. This can go on for hours. Surly teenagers turn shy and quiet, and wait their turn. Manic 5 year olds pull out all the stops to get a smile. Everybody in the building is delighted by any firsts – ‘look! She grabbed the toy!’ – and baby achievements are trumpeted proudly, even when it’s somebody else’s baby.
Hold the baby, feed the baby – lines form. And kids even want to get involved in diaper changing. Babies trigger a startling increase in civilized behavior. Kids get quieter if the baby is getting agitated, show concern if the baby is upset, and apply peer pressure to those who do anything that makes it hard on the baby. In olden days, we’d believe this is evidence the kids were growing up.
Babies are the key, I believe, to the civilizing benefits of age-mixing, which was a social fact for every culture prior to our own. Now days, babies are not often introduced into an world full of other children, teenagers, adults, parents, grandparents – and our kids development gets arrested, and we are all poorer for it. Instead of a dozen sets of hands ready to hold the baby, parents are left to their own devises (even when, as is increasingly rare, there are an involved mother and father present).
Did we have 5 children because we are rich? We are rich because we have 5 children.
*Exact quotation: “The only thing I can say about W. C. Fields is this: Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”