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With so many journalists (including me) obsessed with writing about the morbid coronavirus pandemic, it’s getting harder to maintain a good sense of humour. Some might even feel that mirth of any kind during such a plague is inexcusable and inappropriate.

But jokes and puns should never really be impermissible. Take Robespierre, for example. As he was being led to the guillotine, he allegedly rebuked his handlers. I don’t have the French version, but a rough English translation would be: “Stop pushing! I don’t want to get a head of myself.”

Admittedly, a jocular disposition is not easy to preserve during a global pestilence, especially for people whose income or even lives have been disrupted. But there is still more than a kernel of truth to the conviction of Dr. Patch Adams that laughter can be amazingly beneficial to our health.

“Laughter is the best medicine,” he insisted.

He often showed his ailing patients funny movies that displayed the antics of comics such as Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges. And they laughed. Even the sickest of them chuckled. 

Patch never claimed that laughter could cure his patients. But he was certain that it helped alleviate their distress and make their ailments less arduous.

I’ve collected quite a few witticisms written or spoken by famous humourists over the ages. Here are some samples: 

Oscar Wilde

I can resist anything except temptation.

Fox hunting is the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.

If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.

It is absurd to divide people into good or bad. People are either charming or tedious.

Hilaire Belloc 

When I am dead, I hope it may be said: “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Robert Benchley

It was one of those plays in which all the actors unfortunately enunciated very clearly.

Dorothy Parker 

(Katherine Hepburn) runs the gamut of emotions, from A to B.

(While watching A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner): “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

He’s a writer for the ages — the ages of four to eight.

Women and elephants never forget.

(On being told that president Calvin Coolidge was dead): “How could they tell?”

(Asked what she would like carved on her gravestone): “This is on me.”

Dave Barry

Thanks to modern medical advances such as antibiotics, nasal spray and Diet Coke, it has become routine for people in the civilized world to pass the age of 40, sometimes more than once.

T.S. Eliot

The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.

Jilly Cooper

The male is a domestic animal which, if treated with firmness and kindness, can be trained to do most things.

Ellen DeGeneres

My grandfather started walking five miles a day when he was sixty. Now he’s eighty-five and we don’t know where the hell he is.

George Bernard Shaw

There is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But in some respects more cruel than a prison. In a prison, for instance, you are not forced to read books written by the warders and the governor.

A.J. Liebling

Freedom of the press is limited to those who own a newspaper.

Groucho Marx

Television is very educational. Every time it comes on I go into another room and read a book.

Red Skelton

You know that old age is gaining on you when the candles on your birthday cake cost more than the cake.

Mark Twain

(George Washington) was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth. He would not even lie.

Rita Rudner

My husband and I have decided to start a family while my parents are still young enough to look after them.

Mahatma Gandhi

(When asked what he thought of “Western civilization”) I think it would be a very good idea.

Desmond Tutu

When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.

Mona Crane

There are three ways of getting something done: do it yourself, hire someone, or forbid your kids to do it.

Michael Pritchard

You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.

Jenny Marx

I wish that dear Karl could have spent more time acquiring capital instead of merely writing about it.

Zsa Zsa Gabor

I’m a wonderful housekeeper. Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house.

Gore Vidal

The main difference for the history of the world if Khrushchev had been shot rather than Kennedy is that Onassis probably wouldn’t have married Mrs. Khrushchev.

*       *         *

Time for “pun”-ishment

Anyone who makes a living from writing English comes to enjoy the many ways our language can be transformed into clever, ingenious and witty forms of wordplay.

One of the oldest of such plays on words is the pun, which has been indulged in by writers, poets and playwrights for at least the past six centuries.

Shakespeare’s plays are riddled with thousands of puns, much more than the books of other famous authors who punned a lot, including Lewis Carroll and James Joyce.

Even Jane Austen got in the occasional pun, as when one of her heroines made this complaint: “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough.”

The pun, however, is still widely scorned as the lowest form of humour. But in its defence, it has to be pointed out that it is “low” only because it provides the foundation for more esteemed modes of literature.

I have to confess to a predilection for puns myself, and I truly believe they are not all “groaners.” So I’m winding up this essay with a sample of what I consider my best puns, and leave it to my readers to judge for themselves.

While employed by the Montreal Gazette in the mid-1950s, I was assigned to do a story on the perennial problem of persuading commuters to move to the back of the bus.

I put the problem into an historical perspective, pointing out that even Noah had trouble getting the animals to move to the rear of the Ark.

And when the Greeks rolled their wooden horse to the gates of Troy, the soldiers inside balked at moving to the rear end. The crush became so awful that one warrior accidently slashed another with his spear.

His captain was so appalled by the blood that he yelled out: “Is there a doctor in the horse?”

*       *         *

While a few friends and I were vacationing in New York, we strolled past the city’s magnificent public library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. At each side of the library building stands the huge statue of a lion.

“What’s with the lions?” one of my friends asked. “What have lions got to do with a library?”

“Surely the reason is obvious,” I said. “The statues were put there for the benefit of library patrons who like to read between the lions.”

*       *         *
While I was working in CUPE’s communications department, one of my associates was Bozica Costigliola. Of course, we all called her “Biz” for short.

Several months after she got married, she arrived at the office sporting the telltale protuberance of early pregnancy, which she proudly displayed to us.

“Wow” I said. “That’s show, Biz.”

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.


Ed Finn

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist...