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For something to be funny in my book, it has to be innocent and optimistic, not powerful and stupid. When I immigrated to the United States in 1966, I had all the ingredients of funny: I was young, if not exactly innocent in the Catholic mode, and I survived mostly by donating sperm to a New York sperm bank. You didn't know that, did you? I have thousands of children. Some of them might be reading this with six credit cards in their wallet. Anyway, I felt pretty innocent, I was certainly optimistic and I was poor. I was funny -- other people thought that I was funny. To myself I wasn't all that funny -- "nobody's a character to themselves," as Ted Berrigan said -- but if I liked people, I thought that they were "funny." My English was pretty rudimentary, so I could only absorb one meaning at a time. Later, I added to that sense of "I like you, you're funny," the sense of "strange." "She's funny. Hmmm." That meant "weird." So in addition to being young, innocent, optimistic and poor, I found my contemporaries touching and funny because they were like me, young, optimistic and poor.

There were many people in the world who were not funny -- the majority, in fact. The grownups. They waged war, they enslaved the children, they worked humorless jobs and they were racist, xenophobic and, well, old. Not funny. I mean, in retrospect, what kind of judgmental little bastard was I to make such a large abstract indictment of people I didn't know? I was naive, and maybe that wasn't so funny. But I wasn't wrong. Funny to me means endearing. The word comes from "fun," which means having a good time, and it's synonymous with "amusement," a word that has the "muse" in it, and it means that when you are having fun, you are inspired, that the muse is with you.

So "funny" to me is the opposite of mean, cruel and insensitive; it means that I can recognize the absurdities and contradictions of someone's life and gestures because I like them. It's a kind of enhancement. You also have to be smart to be funny, in addition to being innocent, poor and optimistic, because if you're not smart, you're not telling people anything they don't know. And if you're not telling people something they don't know, you're not funny.

Power and stupidity are not funny because they are neither innocent nor optimistic no matter how often they use the rhetoric of innocence and optimism. So innocence, whatever else you might think it is, is a big ingredient of funny.

Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).

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