The girl wrote a story. “But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel,” said her mother. The girl built a doll-house. “But how much better if it were a real house,” her mother said. The made a small pillow for her father. “But wouldn’t a quilt be more practical,” said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. “But how much better if you dug a large hole,” said her mother. The girl dug a large hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.
“The Mother,” a short piece from Lydia Davis’s Break it Down, perfectly demonstrates, for me, the unhumorous punchline where the last line and components leading up to it operate as a joke, but aren’t funny. Punchlines at their best are oblique and unexpected; it’s the minor epiphany of “getting it” that makes them so visceral — keyword here, because what begins in the brain ends in the gut.