What happens when you hold a humor conference in Tel Aviv?
Maybe the Middle East and rib-splitting laughter just don't mix. Or maybe the problem in Tel Aviv last week was that an international congress on humor, anytime and anywhere, is bound to be an excellent way to kill a joke.
Whichever. Daphna, a sprightly young Israeli woman who works with a group that organizes international conferences, put it best: Of the gatherings she's helped with, the ''Fourth International Conference on Humor'' ranked behind this spring's gynecological convention and a symposium on Israel's technological future.
''In all fairness,'' Daphna is quick to add, ''they warned us not to expect this to be funny. They said from the start they were going to bring out the serious aspect of humor.'' That, they did.
''They,'' in this case, refers to dozens of psychologists, sociologists, linguists, and other academics - plus a handful of real-live humorists along for the ride.
For a week in a luxury hotel by the Tel Aviv seashore, they analyzed, dissected, and otherwise folded, spindled, and mutilated humor of all stripes.
By the time things got underway, an earlier ''First International Colloquium on Jewish Humor'' had set the tone. One expert had held forth on ''The Environmental Characteristics of Jewish Humor in Australia.'' The follow-up conference, of course, was less parochial:
''The Use of Humor in Alleviating the Anxiety of the Child Dental Patient'' was one early favorite among the lectures.
Or (scout's honor): ''Mirth and Mourning: Interactions of Humor and Speaker Credibility in the Funeral Eulogy.'' (The gist seems to be - and there's research to prove it - that jokes probably aren't too good an idea at a funeral, but that if the eulogizer has credibility with his audience, he might get away with a few.)
And then there was this reporter's favorite, the discipline he'd choose in a minute if he ever wended his way to grad school: ''Intrapersonal Perceptions of Shyness and Humor as Related to Intrapersonal Perceptions of Social Distance and Humorousness.'' One meticulously well-prepared conclusion was that if a kid is shy - oops, that is if he has ''communication apprehension'' - he's not likely to be the class stand-up comedian. Get him to crack a few funnies and he'll apprehend less communication, or something like that.
Put much more simply by the researcher, ''The data confirm a hypothesis suggesting the social facilitating aspects of humor and the necessity of interpersonal communication. . . . The development of children's humor production as well as appreciation are suggested as a viable therapeutic intervention approach for children experiencing communication apprehension difficulties as well as social rejection.'' Just what I said.
Still, despite everything, there were a few laughs.
Ephraim Kishon - Israel's answer to Art Buchwald - delivered a keynote lecture. Mr. Buchwald himself - the world's ''second-best'' humorist, jibed Mr. Kishon - had been scheduled to help keynote the conference, but withdrew for family reasons shortly beforehand.
Outside the lecture rooms, brochures advertised new contributions to the literature. These included a Humor Handbook that treats ''humor with the seriousness it deserves;'' and a journal ''devoted to the scholarly examination of humor in America from the colonial period to the present.''
Assorted delegates were quick to point out that humor does have serious, therapeutic applications well worth congressing over. Yet unfortunately, humor ''research'' is pretty much in its infancy in many fields. The ''Fifth International Conference on Humor,'' set for next summer in Cork, Ireland, may help address that problem.