At a book talk at our library, a young woman asked me about humor, and how do you learn to be funny. I responded, “I don’t think you can learn to be funny. Either you are, or you aren’t.” Humor is often closely related to pain, and arises as a reaction to suffering—like a coping mechanism—and that sometimes it’s the one thing that gets us through this crazy life.
One can have a sense of humor and still not be funny; they don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. I heard a guy announce that his New Year’s resolution was to be funny. I snarked to myself, “Good luck… that’s like me taking up jogging—we’re both going to last about seven seconds.”
I’ve not met anyone with a normal happy childhood that’s really, really funny. I’m not even sure I’ve met anyone with a normal happy childhood; if they told me they did, I’d think they were quite lucky, or lying. They’re pleasant, they’re kind, they have a sense of humor, but they’re not inherently funny. From what I’ve seen, most comics had challenging lives, were raised under difficult circumstances, or suffered some sort of trauma.
And, not everyone with a crappy childhood is funny: some turn out mean, others turn out sick, some become the walking wounded, and more than a few become outright whack jobs. Then they blame it all on their childhood.
Humor is subjective. I don’t get British humor; Monty Python doesn’t do it for me. I eye roll and yawn at movies that make others bust up, like Airplane, Dumb and Dumber, and Ace Ventura. I sit through them and go: really??? Racist or raunchy humor is also not my cup of tea. Corny doesn’t work for me either (unless you’re old and remind me of my father).
I get that humor is in the eye of the beholder. I tilt to the dry and the absurd, to irony and satire. I loved Groundhog Day, Blazing Saddles, and Harold and Maude. Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, and Robin Williams crack me up. Bob Newhart cracks me up. I even crack me up, but I’m easy.
I think comedy often erupts from a deeper, darker place, offering healing to a wounded psyche. A fine crack within me separates my laughter and pain; with time, events on one side of the crack seep over to the other, and with perspective, the ability to filter the hurt through humor makes life tolerable. Unless I haven’t eaten, then all bets are off.
Despite the chaos, sadness, and anger swirling around in the world, especially today, I do think what transpires is generally funny. It’s like some large cosmic joke, like, you know, woe! Life is funny like that. Except when it’s not. But laughter is basic, not to mention healing; it takes the edge off, lightens your load, improves your mood, and stimulates the immune system. It’s like good sex, except you don’t catch any diseases.
I only know one joke, about a string that walks into a bar, but I screw it up every time I tell it.
To me, this is funny; I so wish I’d written it: “With all the sadness and trauma going on in the world at the moment, it is worth reflecting on the death of a very important person, which almost went unnoticed last week. Larry LaPrise, the man who wrote “The Hokey Pokey,” died peacefully at age 93. The most traumatic part for his family was getting him into the coffin. They put his left leg in… and then the trouble started.”