Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Humor Project: Baseline

Wanted:  Sense of Humor

I have known for years that I lack of sense of humor.  Proof:  I married a Hungarian physicist.  And he has a better sense of humor than me. 

His Hungarian humor, however, often made my heart shrivel a little.  Yet he knew countless jokes.  And I did not.  Late at night the Hungarians start to sing or tell jokes.  The jokes usually come first.  After several more rounds the singing erupts.  Do we do that in America?  I can say with certainty that we never burst into song at a party in high school or college.  (Well, my choir friends in college did occasionally burst into Gregorian chant.  It was a Catholic School.)  I didn’t grow up around joke-tellers. Maybe it was because drinking was taboo in our family.  But I will argue that my upbringing was humor-defiant.  We are not a joke-telling people in central Kansas.  But humor is more than jokes.  And we did enjoy a sense of adventure and fun. However, fair play was valued above all.  And humor relies on violating the rules of fair play.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

Back in college I first clearly articulated my lack of humor.  Yes, identifying the problem was the first step in acceptance.  The problem was that once I knew my disorder I was content to see myself as disabled, or differently-abled.  I was not the girl at the center of the room. No one hung on my every word or couldn’t keep their eyes off me because I fascinated them with my slapstick tales, my clever commentary about pop culture, or riffs on modern dating.  I was the one who got us there on time and arranged for a designated driver, most often, me. 

I discovered my lack of humor because my college roommate had the sharpest wit in the room.  Friends would gather in our dorm room to enjoy her endless zany ruminations about life.  I was the straight guy, as it were.  I was skinny and serious and went to class.  She was curvy and hilarious.  If she needed to stay home from class for a week to lounge in her bed and reread great books, particularly Jane Austen, her professors called the room to find her because they missed her lively presence and astute contributions to class discussions.  Another straight friend of mine marveled at her stories, sense of adventure, and her mesmerizing verbosity.  There was a fateful moment when we both realized:  that verve, that zing, that sense of the absurd that she has, we don’t have that.  We are not funny people.  At least there were two of us.  I was so unfunny that I wrote a paper on the theology of humor (now lost).  Seriously, does it get any sadder than trying to compose a cogent essay about the deep metaphysics of humor?

It was in college that I confessed my pathological lack of humor.  But looking back, there were symptoms much sooner.  For example, there was the dreaded questionnaire.  At the start of a new camp or the end of high school—there were multiple painful occasions—I was asked to respond to a series of questions.  What is your favorite food?  French Fries.  Your motto?  Be Yourself.  If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Rome.  What is your favorite class?  World History.  Inevitably the questionnaire contained the following item:  What is your most embarrassing moment?

It was easy and even enjoyable to provide answers for my favorite food, favorite memory, or greatest accomplishment. It was a way to simultaneously discover and invent myself.  I don’t know who concocted those prompts.  Were they used to elicit material for the yearbook?  Maybe they were used as icebreakers at camps or in college dorms?  At any rate, the one question I abhorred was, What is your most embarrassing moment?  It was painful because I could never, ever, think of one.  Of course I embarrassed myself.  I made mistakes. I said the wrong thing. I wore the wrong thing.  But I didn’t find these incidents embarrassing.  I found them shameful. 

Why did I feel shame? Maybe it was because I was Catholic?  Maybe it was because I was a girl with a sharply honed case of perfectionism?  No.  It was because I lacked a sense of humor.  If I could have laughed at myself, those experiences would have been funny and thus embarrassing.  Instead, there was no laughter.  There was a thorough examination of the antecedents, the event, and its consequences. There was problem solving.  There were long hours of self-examination.  Instead of pink cheeks from laughter with my friends about it, there were hours of journal writing.  I had no embarrassing moments to list on my get-to-know-me icebreaker.  I left it blank.  That was my greatest embarrassment.  I should have known then about my lack of humor.  But I didn’t understand the problem yet. 

Now I understand the problem.  And I want to develop my sense of humor.  What’s a bookish grown-up straight girl to do?  Research the topic. Write about it. Exercise my humor muscles. 

Why do something about it now?  I need my humor.  I am a parent now.  Parenthood makes it clear that my lack of humor is problematic.  When my son launched a filthy plastic triceratops across the kitchen and it splash-landed in the steaming hot pot of broccoli soup I was stirring, what was the proper response?  I did not laugh.  I should have laughed.

This is the beginning of my humor project.  I want to explore my personal humor history and hopefully develop some humor skills to help me as a parent, teacher, and fiction writer.  Along the way I will explore larger questions about humor. 

At the beginning of this project, I thought it might be helpful to take stock of my current joke repertoire.  Baseline humor assessment:

Q:  What is the difference between roast beef and pea soup?

Punchline:  Anyone can roast a beef.

I have two jokes.  I can't remember the other one.

Both of my jokes (one now lost) came from Garrison Keillor.  I taped an episode of his radio show Prairie Home Companion, a special joke show, in approximately the year 2000.  I listened to it repeatedly.  

What are your stock jokes?  Where did they come from?  How long have you had them?

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