Recently I started to read a nonfiction book called The Humor Code. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be and I didn’t get very far before quitting. (I used to have a 50-page rule with books I couldn’t get into, but lately I’m not so stringent.) Anyway, the authors take on the idea – somewhat haphazardly – of quantifying what makes something funny. This got me to thinking about what I do and don’t find funny.
Sometimes it seems I’m out of step with what other people find funny and yet I’ve often found things funny that others didn’t. All my life, I’ve heard my own laugh in movie theaters when other people were silent. I don’t mean I was yucking it up during Tears of Endearment or other somber fare, but rather being amused by a dryer, subtler line or action in a film that didn’t telegraph this-is-funny-you-should-laugh-now. Interestingly, when I laugh, it’s not unusual for others to follow suit, as if given permission.
In college, I had a few funny teachers. I was a few years older than most of my classmates, and maybe that was why I laughed freely when the professor(s) said something funny. One of my instructors surprised me by writing, along with my final grade, “Thanks for laughing at my jokes.” Well, hell; he’d been funny! I was grateful. (As Bette Miller said, “If somebody makes me laugh, I’m his slave forever.”)
I look for things to find funny. I want to be amused. It breaks up the day, the routine, the mundane, and the ordinary. There’s a line in the old Dudley Moore film, Arthur, where he laughs suddenly and then says, “Sometimes I just think funny things.” I so got that line and that sentiment – my world is often like that. Of course you have to watch out, lest other people cast weird looks your direction and sidle away. Mostly, among strangers in public, when something strikes me and only me, funny, I might smile and contain open laughter – no need to frighten the horses.
When I’m alone at home, I can replay something funny in my mind – something I saw, or that someone said, or even what I said or wrote – and laugh all over again. But it has to be fairly recent. (There’s only a handful of funny things that I or somebody else said years ago, that I still remember.) That’s great fun – to get a second or third laugh out of a “joke.” Now, I’m throwing that word in quotes because I don’t usually like recited, stock jokes. I prefer more personal humor, something that relates to me or people I know, or situations we’ve been in. When people start “telling” jokes, that’s my cue to sidle away.
Like a lot of people, especially from a particular generation on – I mean for example, my parents didn’t do this – I too can recite movie lines at apropos moments. However, I don’t do it a lot. I think it can get old fast and it’s not all that clever when everybody present doesn’t know the references. It’s somewhat lazy too (I think). Being original takes more effort, and is funnier than recycling somebody else’s wit.
Other people draw attention to my humor. I dated a man, who, in retrospect, quite possibly had a touch of Asperger’s. (Point 1: in fact I expect I’ve dated MORE than one man like him, but that’s another story; Point 2: if I recall – and I don’t really feel like looking it up right now – the term “Asperger’s” has been done away with in recent history, but I think you’ll know what I’m trying to say about the man in question.) He did not entirely “get” my humor (which is most certainly going to be a problem in a close or trying-to-be-close relationship), and tried to analyze it. He decided, based on a bit of observation, that I liked visual humor. I could see his point – I do like unexpected imagery, which is why I find a squirrel drinking out of a dog bowl/bird bath funny.
Ever since the man I was dating pointed out this visual humor business, I’ve noticed when it was true – he was on to something. However, it isn’t the whole story, and it isn’t all that I think is funny.
Also, particular kinds of “visual” humor are lost on me. I never liked The Three Stooges, not when I was a kid, and not now. As a child, I was more disturbed by them. They were almost threatening. Full-grown men, who could be mean. Had I come across men like this in real life, I’m pretty sure I’d have been frightened. I didn’t think poking people in the eye or punching them was funny, especially the way it was delivered (very different, say, from the Marx Brothers).
My aversion to that kind of humor continues. I loathe the home video shows where people are being (potentially) harmed, and have never watched them. I don’t enjoy seeing strangers being hurt or embarrassed. Even if there isn’t a corpse or life-threatening injury at the video’s end, I just can’t relax and guffaw over scenes that could have ended that way. Geez, I felt this way BEFORE YouTube, back when the videos were fairly innocuous as compared to today. Laughing at other people’s mishaps doesn’t do it for me, although…
is it different when I know the people, know they are okay, and know they’d be laughing too? A long time ago, I was on a date with a man I’d recently met. We were visiting a park with a lake. There was this goose acting a bit odd, somewhat aggressively. We weren’t taunting it or anything but just minding our business, when the goose went into a rage and charged at my date, who, surprised, tried to get away, slipped in the mud and fell. I immediately made sure he was okay (he was, if not his pride), and only THEN laughed.
I contrast this with a weird incident with someone else, a friend – someone who I ultimately believed was more deeply screwed up than I realized for mainly other reasons – who laughed at me when I lost my balance on steps in his house. His immediate reaction was not to make sure I was okay and hadn’t twisted my ankle, but to laugh. I found that disturbing and telling, the more so because he didn’t “catch” himself or apologize.
Maybe unfortunate things are only funny to me when the subject thinks it’s funny too. Even when I don’t like people, I’m not going to think it’s funny when something bad happens to them. I may not think generous kindly thoughts, but I won’t be laughing.
Which is not to say I don’t laugh at pomposity, pretension, or bloated egos, because I do.
I’m not laughing all the day long. Fatigue and grief can steal my humor. In fact, I know any time I stop laughing, that something is wrong. It’s my canary in the coal mine (poor canary, I always feel bad for it). My point being, if a particular situation or person robs me of my humor, it’s a huge warning sign. I’ve learned to pay attention when I stop finding things funny, when I stop laughing, because it’s a sign something isn’t right.