What's So Funny?

Jan 20, 2010 |Jenny Schroedel

The more I explore the topic of humor, the more slippery the subject becomes.  

When I was in third grade my brother came home from school one day with exciting news. He had learned that an unprecedented event was to take place that evening. If, he told me, at exactly seven o'clock, I was to hop on one foot for three minutes and then rub my head on the carpet for an additional two minutes, the static electricity produced would allow me to break free from the gravitational pull of the earth, and float.

Just after we cleared the dinner table, he and I began to hop. I soon realized that I was hopping alone, as he offered me pointers. "Keep going, Jen," he said. Then he smiled, "Now, try rubbing your head on the carpet."

I got down on the ground as he instructed. "You're doing great!" he said. I expected take-off to occur as soon as the roots of my hair began to tingle. Only then did he say, "April Fools!"

Although my ego suffered some minor scratches that night, I couldn't help but laugh right along with him. The best pranks are like that — they make everyone (even the prankee) laugh. But not all pranks are well-received, and some cause unintended pain.

Years ago when I was at summer camp a few friends and I slipped a toad into a cabin mate's bed. As she approached her bed, we could barely restrain ourselves. We lay in our beds, shaking with silent laughter as she pulled back her sheets.

Instead of laughing, she screamed. She ran out of the cabin, the door slamming behind her. I followed her and finally caught her arm. When she turned to look at me a tear slipped down her cheek.

In one horrible moment, I realized that our prank had made her feel totally rejected. At the time, I didn't realize how much she needed a sense of belonging. Her alcoholic parents were near divorce, and she kept grasping for friends but never finding the security she needed.

The more I explore the topic of humor, the more slippery the subject becomes. There are no tidy rules for how to crack a joke that will be well-received. So much depends on the context of the relationship, the spirit of the joke, and the way in which it is made. There are a few types of humor, though, that usually go awry.

Biting Humor

The other night I was in my building's hallway. My neighbor was listening to a comedy show on high volume. The jokes were sarcastic comments related to race. After a few moments I noticed that there was no laugh track, and no chortling from my neighbor. All I could hear were these flat, lifeless jokes.

The jokes reminded me of high school humor and a friend who used to lace sarcasm into most of his statements. Especially in group settings, he tended to poke fun at me. A few times I ended up in tears afterward. It's easy to understand why sarcasm hurts so much when you consider the root of the word.

Sarcasm comes from the Greek word "sarkasmos" meaning literally to bite into the flesh. Although the image is crude, anyone who has been the target of biting humor understands its sting.

Laugher and Peer Pressure

Another thing that struck me about my neighbor's show was that without a laugh track, the jokes weren't funny. I started wondering how often other people's laughter compels us to laugh even when the jokes make us uncomfortable.

Recently, two editors from The Onion spoke at the University of Chicago. The main message of the night was "You're stupid," which was no great revelation to me considering the evidence. As the night wore on I felt increasingly uneasy.

The final part of the presentation featured e-mails from readers. The majority of the letter-writers were Christians who didn't grasp that The Onion was parody. When one student pointed this out, the editor said, "Yeah, they know how to use computers."

Several students laughed after this comment. It was almost as if they had been waiting for a chance to laugh at Christians. Beside me was a non-Christian friend. It was a conundrum: If I looked dour it would seem like I couldn't take a joke, but if I laughed along it would seem like I had no loyalty towards my own people.

Because I am a Christian, these comments made me feel like a freak specimen. When I asked my non-Christian friend how she felt about the presentation, she had similar feelings.

"I didn't like insider humor," she said. "It makes me feel like an outsider."

In C.S Lewis' The Screwtape Letters a senior devil writes to a younger devil about a similar type of humor. "Every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor plating against the enemy [God] I know ... It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it."

Faceless Humor

When humor is at its best, it has the opposite effect, bringing people closer together, uniting spouses, cementing friendships, and relieving tensions. But when humor is at its worst, it makes strangers of people who could be friends.

A few years ago I was struggling with a noisy neighbor, and I tried to write a humorous article about him. Instead of trying to see my neighbor in his full human complexity, I made sport of him.

This may be one of the great dangers of humor — it can fixate on peoples' fumbles but miss their faces. Interesting characters become ugly caricatures. This loss of face is tragic. "There is nothing more astonishing than a human face," wrote Marilyn Robinson in Gilead. "Any human face is a claim on you, because you can't help but recognize the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it."

I've made many mistakes in my attempts at humor, but I find I'm less likely to crack a hurtful joke when I'm sensitive to how the joke makes me feel — especially before I make it. Proverbs 14:13 says, "Even in laughter the heart is sad and the end of joy is grief."

When our hearts are sad even when we're laughing — it may be the way we joke that is causing the pain. Healthy humor doesn't bite, sting or cause anyone to lose face. In the book The Ascetic of Love, Orthodox Nun Mother Gabriella wrote, "A Christian must have reverence for the Mystery of Existence in everyone and everything."

Healthy humor takes note of quirkiness and responds playfully, but it does so with humility and reverence — never losing sight of the threads of mystery, miracle and tragedy woven through each life.

Copyright 2005 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.

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