In Search of Funny

At a recent talk, a woman asked me about humor, and how do you learn to be funny. I said I don’t think you can learn to be funny. Either you are, or you aren’t. I told her I thought humor is often closely related to pain, that it arises as a reaction to suffering—like a coping mechanism—that sometimes it’s the only 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. Someone I know announced at a recent meeting that his New Year’s resolution was to be funny. My internal response was, “Good luck… that’s like me taking up jogging—we’re both going to make it about three seconds,” and continued, “and you’d better bring your lunch because you’re going to be here for a while.”

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 very 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 young lives, were raised under difficult circumstances, or suffered some sort of trauma. I think comedy often erupts from a deeper, darker place, offering healing to a wounded psyche. 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 everything 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 and raunchy humor are also not my cup of tea. Corny doesn’t work for me either (unless you’re really old and remind me of my father), nor do lame Hallmark cards or sappy love songs. 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 DayBlazing 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.

fjFW35rZNZVk_pwiZiCdiQI’m funny—not because I’m inherently disturbed, though that may be—but that because if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry. When I was a child I’d burst into tears if anyone looked at me cross-eyed. I was crushed by the slightest criticism and cried when my sisters made fun of me. I sobbed through Disney movies, and Bambi nearly did me in. The female tongues in my family flick with meanness, and as I was over-sensitive and dorky to begin with, I had to toughen up to survive. I can still be a dork, which oddly enough has generated some of my best stories and most hysterical moments. I don’t know what happens, it’s like I become possessed, confused, or indignant, and then the moment gets hold of me and snowballs downhill from there. My family or friends standing by slither away, pretending like they’ve never seen me before. My response (after I’ve felt bad if I’ve hurt someone’s feelings) is usually: ah, heck with ’em if they can’t take a joke.

A fine crack within me separates my laughter and pain, my humor and hurt; with time, events on one side of the crack seep over to the other, and with perspective, the ability to filter the pain or hurt through humor makes life bearable. Unless I haven’t eaten, then all bets are off.

There are occasions I get hooked… where things happen and I lose my sense of humor. I attended an Angeles Arrien lecture in Santa Rosa during a time when my younger son had a bug up his butt and wasn’t talking to me. She was speaking about clarity, objectivity, discernment, and humor, all qualities embedded in the archetype of wisdom. I’d done a lot of personal growth work, seen more about myself than I’d ever in a day cared to see, and one thing that still pained me was my relationship with my son, and there was not one iota of humor in there. I knew it was bringing to the surface all my mother stuff about being ignored and not cared about, and really didn’t have much to do with him, but it still had me by the throat. No matter how I attempted to work it out or tried to let it go, the more entangled I got—like Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. At the end of her talk she took questions from the room. I stood up in front of a couple hundred people and said, “I’m stuck here. I have a son who’s not spoken to me for the last three years, and it’s killing me. And you know what, I just don’t find it very f****n’ funny.” The whole room cracked up. Angeles looked at me in kindness and said, “Like that. Look, I get it. But until you get some distance from this, some humor, you will stay stuck.” Her response settled me some, but it took me a couple more years to get there. Today, my son and I are on good terms, but I still find it difficult to go in there and find the humor from that time. Maybe I still need a bit more distance, or, perhaps I just need to lighten up.

Despite the chaos, sadness, and anger swirling around in the world, 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 a lot 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.”


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  1. Ooh this one hit me right in the heart! You can tell it like no other Catherine. I admire your forthright, cut the through the bs style. I feel like I grew up with you and played on the same street. You say so succinctly what I have thought and felt. Please never stop writing.

  2. The dry and absurd, ironic and witty style of humor works for me, too. It has the capacity to delve into the inner darkness, shame and vulnerabilities we all have and make them accessible. In an oddly safe way. It is that funhouse mirror reflecting back to us a part we can only see in that mirror. With your words, you are that funhouse mirror.

  3. Jeff Elliot says:

    I had a pretty much normal happy childhood, and your take is dead on: “They’re pleasant, they’re kind, they have a sense of humor, but they’re not inherently funny.” Keep musing, Cath; your self examination and the resultant analysis are delightful!

  4. It’s becoming so much more clear, the more I get to know you, Catherine, that we have much in common, and also, different qualities that compliment the other. It’s such a pleasure to now be on your list, in your circles, and really in this life and community with you. And, it’s only the beginning. I like the same type of humor you do. The films you listed, for example, Dumb & Dumber? No thanks. But I do love a Mel Brooks flick and I’ve been called a dork by more than one friend and family member. Rock on with your funny bone. I have no jokes to tell here. I can never remember them, and even if I did, I’d mess up the punch line. The Hokey Pokey one is hilarious!

  5. Cath, I like that you look inside yourself and see the rest of us. Thank you for sharing and taking us (some reluctantly) on the journey with you. CWS