A serious look at humor

Today, I realized I walked around most of Como Conservatory with my sweater on inside out. When I got home, I found a booger in my hair.

While I didn’t laugh out loud, after my “eek!” moment, I did go, “Oh, that’s funny.”

I wasn’t harmed. My life was not affected. This time, I enjoyed the luxury that very probably no one noticed, and if someone did, that person didn’t care/wasn’t a humiliation feeder that enjoys seeing others embarrassed or humiliated.

Stupid stuff happens to me all the time. I have joked half-seriously that there’s not a day in my life that goes by when something embarrassing doesn’t happen. From the time I wound up flat on my ass in my apartment kitchen after slipping on some white wine that leaked out of the fridge to the time in the seventh grade when my period started, unexpectedly, while I was on a pay phone during a class trip so everyone present got to see my period start in a way that I’m sure stayed with them all through high school if not to this day. Junior high was already hell, so Kara M. loudly announcing “Did you see what happened to that nerdy girl?” as loudly as she could during our class that Monday didn’t make much of a difference in the outcome of my social experience. Boners and pregnancies were still far worse, and I was already fat, so a little bloodshed was inevitable, although no one expected me to do it THAT way.I’ve broken my collarbone on a kiddy rollercoaster, had so many basketballs thrown at my head I wondered if my opponents were confusing both pro-wrestling and football and there was that time my father stood by without telling me how to brake as I plowed into a garage door and went flying onto pavement. I’ve tripped while making eye contact with cute boys (more than once,) spilled coffee on myself on public so often that I just carry a stain stick when I go out and there was a section of my teen years when my inability to walk a straight line became a source of almost but not-quite neurological concern.  Once I even gave a girl a black eye and she gave me a mild concussion when our heads connected during a head-banging circle in high school. Neither of us can figure out how the hell that happened, as she’s about seven inches shorter than I am, and my height is mainly in my legs.

Although every so often something hurts so much it provokes anger from my somatic system, for the most part, these things don’t upset me. In fact, even the ones that were basically assault (some of those basketballs were in fact aimed at my head) just came out to me as funny.

For some reason, I really do have a sense of humor about myself. I consider it my best tool for survival.

I don’t take myself seriously.

That’s not to say I  treat myself badly: I take my creativity very seriously, and my entire personality and body are instruments dedicated to that creativity. I find myself quite likable in an outside-the-body sort of way, but I think it’s also because I know I really can laugh at myself, and see the humor of the stuff that happens to me. I know when I’ve had a real come-uppance, and I know when it’s not my own hubris causing me trouble.

My not-serious is not, intentionally, self-deprecation. I hate self-deprecation in others; yes, it’s cute for a flirtatious opening but most of the time it’s covert narcissism. “Oh I’m aware of my faults…” to the exclusion of the awareness of others in the same room with you. Also, it’s another way of casting yourself in the negative, because negativity is easy. It’s approaching everything from a positive, just-the-right-amount-of-depth empathy level, that’s really hard.

I fail at it all the time.

There’s this theory/excuse for self-deprecation that if you seem like you like yourself, you’re an asshole. I’ve never met a person who genuinely liked him/herself that was ever an asshole – just the opposite, in fact. People that like themselves were more apt to like others, and be broad-ranging about what and who they like. Or, if you must have it in negative terms: I have never met a narcissist who actually liked him/herself. Oh, they were all absolutely in love with themselves, and it was always a Kurt and Courtney or Sid and Nancy type of hookup.

I have been told by people over the years that I am funny. I do have moments where I know my audience and my theater-people DNA kicks in, and I can have the person with me rolling on the floor until I choose to let up. It’s a great high, to be able to provoke that response in the other person. I’ve done it many times one on one. I have never managed to produce this part of myself on an actual stage. I am the only member of my family never to do any real stage time: I was not sexy enough to be cast when drama was the thing in high school, and in college I decided to pursue writing and Wicca instead of an audience. That I wound up with an audience anyway – for print – is purely an accident of the Internet.

I have found that humor in others is what matters most to me, in all of my relationships. The friendships and romances that failed have always been people who takes themselves totally seriously. It is the people that get upset at life’s daily embarrassments that I have the most trouble with: they always seem so concerned that the image they project isn’t disturbed in any way and get so scared about that vulnerability that they forget: being part of the world includes pigeons taking the occasional dump on your head, or as happened to me once, finding the occasional cockroach on your toothbrush. ((I have also had pigeons shit on me more than once, dive bomb me, and one on Nicollet declared war on me when I worked downtown. I think it hated my sunglasses, but it might have been a case of mistaken identity. I have wanted to punt pigeons, but I have never done so.))

This isn’t to say that the ones that have worked, that are still connected, ignore their pains and problems by laughing them off: they still get help when they need it, and in fact are more likely to. They still suffer. They just, after the initial shock, get amused at the pigeon shit of life.

These people are often naturally funny, and humor is used to make others feel good, to help them have a good time.

Truly funny people, for some reason, don’t have to try to be funny.

My sense of humor about myself has helped me a lot in my writing career because I can take criticism and rejection pretty well. As long as I can see that there’s feedback on the work, and not projection from the feedback giver into the work, I’m happy to think about the suggestions. I can also distinguish between useful feedback and plain old “I have issues” criticism, because my humor allows me to see most of the flaws in my work – and I can tell when my hubris has popped up and given me a blind spot, thanks to genuinely useful, non-agenda driven critique. This is also why I was always rated by my graduate school peers as one of the best at giving feedback.

Any Creative Writing MFA program has its share of pretentious writer types, people convinced they must be serious to be taken seriously. Since I was in graduate school to kill time until my ex-husband got his act together  ((Bad plan)) I didn’t really bring that type of insecurity with me, and since I’m actually anti-competitive to the point where I have screwed myself over many times ((strangely being anti-competitive works really well in the current blogging economy)) ,  I somehow failed to notice she was fixating and competing with me. That is, until the day I turned in a poem for workshop referring to Medusa as a “fat squid/teenage slut wannabe” and this girl freaked the fuck out. Her excuse was that people would not get the myth reference. Her reaction was so loud and so angry that other members of the workshop took me aside to reassure me I should just ignore her.

As came out the next session, she was having a jealous fit because people laughed at my poem, and the poem she turned in that was meant to be brilliant and provoke laughter… no one got. How do you be funny? she asked the professor. She put what she thought was the heights of subtle humor into the poem, and here I come, someone who was never even asked out for a beer by our classmates, and I cracked everyone up. I’d feel sorry for her… if she’d had a sense of humor about her own lack of humor. I didn’t care that she didn’t laugh at my poem; I’d already figured out she was a serious artist, and would be an utter wet blanket on anything that didn’t match what she imagined to be brilliantly intellectual.

She continued to attempt to annoy me for the rest of that class, to the point where I would put down my pen and make no notes whatsoever when she spoke. She saw this, and would actually start shouting her feedback. It was a bit cruel to use my nonverbal/behavioral knowledge to bring out her crazy in public like that, but she was also trying to make me feel like my work was inadequate when I could see for myself, and see from the feedback of others who like me were there to improve their work and not to compete, that I was steadily improving.

The problem wasn’t me, although she might have told you otherwise, insisting I “wasn’t that talented” blah blah blah. She always assumed others cared about what she did; that’s always a mistake.

The one consistent part of humor is the element of surprise: something surprises us, and we laugh. Laughter is a somatic reaction, one we can’t help. That’s why we laugh at pratfalls and physical stuff: we’re surprised, and our bodies respond.  We may feel bad for laughing at something afterward, but initially it’s about the surprise. Why some things make us laugh over and over, I couldn’t tell you. I laugh at the dumb physical things that happen to me because, once I’ve dealt with the immediacy, I find it funny, too.

The woman who gave her feedback in screaming fits simply had no sense of humor about herself. I wasn’t trying to embarrass her or make her feel bad, but she wanted me to feel embarrassed. But it’s hard to embarrass someone who expects to be embarrassed at least once a day, and can tell the difference between human foible and mean-spirited behavior to the point where the mean-spiritedness is itself a humorous foible to observe.

I’ve also been around bullies who use humor as a way to make people feel like shit. Usually it’s overt: when I worked at the Ponderosa in Crown Point, a group of employees, including the now owners’ son, decided it was funny to mock me. Along with hot coffee being poured down my back, stuff getting messed up after I cleaned it and various forms of sexual harassment and physical threats, I was accused of theft about four times while working there.  Every single time, it turned out a manager or the manager’s son rearranged money to make it look like theft.

Despite my best attempt to keep my head down and just do my damn job, I got attacked in some way almost every day I worked there – and my coworkers thought it was hilarious. I took it, because I needed at least one full year of a job on my resume. I finally drew the line when someone besides me got hurt: I honestly don’t remember the whole of the insult: some crap about a developmentally disabled kid there wanted to date me (that crossed the line enough I finally had a talk with the head manager after they prompted the poor kid to call me at home and ask me out.) I remember even the adult waitress that worked nights was laughing at it, even though the behavior was shitty enough that a real adult should have been horrified.  Mean-spirited behavior makes people laugh, especially if it’s a “I don’t like what you don’t like,” type of bonding. It’s one of the reasons so many are addicted to negativity: it gives us a sense of a common enemy, and that’s so easy that it could well be biological. We don’t think that when we go the mean route, we’re becoming shittier human beings every time we do it. It’s easy to make people laugh by cutting something down. It’s also incredibly lazy, and usually not the product of intelligence, but the product of anger. Anger, as I have learned, actually makes you stupid in the long run while convincing you you’re insightful and smart. It’s like alcohol without the booze.

Cut-down humor has always been a classic form of bullying, and usually it is pretty overt. There is a more subtle kind: deadpan humor intended to make the object feel like an asshole. Sometimes, it’s deserved. When I was doing a corn detasseling gig in high school, one of our crew members was an obnoxious moron. He was literally the smallest kid on the crew, and his method of compensating for the possibility he might someday be eaten by a corn stalk or an especially large bee was to insult and harass everyone he possibly could.  My friend and I were favorite targets: one day he pronounced us “dildos” and continued to announce this on the entire ride home.

Our team leader, as irritated by the abuse as we were, finally turned to him and said, “You’re a homo sapien!”

The kid responded immediately, “Am not!”

It was mean, but wholly deserved.

But doing it to get someone worked up who hasn’t been cruel to you – by pretending you don’t know something – and then going, “I was being sarcastic!” is shitty. Also, sarcasm is not humor. Sarcasm is a placeholder for the humorless, for people who take themselves way too seriously. ((Yes, Daria DID take herself WAY too seriously. Jane did not, which was why she made a good balance to her.)) Sarcasm is intended for use in expressing anger – and has no place when someone is genuinely trying to solve a problem. Anger is not humor. You may express anger in funny ways, but anger and laughter do not genuinely coincide.

Deadpan humor can be very funny – that is, when it’s not done to make another person feel like shit. When you do something to make someone feel like a jerk because it’s funny, you’re actually engaging in an act of domination…so, in a nutshell, you’re being a jerk when you do that.  Laughing at someone’s pain/embarrassment is forgivable, but creating a situation just to produce embarrassment is not cool at all. ((If you have a humiliation kink, I guess there’s a different framework on this.))

In junior high, it became a game with my classmates. If I said anything at all, someone would say, “Quit being sarcastic, Diana!” The trouble was that I was almost never being sarcastic – I meant what I said, just about every time, and the rage was starting to build. While it didn’t explode until graduation day when I went apeshit in writing over some cheerleader’s yearbook after she’d been spectacularly snotty to me – and it was honest and mean, and not intended as funny at all  –  but people thought it was hilarious, not because what I did was funny – it wasn’t – but because they were so surprised I did it.

Why the reflection on humor? I’ve been thinking about the types of relationships I truly want, who I want in my life and how I can screen for the right people.  I get projected onto a lot – there are people who think I’m dead serious and driven, and others who only know my “fun” side. Some can’t think of my outside of the whole priestess thing, and way too many think of me in terms of how I fit into their agendas. (That sucks, by the way.) There are still people out there who are shocked when I decide to be funny, and that’s only because they weren’t really paying attention in the first place.

I’m actually not that hung up on intelligence. I know plenty of smart people without a formal education, although I appreciate it if they’re not suspicious of formal education since I don’t regret mine at all. Colleges are not all places that poison free thinking – I daresay that those who get through academia know the inner mysteries of genuine free thought, if they were already capable before going. I look for tolerance, empathy, shoes…

I’ll look for the person who has a bird shit on him/her and then laughs. That’s the kind of person I want to have as a friend.