Learning Humor

I *really* don’t want one more more thing to investigate– one more thing to learn– but, like I mentioned a while back, I’ve always wondered if I could learn to be funny(er).

Two examples of my inherently serious nature/demeanor:

  1. When the kids were younger and growing more verbal, one of the girls asked me, “Why is your face angry?”  I realized I was concentrating on something and she couldn’t tell the difference between that and angry.  I tried to soften my expression and excuse it by saying, no, Mother wasn’t mad, it was my “thinking face.”  The explanation obviously sank in because they asked several times over the next few weeks, “Mama, are you thinking again?”
  2. My children have made it quite clear to me that it is the role of men to be “silly.”  Mommies and Grandma’s are most-definitely not silly.  (And, most of the time in this family, they’d be right.  I come by most things naturally.)

I was vaguely troubled by the realization that so much of what we find funny comes out of anger (sarcasm, slapstick, thwarted expectations), so I was both relieved and delighted to come across another example of humor in the book I finished a couple weeks back.

Gladwell used improvisational theatre as an example of topic of instant-processing and discussed what made it successful.

In the course of this discussion he compared improv to basketball– pointing out the parallels of working within a set a rules to know how to respond to the people around– while you want to win ultimately you want to keep the game going.

Actors working together on an improv have to agree to a set of rules before they begin in order for the piece to “work.”

The rule that Gladwell emphasized in particular:  One must accept everything that is offered.  The unnatural state that invariably follows can hardly help being funny.

“Think of something you wouldn’t want to happen to you or to someone you love,” wrote Keith Johnstone, one of the founders of improv theatre.  “Then you will have thought of something worth staging or filming… In life most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action.  All the improvisation teacher has to do is to reverse this skill and he creates very ‘gifted’ improvisers.  Bad improviser block action, often with a high degree of skill.  Good improvisers develop action.”


“The humor arises entirely out of how steadfastly the participants adhere to the rule that no suggestion can be denied.”

In those two summaries– essentially by looking cross-genre– I understood better than I ever consciously did before what to do when I’m looking for a story.  I’m not just trying to be a sadist (though that frequently helps), and I’m not strictly looking instantly for conflict (I’ve complained before that feels like a cheep shortcut).

That is, I’m not looking to instantly make it as huge as possible– two immovable forces– because then, despite its hugeness, it will stall.

In reading the book’s examples of following or not-following the rule, I remembered my one semester of high school drama.

I was most-definitely a blocker.  There was only one improv over the whole semester I was in that went well (probably because this rule was never articulated), and that one should have humiliated me, but it didn’t.  It might have been the only time that semester I was in complete “agreement” and had locked-in with my classmates.

In that moment, having “clicked,” I got a taste of why kids will do stupid things for their peers.


There was a near-psychic unity of purpose that frightened me just a little: we were dancing on the edge of “inappropriate,” but winning, and I mistrusted myself for being able so easily to align with those whose character I didn’t trust.

It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I fully “relaxed” enough to see my peers not as subversive tools of an oppositional force but young humans swimming after purpose and focus the same me.  Until that point I felt resistance to them was part of resisting sin.

On some level this makes me sad– that I spent 2 ½ years on high-alert (approaching fear) of my age-mates– but on the other hand I sometimes think that schooled mistrust was what (ultimately) kept me safe until I developed greater discernment.

And so I’m recognizing that my kind of being funny has a lot to do with trust, because until I trust that a situation is “safe” I don’t relinquish control.

Jay and I (like most couples) have our own humor that hinges on things like looks and lines half-spoken or left unsaid.  But invariably they depend on one person taking a fall trusting the other one will catch them.  That sort of mutual dependence feeds itself, growing stronger and deeper the more times it’s proven.

One becomes “ingrown,” perhaps, but that becomes delicious: “your own brand of magic,”

the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to just a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage…

their response and and your performance twinned.

The jokes over the phone.  The memories packed

in the rapid-access file…

(from Perfection Wasted by John Updike)

This is where my (other) favorite kind of humor comes from– for those times when there’s just not enough brain to be witty, but there’s certainly enough heart to play.

One thought on “Learning Humor

  1. I also wonder if I could be more funny, particularly in my writing. I come across much more serious than I really am on my blog. How does one develop a sense of humor in writing and in life?

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