Three Problems With Being Funny

The original version of this post appeared in Organic Coffee, Haphazardly, a forum for creative use of words and interesting minds.  Many thanks to Allie Burke and the staff at OCH for extending the platform and hospitality to me. Please, drop on over, read some  interesting work and let them know I sent you. I get bonus miles on Merriam-Webster for each referral.

Three Problems With Being Funny

In fifth grade a classmate ratted on me to our teacher, Mrs. Bashore. It was near the end of the year and we were called out of the room for some special thing I can’t remember. Probably a health lecture. When we came back to the room Mrs. Bashore asked if all was well. That’s when I got turned in.

“Jerry talked out loud,” the squealer squealed.

There was a silence. Mrs. Bashore looked at me and said, “Well, he’ll be someone else’s problem next year.”

1) Being funny is disruptive

Problem?

I was in fifth grade just being my expressive self. As a 10-year-old boy, I didn’t quite have the self-control to not say whatever popped into my mind. In today’s world I’d be diagnosed with ADHD and given happy pills. Or, actually, mild speed. We didn’t even know about sugar or gluten and it was well ahead of GMO.

Listen, I am only trying to make a point, not garner sympathy. Well, not much. I had problems. We all do. I was the shortest kid in class and an introvert who talked out loud. I didn’t want attention (which is what some must have thought). I wanted to say the funny thing in my head.

if-thought-bubbles-appeared-above-my-head-id-be-screwed-92b5b

I am well trained in quippery. That is the art of quipping and a word I made it up. Quipping is the act of taking any comment, turning and twisting its context until humor is rendered from its linguistic bones. That twisting, when spoken out loud, interjects itself into the stream of thought of those listening. It provides an alternate take on something just cognized, acting, therefore, as a disruptive influence.

Not every comment can easily be augmented with a quip, but there are enough opportunities everyday that I guess you could be considered disruptive if you took advantage of enough of them. Which I did. I think. It might be that my affliction with quipping is a kind of Tourette syndrome for humor.

I came by quippery honestly. My family did it all the time, especially at dinner. The ability to make a funny comment was laughed at, encouraging even more funny comments. What wasn’t understood was that I lacked that cluster of grey matter and nerve endings that gave some form of control.

I still interrupt people a lot. Which annoys the shit out of my wife. It’s not on purpose. The thought jumps in and I say it.

2) Funny Doesn’t Mean Clown

I was never the class clown. Clowns need attention, like a Kardashian. I have been an introvert as long as I can remember. My outbursts were not calls for attention. For me it was about the alternate way you could say something to shift the context and create a humorous meaning. I am not well polished at telling jokes, but I can slip a quip with ease and grace.

I guess the force of my creativity found the path of least resistance – my mouth. My satisfaction was found in expressing the alternate view of things more than it was in getting laughs.

Being a comedian is hard. I don’t tell jokes well, although I do have some practiced funny ones that I can pull out as needed. Comedians write and practice jokes all the time. They are like musicians working on timing and changing words and phrasing to make the joke hit home. For them it is a performance. They get on stage, all eyes on them and they give their humor in a way that makes it feel like a conversation even though they have done it a thousand times before.

george carlin

I am funny because I am quick to see an opening into a different reality. I jump in and take advantage of the moment and watch the recognition of “funny” blossom in other people’s eyes. A quip is short lived. It can be repeated in a different context, but once it happens it is gone like breath on a mirror.

You can’t quip without sexual innuendo. Maybe you can, but if you avoid sexual innuendo, you are missing an entire category of quips. I loved the people I worked with in my first real job out of college. We were part of a sales organization and my kind of sexually laden quip was well accepted. One of the women I worked with had a waiver from sexual harassment thumbtacked above her desk. It was all good natured fun. It is way to serious today, so the workplace is off limits.

That leads me to the final challenge in being funny.

3) Being on the Watch

There is a constant vigilance that comes with being a compulsive quipper. After years of practice, it becomes second nature. It’s all about context.

Two things make quips funny. First, a quip works in a moment with a short decay, as mentioned. If you miss the cycle of conversation when the quippable comment is made, than you’ve lost the opportunity. You can’t rewind and throw it out. That isn’t funny. The best you can do is log that funny comment for some future use and have it at the ready. You have to identify the trigger that would make it usable and wait for it to happen.

Second, quips are all about context. Context has multiple meanings and shadings. It is why quipping takes practice. And the willingness to deal with failure.

context clues

I was in a fraternity in college. We would invite a sorority over for a nice dinner once in a while. During one such dinner I made a couple of my typical comments and was put up for auction at the end of the dinner. Auction meant that I would have to do the winning brother’s house chores for a week. At the start of the auction the house president noted my dual offense by saying, “Gentry’s up twice.”

My immediate response was, “That’s what she said.”

Once the laughter subsided, I was absolved of any obligation to do chores. Several of the sorority sisters sought me out to say hello later. When your mind works like mine it is always a crap shoot. It could have easily turned the opposite way, but I read the endorphin rating of the room correctly and felt free to take the chance.

Had we had parents at that dinner, I would not have made any comments to be put on auction. By college the cerebral cortex or whatever part of my brain is engaged in making quips had matured enough to give me some sense of control. I would have understood the context and kept my funny thoughts to myself.

On the other hand, when we did have our first parent dinner of the year I did manage one comment. I was sitting with my dad at the corner table. After dinner we were asked to introduce ourselves and I was the first. I said my name and where I was from while seated. The president instructed me, “Please, stand up.”

“I am,” was my response. Laughter and light heartedness resulted and I felt good. I stood and waved. My dad laughed because I caught that sense of humor from him.

And that leads me to the governing principle of good quipping. The result of my family inspired and coached quipping was learning intelligent humor. Well, the comments are stupid, but intelligent because they do not belittle other people in order to be funny. They are funnier because they require some thought.

I am glad I grew up in a conversational household. With social media you can’t always tell a quip from abuse. Not without an emoticon.

I have a friend who is a paranoid schizophrenic and sometimes hears voices. After a recent post siting the book being read, my first thought was to post a comment asking what the other people in their head were reading. I didn’t.

My friend is confident enough that I would have gotten a chuckle and a friendly “fuck off.” I was worried about the people I didn’t know who might not have understood my compulsive humor or that I was, indeed, joking. The main exception to the principle of not belittling other people is being able to gently poke at people you know. Never with malice. Always with respect.

Here’s what I do know. The mental athletics that my life as a quipper have put me through have made me very creative in a disciplined way. That creativity bleeds through to all aspects of my life. As the CEO of a consulting firm I used to work for commented, “You sit quietly and listen and observe, then you come up with a flash of brilliant insight..”

You see, I can be quiet. It just took me a few decades.

DilbertContext

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