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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The Resolution Solution

As I left my first physical therapy session after the magic six-week post op period I was very happy. The physical therapist said I was causing them problems because my recovery was weeks ahead of schedule. They were having to revise their plan for me to be much shorter. I was not working according to their schedule and I was glad to cause them consternation. Being fit and healthy has paid off in unexpected ways.

As I left the building, a smile beaming to everyone and a spring in my step, my main thought was that I wanted to get to the point in 2015 where I could put my sock on my right foot without mechanical aid. I got a kit for hip replacement that includes this could device. It is a half tube with cords on it. You slip your sock over it, then put your foot in and pull your sock up. Works great and it is the only device I still use.

hip replacement kit

Then I wondered if that constituted a New Year’s Resolution.

Excuse me if I get the whole NYR thing wrong. My family never really got into them. I am grateful for that because I don’t think I am built to handle resolutions of such intensity. If you are like me; my sympathies if you are; then making resolutions is a futile effort, unless the resolution involves training for a distance run. For some reason I can train using an extended plan and pretty much stick to the intent of the plan. Go figure.

Marathon_Walk1

I attribute my resolution paralysis to my short attention span. Maybe it is better termed Easily Diverted Syndrome or EDS. Wait! That won’t work. Anything acronym with “ED” in it can be mistaken for something related to erectile dysfunction. That has nothing to do with being easily diverted. At least it hasn’t impacted me.

Back on topic; how about calling it the Quickly Diverted Syndrome or QDS. Nobody can muck up an acronym with a “Q” in it.

It isn’t that I don’t make plans. It is that I need something more concrete to focus on. Here’s an example: “I will lose weight in 2015.” Losing weight is, what? An end state? A mantra? It sure isn’t a strategy or a tactic or a plan to get to an end state (isn’t that kind of a tactical thing?).

If losing weight is my goal, then I need a plan to get there. Is my strategy going to be diet, exercise, Dr. Oz’s next great cure, magical elixirs, or a combination of some or all of them? Once I decide what the strategy is, I need to put together a plan. It is more that just “I’ll eat less and workout more.” For me to make a significant accomplishment that takes more than a couple of minutes I need a sectionalized plan.

“Sectionalized.” I just made that word up. We can do that in the computer age.

Going back to the running thing. I am successful there because there are plans that break down what you need to do day be day over a period of weeks and months to get to a specific running goal. You just print them out and do what they say day be day and you win the New York Marathon. Sounds pretty simple, right?

It ain’t for me.

I often skip steps and modify others because, well, because that’s how I pretty much do everything. It is never the same twice. Maybe I’m not a good example to follow if you are trying to rally accomplish resolutions. There is one consistent thing I do in my self-created, dynamic universe and that is allocate time dedicated to doing whatever it is I need to do next to get to my goal.

You don’t have to become an automaton or a slave to your calendar, but you do need to honor the slices of time you’ve set aside. I am always putting in free time where I can digress and play like a 3-year-old, but I also spend some time understanding most of what I need to do to get to the end game and then sectionalizing those tasks onto some kind of calendar based program.

It is the proverbial “eating an elephant” process. A truly successful person is surrounded by elephant skeletons. I am certain Tony Robbins has acres of property litter with the carcasses of elephant projects he has devoured. Even in this phase, I can falter. It is easy for me to get lost in finding a tool to help me track all this shit to the point where I spend more time playing with the tool and not doing the shit.

Tony Robbins

The first step is to admit you have Quickly Diverted Syndrome. Once you do that, you can apply controls of governance to yourself, most of which involve allocating specific time to your actions (“I won’t spend more than 30 minutes trying to make Evernote work for this”). It isn’t foolproof, but it is far better than the more random approach I used to use.

It has even edged into my real world existence where I allocate time on my calendar to do the tasks I’ve committed to. If I don’t, then I face a day full of meetings and the only time I can do the real work is after hours. I don’t want that because, you know, Twitter.

So my first ever NY Resolution is:

 I resolve to sectionalize my resolutions so that I can actually achieve my goals. 

Now that I have put that stake in the ground, I need to think of some resolutions that are a little more demanding that getting to put my sock without the cool tool.

Enjoy the day! As always, I would enjoy any and all comments.

Run Free. Run Easy. Just Run.

A Conspiracy of Women

Something sinister is afoot.

I feel compelled to warn my fellow men. And I mean men, since women are already conspiring. Let me deconstruct that thought.

As men we are quite comfortable with seeing and understanding conspiracy, usually, in video games, politics and between cubicles in our offices. We do not have the genetic code to recognize conspiratorial activities among women. Mostly because we are interested in having sex with them, so our depth of thought regarding their actions mostly stops at whether or not we are going to get laid.

The conspiratorial hand was tipped by a friend of mine, @allieburkebooks. She is the queen of selfies and quite a wordcrafter.

allie

proxy

Anyway, a post of hers almost slipped by my unnoticed. If it hadn’t been for the narcotic effect of the oxycodone I was on because of my hip surgery I might not have become aware of these machinations. In her post Allie commented how thankful she was for all the strong and supportive women she had connected with. In my state, I was able to see what this really meant. There was a conspiracy of women. Somehow they had deformed social media to make alliances and tender support across the ether to share stories of success and offer consolation and advice to each other.

Once I unmasked this dastardly endeavor I began to see it everywhere. Following the trail left by Allie led me to a nexus of activity. I saw this woman frequently on social media and it surprised me that I could have missed all the signs. So clever of her to hide in plain sight. Among her many virtual personas the one I first encountered was @RachelintheOC.

rachelintheoc

 

Sure, she looks innocent enough and professes to be a social media expert, but her real intention is to use her multiple personas to align women of all makes and models in such a way that they feel good about themselves and gain a sense of power through self worth. So devious. So blatant.  I was so upset when I realized her true intentions. I mean, at one time she gave me sage advice on how to improve my online presence. Of course, I ignored it because, well, I’m a man and following advice wasn’t going to get me laid. It is kinda like asking me to read a map.

Through the clarity instilled by the opiates in my blood I saw that she was helping women to help themselves. Even covering her tracks by throwing occasional assistance to men. She started discussions and threads to help women understand their emotional states and face their inner fears and uncertainties. And encouraging women to be honest about those emotional things that we men spend 28% or our caloric energy on keeping bottled up. I saw her influence on the young and impressionable mind of Allie Burke. She is helping create a generation who know what they want and are content to help each other find ways to be happy in their own skin.

I was so devastated that I decided to ignore it and do something I liked instead. That was running. Since I was having hip issues, I couldn’t actually run, so I went to my running magazine, Runner’s World, to find solace. To my surprise I saw an announcement that they were creating a new ezine, called Zelle, about running. Except is was running for women with a focus on how the activity helps build personal strength. The subterfuge continues. This time the instigator is @EJComeau.  Don’t let the cute dimples fool you. She is dedicated to promoting the conspiracy and showing any who care to listen how running can improve the quality of life in many ways.

ejcomeau

These women only marginally care about times, pace and distance. Many are accomplished, world class runners, but most are just normal – whatever that is.

In anguish I slipped into Twitter again and tried to find a twitter crush to waste time and develop hormonal alignment with. Instead, I found other women who were doing more than just running to find their inner strength. Sure, there were some like @SheRunsforLove who uses running to develop strength beyond the purely physical.

sherunsforlove

Then the is @muscleboundmama and a host of other women who pump iron. I mean serious iron. They don’t glisten, they fucking sweat when they workout. Furthermore, she coaches on fitness. Do you know what that means? She is helping other people become self-confident. Men and Women.  muscleboundmama

Here’s the deal. When you ask them for help or input, they just give it to you. I mean, I tested it by throwing our some questions and I got honest, heartfelt responses. Not the wiseass, half assed, intellectualized, palp that I was expecting.

It is diabolical!

My head reeled. The conspiracy was all around me and there was nothing I could do. It was revealed. All out in the open and I was powerless to stop it. I had but one option left.

I grabbed a beer and turned on Netflix to watch a marathon of Arrow because the IT chic, Felicity, is pretty hot.

Felicity

 

POST SCRIPT:

Just in case someone doesn’t get my sense of humor, all of the women mentioned in this post (sans Felicity) are real and are friends of mine. They are amazing, strong and smart in their own individual ways and I am graced to know them.

Run on National Running Day!

June 5, 2013 is National Running Day!

I run...

I encourage all of you to get out and move. It doesn’t matter how long or how fast (a walk is just a leisurely run). Go solo. Go with friends. All I ask is that you smile while you run!  It’s about having FUN!

I’m going to do a very short run. I’ll tell you why.

The day before National Running Day I got a nice cut on the bottom of my foot when I stomped on a nail head on the deck. The string of invectives that followed the cut would have made my friend AJ Aalto proud, even though I lack her innate creativity for slang.

It means I have to lay off training for a while. That will be hard to do because I am just ramping up and it has been fun feeling the form come along.

I’m not that anal about my training, except I just publicized that I am running the Fairfield Half Marathon in 18 days. I know that if I try to run before the cut has healed it will open up again, sending me back to day one on the recovery calendar. The cut is right on the bottom of my foot on the outside of my forefoot (the ball of the foot). That just happens to be the place that hits the ground first with every stride.

My impatience has me looking at the tube of Rhino glue in the cupboard.

Photo Jun 04, 8 07 00 PM

Don’t laugh. I’ve done it before, but not on my foot. Did I mention that men are generally stupid and that we apply the same technology to our bodies that we do to broken furniture? Air guns and shelac go a long way in remedying what ails you. Really. I’ve seen the staples doctors put in incisions and my Porter-Cable staple gun can do about the same job.

The good thing is that we won’t use those same curative methods on our spouses or significant others. But, beware ladies. We might do try some of this on our kids.

Funny how these blogs take on a life of their own. It’s like most of my writing. I start out with a hint of an idea and where it goes surprises me.

When you put your feet in front of each other today and run down the driveway or across town, think of me with the tube of Rhino glue in my hand while I do the risk analysis on whether I’m being stupid or brilliant.

And…

RUN FREE!!!

A Cascade of Fear

A good friend of mine, Savannah George (www.dsavannah.com), posted a great piece on fear today.  She is a wonderful writer and a world class editor.  I suggest you click the link and read her post. It’s about getting rid of fear and the stifling effects it has on us.  The concept came to her after she had spent some time online with a friend who said he wasn’t afraid of anything.  From him, to her, to me.  Kind of a fire brigade with the topic of fear in the bucket. Hey!  It’s 5AM and metaphors have never been my strong point in writing.

Although I agree with Savannah’s concept and that fear can have devastating effects, I’m not sure I want to rid my life of fear.  In some ways I’ve turned fear into motivation.  Just after I read her post a fellow writer posted a comment in a writer’s forum about being afraid that her words were eloquent enough and her plot had already been written.  I remembered those same feelings from when I started writing my first book.

I sat there in front of my typewriter – the one at the top of this page – and stopped writing.  Fear had tied my hands.  Fear that I was not good enough to write a book. For a long time I just sat and stared at the mechanical beast, lost in self-ctitical thoughts. I wasn’t coming up with anything unique.  The plot I had was about a young adult and his father and friends.  It was just another YA novel. A clone of thousands of other novels already on the shelves.  Why go on?

Fear is like water. It finds its way in, no matter what. The fear that started to rise in my head was the fear of not living up to what I had said I could do. Wasn’t it better to write a shitty book than to have not written one at all? A fear of failure started me thinking.

I thought of the millions of songs and books that men and women have written. Isn’t that amazing. Relatively speaking we have no new words or notes, yet we keep throwing them together and coming up with something new. In retrospect, it was fear as motivator that made me put my fingers back on the keyboard and type.  Soon I became more afraid that I would let the ideas I had in my mind evaporate than I was of righting a bad book.  Three hundred thousand words later I had completed my first novel.

It is still unpublished.  It kind of sucks.  But it has a glowing premise and some great characters. If I hadn’t spent the months writing that first book, I wouldn’t have attempted SYN:FIN.  And SYN:FIN is a good book even if I say so myself.

What I’m getting at is that fear has two sides.  It can make you freeze at the presence of a threat or it can motivate you to run long and hard to find escape.  Fear was one of the reasons we started to run and kept running. From our response to fear, we developed one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal – the ability to run long distance.  That ability is arguably the reason we are what we are today – all full of imagination and melody.

I’m OK with fear because I have a greater fear of standing still than I have of moving forward.  Hmm?  I wonder if that is the definition of ADD?

Thoughts?  Don’t be afraid to post your comments.  I don’t bite. Much.

Feedback is a Gift – Painful, But a Gift

The first draft of my novel, SYN:FIN, was typed on an Olympia SM9 from the 60’s.  One word after another with no delete key.  That is the great thing about writing on a typewriter.  There is no going back.

My Oly SM9

I keyed that first draft into my computer and did an edit for spelling and grammar and thought I had a killer novel.  Just before I pushed the button to publish, I decided to ask a good friend to read the first three chapters, about 30 pages.

She had great credentials.  Not only was she the CEO of a research consulting firm, she had published a book earlier in her life.  Competent and articulate, on the business side she had always been crisp and insightful in her analysis.  What better person to tell me how great my story was.

You know where this is going.

Here is an excerpt from the first paragraph of her email response.

Re: Syn Fin, here’s my take. You know me well, so I’m going to be blunt. Hope that’s okay.

The good news is that you’ve got an intriguing voice and a character that will become sympathetic once you edit out the noise.

The bad news is that you didn’t hold my attention.

She was calling my baby ugly!  And what the hell did she mean by “noise”? Fortunately, she explained herself.  You see, I had inserted a little twist into my first person writing.  I had given my character a device to record his thoughts, so that the book was his dictation, not his writing.  Every so often he would complain about something with the recorder or some other element and go off plot.  Here’s what she thought of my ingenuity:

The device of using the automatic writing software (and making occasional asides to the reader about not knowing how to write) is distancing and distracting. Lose it.

That was pretty specific.  I was thinking maybe she didn’t get my sense of humor.  But I read on and found out what she really thought.

The first couple of paragraphs manage to quickly build sympathy for your character–the reader identifies with him being hungover, getting dissed by his ex-girlfriend and sidekick, etc.

But it’s not enough for me to care about him for 30 pages. Since I forced myself to plow ahead, I know there’s more to this guy–but you need to pack it into the front end.

In particular, the fact that he’s a software genius is a) relevant and b) buried. You need to haul that puppy right out front, because it’s important.

You have very little time to create an emotional situation that causes me to care enough about the guy to turn the page. (By “very little time”–I mean more like 30 WORDS than 30 pages).

It wasn’t good to hear that she had to force herself to read the full 30 pages.  Even worse was hearing she had not uncovered the plot after she read it all.  My first reaction was that she just didn’t get it.  Then I remembered why I asked her to read it.  She knows her shit when it comes to writing and reading.

It took me a couple of days to be warm up to what she had said.  There was one comment I kept going back to.

Again, the point is that you should know exactly why each sentence is where it is, and what purpose it’s serving. If it’s not either conveying information, defining character, or moving the plot forward–get rid of it. And if it IS doing one of those—can you make it do two? Or, can you pack the same punch in fewer words?

She suggested I take a book I really liked and deconstruct the first few chapters. I did just that.  Damn, the whole setup was there.  Just like she had said.

I felt like a dismal failure.  This was my best effort and it sucked.  So, I took some more of her advise and stepped away from the book for a while.  Separation can be a good thing.

About 3 months later, I picked it up and took a red pen to it.  I learned quickly that there is a difference between writing and editing.  I listened to aggressive music while I trounced on my words and ripped, slashed and crushed everything.  What I discovered was a pretty good story under the coats of verbal varnish.  Each pass with the red pen brought that story into more crisp focus.

The pain of editing!

It took six, count them – six, edits to get it to the final state.  The seventh edit was purely for punctuation and grammar (forty-seven fixes that my six edits had missed).

The end result is that SYN:FIN has received seven 5-star reviews on Amazon. Even better is that my friend is still my friend.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Write that first draft for fun and frolic.  Just get the thoughts out of you and on to paper.  Don’t worry about consistency or grammar.  Capture what is in your mind.
  2. Editing is a totally different mindset than writing.  It is surgical and clinical.  Edit as if you are a reader and you don’t give a flying F@&# about any of the words on the page.  Nothing is sacred.  If it doesn’t lead to the end game, get rid of it.  If you can say it in two words, not three, then cut one.  Don’t repeat what you’ve already told the reader.  They remember.
  3. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who will give you honest feedback, then listen carefully to what they say.  You will only get better as a result.

I am working on the next installment in the Chronicles of Jim Harrison.  It is going well and the plot is much trickier this time.  Exactly how it all works out is still in the air.  Each day at my typewriter is a surprise and I am anxious to see where my fingers will lead me.  I’m having a great time getting there.  More important, I won’t make the mistake of thinking that my first draft is a finished product.

This time I will do a lot more editing before I submit myself to feedback!