Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Humor and Purpose

“Humor is the great thing, the saving thing.  The minute it crops up, all our irritation and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

Mark Twain

“A sense of humor is a major defense against minor troubles.”

Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotic's Notebook, 1966

I just read that July 1, besides being my birthday, is International Joke Day.  I’ve never heard that before, but I think it’s appropriate for me considering my love of humor.  I like humor and I like being funny.  For the most part, I have been funny most of my life.  I remember being able to make my mom laugh. But I also remember the first time I made another adult laugh.  It was a strange sensation.  I felt powerful and I felt like I’d found a part of myself. 
I used humor a lot throughout my life; sometimes it went well and other times it didn’t.  When I was13, I did a play with some other kids and I was funny.  In the 10th grade I played the part of Randolph, the kid brother, in A Date with Judy.  I was very funny.  I was also funny when I did the announcements for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship in college and when I did standup comedy.  In fact, I was so funny doing standup that, after doing 15 minutes on “open mic” my first time, I was offered my own 90-minute show.  I was often funny with friends and coworkers.  And I was funny in many of the classes I taught.
There were problems though.  Sometimes I didn’t know when it was not appropriate to be funny.  Sometimes I couldn’t stop.  Sometimes I used humor as a cover for insecurity, fear or laziness.  Sometimes I felt like I had to be funny or people wouldn’t like me.  Sometimes I offended or annoyed people (unintentionally).  But the biggest problem with my humor was that I considered it the sum total of who I was.  I was “the funny guy.”
Humor became an identity instead of a tool.  When I used it well, it was part of my Purpose and my personality.  When I didn’t, it became a problem.
We each have different talents and different aspects of our personalities that work in certain situations.  Mine have included wisdom, counseling, and teaching, among others.  With regard to humor, or any aspect of my personality, I have learned three principles that help me to use it  more effectively:
First, know your purpose.  I had to not go on default and just try to be funny at every occasion.  I had to learn to stop myself even when I wanted to make a joke.  I remember a classmate who, like me, was always making jokes, often in class (like me).  During a teacher’s lecture, he whispered a joking remark to me and a few other students at our table.  Then he did something I never forgot:  he looked around the table to see if anyone noticed.  It was only a moment, but I never forgot it, because I knew I had done the same thing many times.
When I did this, was I looking for attention?  Approval?  Validation?  What did I want?  I honestly don’t think I knew.  I was just acting out of habit.  I got laughs before, so (I thought) I can get laughs every time.  Watching a classmate act in a similar fashion was jarring and I wanted to change my approach.
Second, know when.  There’s a dialogue between a comedian and a talk show host that I found very instructive:
Comedian:              Ask me, “What’s the most important thing about humor?
Host:                        What’s the most….
Comedian:            (Interrupting the host) TIMING!

Often, my timing was bad.  I would make jokes during classes or presentations.  I would make jokes when people were struggling with a problem or trying to make a serious point.  It was embarrassing when this was pointed out.  Often it damaged the relationship. 
In addition, I became, with some people, the boy who joked wolf.  Several people told me they could never take me seriously, because they didn’t know when I was joking or being serious.  Once at a business function I was joking with a couple of people, pretending that I was complaining.  The people who heard me knew I was joking, but the supervisor from another city who was standing a few feet away, overheard the conversation, and didn’t know I was joking.  He called the office the next day and told them I was not welcome back to any further functions!  Fortunately, it all got straightened out, but it was a valuable lesson.  And this leads to my next principle:
Know your audience.  Here is a list, based on hard experience of the types of people I have learned not to joke with:
·      Teachers
·      Employers or job interviewers
·      Police
·      Doctors
·      Almost any kind of authority
·      People I don’t know well
·      People whose trust I haven’t earned.
·      People who haven’t earned my trust.
This isn’t a hard and fast list, just a guideline.  The underlying principle is in the last three bullet points.  If I don’t know the person, haven’t earned their trust, or they haven’t earned mine, then I should use c humor cautiously.  In the past I have used humor out of nervousness, especially in job interviews, and this is a forgivable sin, but I recommend silence or sticking to a script.  A stranger may not understand why you made an inappropriate comment at the wrong time when you were just trying to lighten the mood.
It isn’t always possible to know your audience.  A standard theater maxim is that no two audiences are alike.  I would add that no audience is the same every time.   I have sometimes been unpleasantly surprised to find while being myself and joking with someone I knew that I had caused offense or anger.  I had history with the person and felt safe, but it was still taken the wrong way.  I had to learn that my “audience” was one person and had to be approached differently.  This is not a science.  This is love in action, because I have to treat each person as he or she is:  unique.   In a couple of situations, I learned it was better to end the relationship.  Most of the time, however, I had to just be more aware of what the other person needed.
Used Purposefully humor can be the glue that cements relationships and the acid that erodes difficulty.  It makes the darkest times a little brighter.  Used well, humor can keep me conscious and present.  All I need to do is Get Started and Keep Going….and maybe know a few good jokes.