Here’s what it comes down to: I’ve been trying for most of my life to make people laugh. I know I’ve had some success at this. I know it because I have ears and I’ve heard the laughter loud and clear. In some circles, humor seems to be my defining characteristic. By “some circles” I mean people who don’t know me very well. But we’ll get back to that; I want to address this topic more or less chronologically.
My late mother owned various 78 RPM records. Her collection included recordings by Spike Jones, Rosemary Clooney, and Louis Armstrong. She once told me of an incident that occurred when I was still a crib-bound infant with only rudimentary communication skills. One day, she noticed that I was attempting to imitate the guttural voice of Louis Armstrong as she was playing one of his records, even though I was nowhere near uttering my first word. Although I have no memory of the incident, I’d like to think that she reacted by laughing and fawning over me, thus reinforcing the behavior. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.
(Hmmm… maybe I’ve missed my calling… maybe I should be the front man for a Louis Armstrong tribute band…)
As my childhood progressed, I added various tools to my humor kit. This was a matter of necessity; I discovered early on that if I could get kids to laugh, it might distract them from actively picking on me or beating me up. But even in less dire circumstances, such as family gatherings, humor was a way for me to be noticed and appreciated by adults. This was no small accomplishment. Many adults pay scant attention to children, particularly other people’s children. By making them laugh, I became, if only for a moment, their peer. That’s a wondrous feeling for a child who might otherwise have been powerless to make an impression – a positive one, that is – on an adult.
There is a story, once again passed along by my mother, that I find fascinating. I don’t know how old I was – maybe 12 or so. Just for fun, I was spending the weekend at Aunt Rosie and Uncle Andy’s house. Aunt Rosie was a bit of a night owl, and we sat up together on her front porch in our pajamas late on a sultry Saturday night, talking for hours about this or that. It was, I think, the only in-depth conversation I ever had with her.
A few days after I’d returned home, my mother related a phone conversation she’d just had with her sister, Aunt Rosie. She quoted Rosie as saying something like, “You know, for the longest time, I thought Charles was such a rude little boy. But I finally figured it out – he was just trying to be funny.”
Well, *sigh*, there’s the epitaph for many a failed joke: He came across as rude when he was just trying to be funny. There are some great lessons to be drawn from that moment. For starters, it was a call to me to be tuned in to my audience’s sensibilities as well as my own. If I want my performing art – or any other kind of art – to matter, then it absolutely has to touch my audience’s world and their realities. Otherwise, I’m engaged in nothing more than public self-gratification, which is not my thing. The public part anyway. So a belated thank you goes out to my Aunt Rosie who, like my mother, has moved on to that big comedy club in the sky.
Humor served me well in grade school. I learned quickly that a well-placed joke in a written essay could distract (some) teachers from noticing a lack of content or proper structure. And besides, making people laugh was fun! In retrospect, striving for humorous effect in school essays was also honing my skills as a writer, since one must attain a kind of mastery over wording and structure in order to pull off a written joke. Privately, I liked to think of myself as a class clown – ah, but here was the twist: I looked down my nose at those class clowns whose highest aspiration was to disrupt the class by making rude sound effects or blurting out non-sequiturs. Mere disruption was never my goal. I wanted everyone laughing, including the teacher. A side benefit of this was that if the teacher was laughing, I couldn’t get into too much trouble.
This set of guidelines reached its highest moment of expression one day when I was in the 7th grade. I was in the back of the room (I was generally placed there on account of my height) showing handkerchief tricks to my friend Leo. Please note that most of these tricks had been taught to me by my dear mother. When Leo guffawed loudly, Sister Ildefonse (yes, that was her name) snapped, “Leo! What is so funny?” And my good buddy Leo threw it right on me: “Chuck’s doing his handkerchief tricks!” Thanks Leo. I owe you one. Sister switched her attention to me and said sarcastically, “Well, perhaps Charles would like to do his tricks for the entire class!” I shrugged and said, “OK.” Sister wasn’t ready for that. She paused a moment to collect her thoughts, then said, “All right, at the start of class tomorrow, Charles will do his handkerchief tricks!”
And so it came to pass. I had a day to put my act together. The big moment was my closing trick. As noted earlier, it had been taught to me by my dear, God-fearing, church organist mother. It had a bit of a risqué kick to it though (as did my mother). It was a multi-character story that ended with me folding my large handkerchief into the shape of a brassiere. It took some cojones on my part to go through with this at St. Ignatius of Antioch Elementary School, but well… you never really know where the line is until you cross it.
The moment of truth arrived. I sprang the punch line and held up the hankie-bra for all to see. The room fell apart in hysterics. I peeked around to see what Sister Ildefonse was doing. She was bent over in hysteria, her face turning purple with helpless laughter. Oh yeah! Just what I was praying for! I returned to my seat, and Sister Ildefonse never again cited me for inducing laughter. Nor did she ever again invite me to perform for the class. Coincidence? I think not. But that’s okay. Really.
From that point forward, I began to accelerate in my exploration of humor. A key discovery was in stumbling upon the power of humorous self-effacement; that is, making oneself the butt of the joke. Like so many scientific breakthroughs, this one came about by accident. I was engaged in some verbal/mental gymnastics with my older brother, which we did a LOT at that time in our lives. I accidentally phrased something incorrectly in such a way that I was making an extremely disparaging remark about myself. My brother laughed himself to near hysterics. And I made a Note To Self about the power of self-effacement. Nobody else I knew was purposely exploiting this area of humor, and I felt as if I’d stumbled onto a gold mine.
Also at about this time, I began to learn that humor was useful for far, far more than merely evoking laughter. I’d read anecdotes about Abraham Lincoln, about how he was fond of telling funny stories and singing funny songs, and about how he would use these stories as parables to make political or philosophical points. Those accounts of Honest Abe were a source of inspiration for me, spurring me to study the uses and effects of humor even more closely.
As you may be noticing, a lot of what I’m describing is simply the process of becoming an aware adult. Lots of people go through this (with, alas, many exceptions), but the difference is that my primary medium of communication and growth remained humor. In time, though, I perceived that what I was doing with humor was entirely translatable to other emotions and other systems of thought. All of these manipulations of language, perspective, and character could be used independently of humor to serve many varied goals. Sometimes, humor was simply the spoonful of sugar that allowed me to express something a bit weightier (nicely mixed metaphor there).
So, you may wonder, does this mean I’m just a big phony? Presenting myself as one thing while serving my own private agenda? Let me answer that question simply: No! And yes. I hope that’s clear.
Okay, a bit more detail then: It is my fondest wish to be understood; to present myself clearly and honestly; to have others respond in kind; to accept and appreciate others; to be accepted and appreciated myself. If I come across as serious and thoughtful, it’s because I am serious and thoughtful. If I come across as goofy, scattered, amusing, and a little too in love with the sound of my own voice, it’s because I am those things as well. Yes, humor is a valuable tool for me. It’s also something I genuinely enjoy. When I look in the mirror, I don’t know whether I see an artist looking back, but I do see an entertainer looking back.
Those of you who’ve known me for a long time might expect me to move on to a discussion of my high school years, when I became somewhat notorious for the humorous pieces I wrote for my high school newspaper, but I’m not going there today. Here’s why that’s a separate discussion: By the time I got to high school, most of my approach to humor had been established. Mind you, I’ve done plenty of refining since then; I cringe when I read some of the things I wrote in high school. But generally speaking, I had moved into the polishing phase of a humor sensibility that was pretty well worked out. I decided that this post was long enough simply with an examination of how my base of humor was established. So this post is by no means a complete manifesto of my thoughts on humor and how I’ve used it, but it will do for a start. I may revisit the topic down the road if I am so moved. Thanks for coming along!
ADDENDUM — Things That Make Me Laugh
Many times over the years, CC and I have been in the company of friends, bantering and having a good time, when the friends have said, “You guys must just laugh together all the time at your house!” – or words to that effect. This makes us laugh, because the truth is ever so mundane. At home, we generally go quietly about our respective pursuits. CC might be working on a craft project or calmly surfing the internet for one purpose or another. I might be ensconced on the couch watching TV, taken up with a sporting event or an episode of Chopped on the Food Network… or maybe writing for my blog. Oh all right… we do have fun together. There are plenty of laughs. The fact that we can still make each other laugh after knowing each other for over 25 years is a wonderful thing. But our household is not nearly the circus one may imagine it to be. We’re almost like real people.