Funny is in the eyes of the reader

Typically at this time of year I depart from my usual attempts to lighten things up, and I write a serious column. But today things seem so serious in the world, I believe it is my responsibility to try to get you to laugh. Or at least to snicker. A good chortle would be good, and a guffaw would make my day. Of course, since you’ll be reading this wherever you happen to be, unless I’m right next to you as you’re reading it I won’t hear anything.

Which reminds me, a few years ago, I was at a local eatery, and saw someone — looked like an out-of-towner — pick up the paper and start reading my column. While I know that virtually every spiritual path urges us to let go of our egos, I still struggle with this. So I waited nearby, watching her face carefully, hoping that perhaps she would fall off her chair in laughter, but ready to settle for a smile or grin. But then, before she’d had a chance to read much of it, she put the paper down with annoyance and said to her partner, “Oh, he’s just being funny.”

Aha! I don’t remember which column she was reading, but it could have been “Releasing My Inner Child,” or “The Joys of Aging,” or even “What I Really Need.” Of course, my regular readers know that almost without exception, whatever the title, they’re going to be reading irony, sarcasm, and bitter humor. I shouldn’t be upset with a new reader who expects a serious piece when they see a serious title.

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And this leads me to an important issue faced by humorists. The response to what you write or say depends a lot on your reader or listener. Everyone knows there are people with very little sense of humor. You can say something obviously meant to be outlandish, and they say, “Really?” I could write a lot on this, but in the space I have, I will simply summarize some of the ways people can react to your humor.

To talk from the vantage point I know best, I’ll describe my own typical experience and thoughts. Here I am, an older heterosexual white male, who has written something meant to be funny. I’ve already spent hours going over my piece to make sure it is politically correct. (I’ll confess that when I’m talking I usually pause for only 10-15 seconds on this, though even that can make my listener impatient.) Then I release it into the world. Here are possible reactions from five different categories of readers:

1. People who know me. They will probably laugh as soon as they see my name and the title of my piece, not only if it’s obviously meant to be funny, like “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Sanity,” but even if it’s something that sounds downright depressing, like “Where Are We Headed?” And when you’re a humorist, this is just what you want.

2. People who don’t know me, like that woman from years ago. She sees a serious-sounding title, and she wants to be enlightened. Sorry, your ladyship (I was going to write “Sorry, sweetie,” but these days, are you kidding?), but if you want enlightenment, read Deepak Chopra. I’m about as enlightening as a burned out street lamp.

3. Children. No child below the age of 10 should be reading my column. It’s not that I write on R-rated topics, but I do talk about some heavy issues within my humor, and there’s no reason you should take your child away from their violent video games to have to deal with sarcasm and irony. But for children under five, I can read my pieces out loud, and with kids that’s great, because it’s all in how you read. For a three-year old, if you say, “And then everyone knew that climate change was going to destroy the planet!” with great enthusiasm and a big smile, he or she will laugh. Same with dogs. Say anything with a little excitement, and they’ll wag their tails.

4. Women and minorities. Again, if the person knows me, I’m good. But otherwise, just as I, a married man with sons and grandsons, parse every word from anyone who isn’t in my exact peer group, I assume they will be evaluating all my words for possible sexism and racism.

5. My wife. She reads everything I write before I send it anywhere, and if she doesn’t laugh, I’m in big trouble. I may try to show her why what I’ve written is hilariously funny, but when you have to explain humor, it’s over. I wish I could rationalize this by saying she doesn’t have a good sense of humor, but she has a great one.

Actually, in a practical way I have occasionally suffered from misunderstandings. Sometimes I send one of my humorous columns to psychologytoday.com, where I am a blogger. Unfortunately, I think most of the people reading PT are looking for help or answers. One piece I sent in, “Your First Therapy Session” was clearly meant to be funny. With passages like this, how could it not be?

“Will the therapist secretly be evaluating and judging me? Is there a chance that he will criticize me or laugh at me?

“Yes to both questions. Your therapist is only human after all, and if you are a total basket case, what do you expect from him? He’s not made of stone.”

Sadly, I know from comments people sent in that some readers were annoyed that I wasn’t providing real advice. I felt guilty about this, but after I spoke to my own therapist about it, I felt a lot better.

On a serious but hopeful note, I wish everyone a belated Happy New Year, and wish for you a year of health, happiness and personal fulfillment. And I’m not kidding.

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