Monday, March 4, 2013

Funny Not Mean?

The Three Stooges
I like funny.  When it comes to lightening the mood, I'm never one for positive thinking or a sunshiny point of view.  I regard life as ridiculously short and full of stupidity.  If you tell me things are grand, I'll look at you with suspicion.

But if you tell me things are funny -- well, yes.  It's almost a tautology.  What could be more essentially humorous than the condition of humanity?  Trapped between the godlike ability to create the internet and the insane fragility of being laid low by a hangnail?  We are in a paradigmatically comedic situation.

Personally, I'm almost always up for something to laugh about.  I remember years and years ago when I had been seeing this one guy for a long time, and then he was seeing someone else on the side, and then for complicated reasons we happened to be standing next to this other person's car having a fight and shouting and swearing ... suddenly something on the seat of the car caught our eye.  "She's reading the Quran?" we said in unison.  For some reason, this made us hysterical.  Fight over, time to go home, tomorrow is another day, yada yada yada. 

I used to assume everyone shared my taste for the comedic.  But not so.  I remember when I working at this bookstore in my early twenties, and we were allowed to read books on break, and I would often take a book of comics and humor writing to look at with my coffee.  Norma, right?  Doesn't everyone treat the ills of minimum wage with a little Thurber, Kliban, and Doonesbury?

Anyway, one day this very serious-minded but friendly young male employee, who was just above me in the hierarchy, looked at me in a very serious-minded but friendly way, and said, "So, you like humor?"  I wanted to say, "Yes, idiot, who doesn't like humor?  Are you stupid?"  But it's a good thing I didn't.  Because no, not everyone likes humor.  It's not even close.  I don't know what's wrong with all those people, but there it is. 

Because I like funny, I enjoy making people laugh.  I would do it more if I knew how but it's not always that easy.  The big stumbling block, for me, is the difficulty of being funny without being mean.

A lot of funny is kind of mean.  If you make fun of someone, it can be very funny, but it can also be very mean.  A lot of people seem to get great pleasure -- and great laughs -- out of seeing others suffer.  My own father, as I understand it, was a fan of the Three Stooges.  Isn't that just laughing at other people getting fingers popped into their eyes?  Gross. 

But I've often thought:  I'm not into mean.  I'm into nice.  Funny and nice -- it's not always an easy combination. 

One way to be funny without being mean is with goofiness, like slipping on banana peels and making funny faces.  But that's not for me.  If you know me, you won't be surprised to hear me say that, for whatever reason, I'm constitutionally incapable of being goofy.  I can't say I regard it as a great loss.

It's OK to be funny and mean if you're picking on someone your own size.  When The Onion runs a headline quoting God as saying,  "At Times It Felt Like The Pope Had One Foot Out The Door,"  that is funny, and in the world we live in, picking on the Catholic church is in no way bullying the defenseless.  Mean, but in an entirely appropriate way. 

In my quest to become funnier, I've been considering taking a humor writing class.  Someone suggested the Gotham Writers Workshop classes, and I found there's one on humor writing.  On the syllabus for week 3, we have 

People – Finding the stupidity in people. Round and flat characters. Showing vs. Telling. Methods for showing characters. Ridiculing groups of people.

That is awesome.  The idea of studying how to find the stupidity in people and then how to ridicule them effectively in groups made me laugh out loud and actually made me kind of happy for the rest of the afternoon. 

I take this to show that maybe I'm not all that above mean after all.  Maybe getting touch with my inner funny requires getting in touch with my inner mean. 

I don't know, but I'll let you know how it goes.

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