You would think that the act of laughing would carry no controversy. But it does. I’ve been thinking about writing about laughter for some time. Actually, as I’m finishing my new novel Retribution, one of many possible next books, would be me trying to write a funny novel, a story about growing up in the south. But I haven’t decided yet. It could bomb.
But my thoughts about laughter got pushed up this week, as is typical, when a life event pushed it to the forefront. I had posted a comic piece, a satire about myself, of trying to put on a mask while on a hiking trail, meeting a large group of people, with my 120 lb Saint Bernard on her leash in one hand and a bag of dog poop in the other hand. The bag of dog poop bounced against my face when I was looping the mask around my ear. I thought it was funny, and I wrote about it. I had written several other funny pieces on that forum and most were well received. The administrator took one down because it did not mention anything about our town, and that’s a requirement for all posts.
I was quite surprised when I went to look at this posting hours later. A group of Trumpers, who attack people for supporting BLM and mask wearing pounced on my posting and personally attacking me for wearing a mask as an idiot and that I had “drank the Kool Aid” (speaking of which, don’t get me started about the real drinking of Kool Aid). One of them even suggested that because I was wearing a mask, I should be shot (literally) implying that I was too stupid to embrace the “truth” (conspiracy theories that they have, that COVID-19 is a liberal, deep state illusion). I should have seen it coming, but I will caulk up to my naivety, thinking that most people understand the science behind mask wearing by now and there should be no controversy. But their prophet Trump keeps sending this mix-messages, and therefore they still are opposed.
But it was painful. I defended myself and I never thought I would have to bring up the fact that I’m very high risk having a blood cancer and just having a bone marrow transplant. Then I took the whole thing down.
Having gone through a period of horrible suffering (2019), you can say that I’m hypersensitive to criticism. I think, when I am criticized, “You have no idea the hell I’ve been through . . . and yeah, where were you during it all.” But I suspect that everyone who goes through suffering think this. I’m sure that I’ve been on the other end where I’ve criticized someone who just went through the valley of the shadow of death and somehow survived. I deeply regret that now.
So, stepping back, it should have no emotional impact on me when a group of Trumpers, complete strangers, want to call me an idiot. Makes no sense if I “internalize it.” But I did. But have been estranged from my entire birth family who are all Trumpers and ant-BLM people. But most people from the south are in that same boat.
Speaking about being from the south, that’s where I got my humor. So, while the south may be wearing blinders when it comes to their own racism and bigotry, they excel when it comes to friendliness, especially when it comes to outsiders. Somehow, humor is woven into that culture as well.
My father loved humor. His sister, my aunt Helen lived with us much of the time. She was the funniest person on the planet and laughed at everything. She had suffered tremendously and still laughed. She passed away just a few months ago. But I did have the chance to interview her about her humor here. My brother, who just died weeks ago also was a funny guy. I didn’t always get his humor, maybe it stems back to the way he used to torture me when we were little.
But I had a pronounced sense of humor based on those influences. In a high school with a graduating class of about 400-500, I was voted the funniest. When I got to college, and had become an evangelical, I turned that humor into producing a series of “Saturday Night Live” type of skits, which we used at local and regional conferences. I toyed with the idea of trying to go into stand up or other forms of humor, professionally. But at that age, I toyed with almost all professions as an option for me. Maybe not hair dresser.
I remember when I was part of this evangelical group in college, one of my elders came to me with a serious concern. We called these encounters “rebukes.” This was the same guy who I painted with and he kept telling my fear of climbing up shaky ladders or upon high metal roofs was a spiritual issue of not trusting God. Well, during this time of rebuke, he came down hard on me trying to be funny. I will never forget that encounter. He used the verse found in Ephesians 5:4 “and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”
I came out of that meeting feeling deeply ashamed and made a vow to myself to not laugh again. Fortunately, that vow did not last for more than a year. I went back to producing these skits in graduate school. I will not digress into the theology of humor here, but the Ephesians verse was taken out of context and misused.
I was happy to find that Christian writings the pre-date the Victorian age, were full of humor, even what we would find quite offensive today. Luther had a vile sense of humor, especially when it came to criticizing the Catholic Church. The first time I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, I saw no humor. But it wasn’t really humor. I later read that Dante, or his followers, wanted this writing to be in the hands of the average person. Since it was a theological book, the Catholic laws were that it had to be produced in Latin alone (rather than the related Italian, which the common person could read). In order to get around the laws, they called it a “Comedy.” We may call it a satire today. But it was simply Dante writing grievances against his personal shit-list of people in a poetic form.
But I’ve noticed that the sense of humor is like the sense of taste. While natural, it is developed over time based on experiences and local culture. For example, my family with my dad, aunt, and some ways my brother, was my local culture. My mom, based on her local culture, including being abused as a young girl, was a nervous woman who did not laugh a lot.
My wife, and my kids, will be the first to tell you that often my sense of humor falls flat or is misunderstood by those who hear. I was thinking it was something wrong with me and the way I assemble humor within my brain.
Once I flew alone to Tennessee to visit my mother, before she died, and before my Tennessee family had but emotional distance between us (because I’m not a Trumper like them), I noticed something peculiar. Everyone got my jokes! I’m not talking about my family. Down south, even the stranger is considered family. That is their gift. But I could joke with people at the airport in Atlanta. With people at Starbucks in Kingsport, Tennessee. You would never, ever do that in the Midwest. Doubtful here in the Pacific Northwest.
Since I left home decades ago, I then realized that I was carrying this southern sense of humor into the Scandinavian worlds of the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest (not to mention my marriage) where the humor taste is different. Denise has never thought I was funny. I have never found the things that she finds funny, funny. I think we came to an agreement on humor with Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon.
My pastor warns people that my humor is “odd.” I’m not sure what that means, but I do trust that the warning is warranted.
I thought the best way to stake out my sense of humor is to share those movies that made me laugh to the point of crying. I am also a big Far Side fan, but I will focus on movies. I will do that below. But my closing point is that I see our entire lives as part of this grand satire. Where things are so ridiculous, like the evangelicals who have championed their own self-righteousness of truth, martial fidelity, “Focus on the Family” attitude; and now have embraced with full throttle a man who has been known throughout his entire life as money-centric con man, screwing as many woman as he can regardless of being married . . . and regardless of if the women wanted him to screw them (aka sexual assault or rape), embracing racist attitudes, lying with almost every breath, hating the poor and helpless, shamefully attacking veterans, and my list could go own. You have to laugh . . . so you don’t go mad. Dante would have had a field day with this, as would Luther. Luther held nothing back with his crude criticism of the Church. He said that he could not tell if words, which were so bad, came from the Pope’s mouth or his anus.
Life is a satire. Let’s laugh about it! Cancer is so tragic that it’s funny. I find everything funny . . . if not I would fall into despair.
My funniest movies of all time:
- Airplanes, Trains, and Automobiles
- It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World
- Young Frankenstein
- In Search for the Holy Grail
I will pause with those. I looked at a list and realized that some are so old that I can’t remember where they would fit on my list. Do you have some suggestions?