Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Other Side of Funny

My dad, who died this past February, was a funny guy. The funniest person I knew, actually. I don’t remember the first time someone told me, “Your dad is so funny!” And people still tell me how funny he was. I never laughed harder at anyone than I did at my dad, and I always knew I would laugh at his funeral. Which I did. He valued humor and learned how to use it to his advantage. When he was young, it helped him make friends. As a teen, it helped him get girls. In the Army, it kept him from getting beaten up. When he was a youth minister, humor helped him cross that vast expanse between adult and teen so he could connect with young people. In tense elders’ meetings, he could crack a joke and lighten up the atmosphere (sometimes this worked; sometimes it didn’t).

In his last days, when a degenerative lung disease had robbed him of his breath and health, a particularly brutal form of dementia was creeping across his brain. He wasn’t the same person. We would try to joke with him, but most of the time, he just became more irate. A couple of weeks before his death, I was visiting him in the hospital—as I did just about every day. The dementia was raging that day. He was mad at having to be in the hospital. When I asked how the food was, or how the nurses were, or what he had been doing, he cut me off with an uncharacteristically angry “I don’t want to talk about what’s going on in this place!”

With his humor gone, I hardly knew how to talk to him. I tried again, carefully avoiding any topics having to do with the hospital.

“Well, it looks like the Republicans might have to choose between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. This could get interesting,” I ventured.

Still not cracking a smile, he said, “I’d rather talk about what’s going on in this place than that!”

And there he was again, my same old dad, still being funny.

My dad passed his funny on to me. But it took some refining. In junior high, when I repeated the political jokes I had heard on David Letterman to my friends, they turned and ran and avoided me the rest of the day. But eventually, I figured out what kind of humor to use with which people in which situations. I still struggle with what is appropriate, though. I’m reminded of this when someone responds to me with, “I’ve never heard a minister’s wife say that before!” Oops.

I find myself studying humor as though it were a complex science. I’m fascinated by Steve Martin’s theory of what comedy is (quite simply, a distortion of reality). I admire the hilarious honesty of Tina Fey, the absurdity of Monty Python, the homespun wit of Garrison Keillor, the surprisingly sophisticated humor of Phineas & Ferb, the self-deprecation of Ree Drummond (AKA the Pioneer Woman), the wackiness of Dave Barry, the mundane of Jerry Seinfeld and the deadpan of Steven Wright. A heroine of mine is Erma Bombeck, who, while cracking up the entire nation for 35 years, was probably the first public figure to let women know they did not have to be perfect homemakers. And then there’s Frank McCourt, who, while not known as a humorist, had the ability to find humor in the most horrific of circumstances. Just recently, I’ve become enthralled with video bloggers and the way they’ve given humor a whole new medium. I love discovering humor in new places. This world needs more of it. Keep it coming.

I grew up with humor, and cherish its value, and I hope to be able to cling to it in my final days—just like my dad did.

Having said all that, humor has a dark side.

It’s true. Many funny people struggle with depression and loneliness. Funny people also run the risk of never being taken seriously. Here’s a story of something that happened to my dad, and I still get mad when I think about it. When he was in his 30s, he had to have some benign growths surgically removed from his vocal chords. The procedure ended up affecting his voice permanently. Not his speaking voice, but when he tried to speak loudly or shout, his voice would break up. One night, my dad (during his youth ministry years) had taken the youth group to an area-wide event. As the event was winding down, members of the youth group had scattered across the fellowship hall to socialize. When it was time to go, my dad attempted to call across the room to gather everyone up. His voice broke up, as usual. Another youth minister standing close to my dad doubled over in laughter.

Clueless guy: What is wrong with your voice, Winston?

My dad: Oh, I had some growths cut off of my vocal chords years ago, and it still affects my voice.

Clueless guy (laughing uncontrollably): Oh, Winston, you are a RIOT!

My dad: No, really. I did.

Clueless guy (guffawing and slapping my dad on the back): Growths cut off of your vocal chords. You crack me UP!

My dad: I’m being serious.

Clueless guy (still guffawing and making a general donkey of himself): Sure you are! You kill me, Winston. You are SO FUNNY! (walks away cackling)

To funny people, this kind of thing can get quite annoying. Which brings me to a few things people need to know about the funny people in their lives:

1) We’re not always funny. This is why, when you come up to us and say, “Say something funny!”, you might get a blank stare. Truthfully, when someone does this to me, the thing that invariably pops into my head is the dirtiest joke I ever heard. I might unleash it on the next person who does this to me. Really. I might.

2) Funny isn’t all we are. People don’t always make an attempt to get to know us beyond the funny. This is one reason funny people struggle with loneliness and depression. When you tell funny people “You are so funny!” and “You always make me laugh!”, it does make us feel good. We like being able to do that for people, to put a smile on their faces—help them have a better day than they may have been having before. But when those are the only things you say to funny people, we know you don’t know us very well.

3) For some funny people, their ability to be funny has developed in spite of—or because of—a place of profound pain and struggle. Gilda Radner battled eating disorders from her childhood on. Steve Martin fought debilitating depression. Tina Fey was attacked by a stranger with a razor blade when she was in kindergarten, and she carries the resulting facial scar to this day. John Belushi and Chris Farley used humor to cover the demons that would eventually kill them. If you know someone who is funny, who always has a word or comment that makes everyone laugh, who seems to be the most easygoing person in the world—the truth is that they probably carry some inescapable darkness on some level. Because everyone does.

4) Funny people take being funny very seriously. When I was writing my humor column for the Baytown Sun from 2002-2006, I was aware—sometimes painfully--of the fact that our country had gone to war and that the news on the flip side of the page my little black-and-white photo was on (my column was usually printed just inside the front page) was never very good. Trying to make people laugh during a difficult time is nervy and it sometimes felt flat-out wrong. But it can also be viewed as a ministry, and that’s the attitude I adopted over time. If Will Rogers could make people laugh during the Depression, I could make people laugh during the uncertain years following the Sept. 11 attacks. It was a self-imposed responsibility that meant a lot to me. I used to tell people that my column-writing gig, although it paid next-to-nothing compared to what I’m paid now, was the most rewarding writing work I would probably ever do. I still believe that is true. I miss it a lot, and if I ever have the chance to land a gig like that again, I would pounce on it.

To quote my dad, I'm being serious.