WHO AM I?
When I was a younger man, I used to write comedy for a living. No joke. I know that may seem hard to believe because of the nature of this blog which is not especially drop-dead humorous. But, when you’re a 30-something many people in general, and many writers in particular, are more bright and sparkling in their wit. But, as life goes on, and crises mount, we become more life-weary. Some of our country’s greatest comics spun the tragedy of their lives into humor. Robin Williams was brilliant and always edgy, right to the end. Then the pendulum of aging and fear of the future swings toward us and bearing up under the changes takes the edge off our joy.
I never was a comic. I wrote funny but am not a wit. Not witless, just not quick. Many of you are probably spontaneously funny. I have a 20-second delay between the moment in which a witticism is called for and the moment if finally dawns on me what to wisecrack. I’m a “wise-gap” guy filling moments with awkward silence, watching opportunities for quips and puns sail away. Where friends fill the air and pepper each other with “toppers”. Even “Silent Cal” Cooledge, Vermont’s first President, was more of a quipster than I seem to be. A woman told him she had made a bet she could get him to say more than five words. Calvin said: “You lose.”
Perhaps I’m more like Kipling. I like a good set-up.
They tell a story about Kipling who lived in Vermont at the height of his career. Kipling was paid £1 per word – an extraordinary amount at that time. A boys’ school collected 1-Pence from each of 100 students and sent Kipling £1 bill with the following note: “Dear Mr. Kipling, We hear you get £1 per word. Here is £1, please send us your best word.” Kipling responded with a note which read: “Thanks.”
Jokes and brief sketches aim at a punchline. A payoff. A “snapper” as we used to call it. The term “punchline” comes from the “Punch and Judy” puppet shows of the medieval era – two puppets who would say witty things and smack each other around. I used to collect jokes for use in corporate speeches. But a punchline is nearly meaningless without the set-up. Here are a few of my favorite punchlines: “I don’t want a giant teddy bear, I want a crunchy little pie!” Or, “Shoot the dog.” Or, this one: “...does this look like yours? And she hit me in the throat with a 2-wood.” See? Punchlines need a set-up.
The set-up. Our lives are our set-ups. Like an extended sketch scene, our lives go between “beats” of dull periods, a build, and a pay-off. Rinse and repeat. There are only two archetypal structures for sketch humor: a “normal” person in an odd, bizarre, ironic or absurd situation; OR a bizarre, ionic, or absurd person in a “normal” situation.
My life is tediously ordinary most of the time – like lives of transcontinental jet pilots - hours of boring normality interrupted by moments of crisis. Some lives are dark struggles to pay the bills, stay well, get well, do laundry, care for others interrupted by moments of humor, and thank God for the “comic relief”.
WHY AM I HERE?
Humor is in our lives to lighten us up, balance our seriousness, bring us levity, counteract gravity. It’s like a pendulum that swings back and forth bringing balance. There are so many serious people in life, so many serious situations. In those times, humor is available to us to heal the sadness.
I had a friend, an older guy named Bert, who was a dentist. Bert liked to ease the jitters of his patients by being amusing. He was really a very funny man and could crack us up with jokes, and witticisms and puns – especially puns. Burt could not tell his patients real jokes, because they couldn’t laugh with his tools in their mouths. So, he would be kind, sweet and amusing and pun a great deal. It set his patients at ease. Most of us are like Bert. We want to be pleasant. When Bert passed away, we got an announcement of his memorial service and I busted up laughing. We went to the memorial and I asked his wife if Bert had planned the time of the gathering before he died. “No... why do you ask?” “Because it is scheduled for 2:30. Bert is probably giggling that his memorial is at “tooth-hurty” I said.” A slow grin arose on her face, the Being of Humor and Bert caused this seeming “coincidence”.
The spiritual Being of Humor stands between our pompous, sense of self-importance, our desire to be perfect, happy and healthy; and the part of our psyche which is enslaved by the gravity, suffering and reality of our situations, our lacks, defaults, illnesses; the realization that no matter how great we think we are, there is a punch line at the end of our life, a payoff, one of Shakespeare’s gravediggers and death. So, we live our lives running between our smart self, and our less-wise self. Even thinking about the reality of all that is sobering, or worse. Our sense of humor swings between the two, this pendulum helps us not get stuck at either end.
Life is not easy. There is suffering. Humor gives a certain lifting and moments of fun to “grin and bear it.” I think they call this ability to find balance, integrity. Living that life for which you have skills and talents and living it the best you can. Not taking yourself too seriously. Being able to have the realization that when you fall short, some insensitive friend will inevitably be there to point out your failure. This is a sometimes painful “gift” and reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.
WHAT DO I WANT?
The inevitability of the failure, the darkness, calls forth the light. The gravity makes us long for levity.
A rare person is one who believes that somehow they can very quickly create a different situation instantly on the spot, in the midst of crisis. Swinging this pendulum of humor even in desperate situations is possible, IF you are able to be objective and independent in the moment of tragedy. Otherwise, without the capacity to pull yourself out of the moment and stand back, it may be impossible to change the set-up and the pay-off and the reality.
Once, when I was a part of a writing team, were creating humor for our boss, Bob Stanford. Bob was “Mr. Seveneleben”, a legendary advertising genius and head of the 7-Eleven in-house ad agency. Our writing staff had written humorous sketches for the annual 7-Eleven Sales Meeting. We were in the recording studio and Bob was recording our scripts... which he was finding less than funny. Finally, in anger, he took our scripts and threw them into the air. Then he pointed to we writers and said, “You, you writers, come in here NOW!” We did. He lined us up single file, got a legal pad and a pencil and pointed at the first guy and said, “You, be funny NOW!”
All funny thoughts immediately were seen flying out of each of our heads.
The first writer said, “Uh, I can’t think of anything, Bob.” Bob glared and pointed at the second. “You. You’re allegedly one of my writers, now say something funny!” “I got nothing, boss.”
Bob was seething with every hang-dog apology. I wanted to mumble something about my in-built 20-second delay, my “wise-gap”, but why state the obvious. I stared at my shoes.
And so it went until we came to the last guy, Mark James, my boss, our Creative Director who brightly said, with considerable performance animation, “Okay boss, here’s the set-up.”
“The head of an ad agency calls his writers into his office and says to them, ’Be Funny NOW!’ And the only thing you hear is...” and here Mark LOUDLY clapped his hands “... the sound of their tuckuses slamming shut!”
Bob sat in silence and then slowly grinned.
Mark saved our tuckuses.
And, life is like that. One moment crisis, and the next, if you’re bright and clever like Mark, you use humor to move the situation and the pendulum swings. The question for us all is, can you be as creative in the moment as Mark was then? And if you can’t? Well, life gets grim and then you die.
But, hey! Look on the bright side! Even then, even after you’re dead, the Being of Humor will embrace your friends and family and the pendulum will continue to swing. After all, humor is a spiritual being which inspires us to do a very human thing – to laugh. And, laughter is a very human thing. Laughter brings balance and healing.
There’s an old gag about a woman named Lena whose husband Ole has died. They’ve been married a long, long time and living in this very small village. So, Lena calls the local newspaper to report Ole’s death and ask for an obituary to be published. The editor says that an obit costs $25-bucks, but she can have five words for free.
Lena says that to the editor that everybody knows Ole and is well aware that he and Lena have been married such a very long time. So, she says that she thinks that five words is probably enough to say the important stuff. “Okay, what do you want to say?” asks the editor.
“Ole died. Boat for sale.”
© Copyright 2016, Jean W. YeagerAll Rights Reserved
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