Learning to Be Funny
Humor isn't something you're born with—it takes work
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Probably every other time my friend Lee and I came to the end of an approach hike at the base of a climb, dropped our backpacks and looked up, he cracked the same joke:
“I think we’ll bivy here and go for the summit in the morning.”
I laughed the first time he said it, and chuckled every time after, even though I’d heard the joke before. It was funny because when he said it, we’d never walked more than three hours from the car, sometimes only a half hour, and the climb itself would only require a few more hours before we’d start walking back to the car. Bivying at the base of the climb would be ridiculous because a) the climb wasn’t nearly a big enough effort to require sleeping for a night at the base; b) it was usually 8 or 9 a.m. when he said this, and we had 10 or 12 hours of daylight to complete the climb; and c) of course neither of us had brought sufficient food, water, or gear to spend a night at the base of a climb.
Lee and I were a good match as climbing partners for many reasons, but largely because things almost never got so serious that we couldn’t regularly try to make each other laugh. We both wanted to be climbers, and we both wanted to be funny. And really, climbing and being funny have something common: In order to succeed in either of them, you fail a lot, and both are lifelong processes.
I don’t think anyone is born funny, just like no one is born a climber. You can be born into a funny family, which some people might assume is genetic. I don’t believe that’s correct. I think you’re just surrounded by people who are trying to be funny, and you join in, just as you are not born loving asparagus, but if your family cooks asparagus all the time, you might develop a taste for it. Except being funny is a much more universally useful life skill than cooking asparagus well (just my opinion), though I’ve only started to learn how to cook asparagus very recently, because my family focused on other things.
We got together with my mom’s side of the family as often as we could, seven brothers and sisters raised with an Irish Catholic sense of humor. I can’t say I remember much about the food my grandmother served at dinner, but I remember my face hurting from laughter, and being very young and thinking, “Someday, I’m going to make my Uncle Dan and Uncle Steve laugh.”
This goal took years. I probably started speaking up every once in a while at family dinners when I was seven or eight, saying things that young kids think are funny but adults don’t, and my uncles didn’t laugh. For a long time. In my head, this didn’t mean that I was not a funny person. It meant that I wasn’t funny yet.
I probably learned how to tell jokes mostly from my dad, who could find something clever to say in almost any situation, and was a fan of classics like this one:
Dad: Does your face hurt?
Son: No, why?
Dad: It’s killing me.
My dad spent most of his weekday hours working with people, managing the meat department of a grocery store. His job was, of course, to maximize sales of a product for a company, but from what I saw, his No. 1 goal was to make sure people smiled or laughed when there were within 20 feet of him. No. 2 was sales. He seemed to believe that work is work, but we might as well have a good time while we’re doing it.
In his 1993 book SeinLanguage, comedian Jerry Seinfeld wrote about growing up in a family that valued humor:
When I was a kid my father used to take me around with him in his truck. He was in the sign business on Long Island and he had a little shop called the Kal Signfeld Sign Co.
There were few people as much fun to watch work as my father. There has never been a professional comedian with better stage presence, attitude, timing, or delivery. He was a comic genius selling painted plastic signs that said things like “Phil’s Color TV” and cardboard ones like “If you want to raise cattle, why do you keep shooting the bull?”
The thing I remember most about those afternoons is how often my father would say to me, “Sometimes I don’t even care if I get the order, I just have to break that face.” He hated to see those serious businessmen faces. I guess that’s why he, like me, never seemed to be able to hold down any kind of real job.
Often when I’m on stage I’ll catch myself imitating a little physical move or certain kind of timing that he would do.
“To break that face.”
It was a valued thing in my house. I remember when Alan Kind would walk out on the Ed Sullivan Show, hearing my mother say, “Now, quiet.” We could talk during the news but not during Alan King. This was an important man.
My father lived to see me start to make it as a comedian and he was always my most enthusiastic supporter. He taught me a gift is to be given. And just as he gave it to me, I hope I am able to give it to you.
In elementary school, I cracked jokes whenever I could: in answers to teachers’ questions, in classrooms where teachers didn’t mind the occasional wisecrack (or just completely ignored me), at the lunchroom table, to the person sitting next to me or in front of me. In school, you always have an audience. When someone laughed at something I said, it was like getting a test answer correct, only better. Everyone could study and get a test answer right, but landing a joke was creative, too. It was something I could do that was unique.
Students laughed often enough that I kept going. I continued through junior high, and my 7th grade geography teacher, Mr. Button, asked if I would like to write for the school newspaper, which was at that time about 20 xeroxed sheets of pastel-colored paper stapled together. I said yes, and was given a monthly column—in which I tried to be funny—and some article assignments, in which I also tried to be funny first and convey a story secondly.
In writing for the school newspaper, I discovered a new audience of people to try make laugh, without the risk of being there when a joke fell flat. In writing, if no one laughs, you don’t hear the awkward silence.
In high school, I tried hard at a lot of things: sports, getting good grades, padding my academic record with lots of activities so I could get into a “good” college. But I always stayed focused on trying to be funny in every situation I could force it into: lobbing jokes up from the back of the class, in the locker room, washing dishes in the back of a restaurant, at the lunch table, in the hallway between classes, in my English writing assignments.
High school can be a tough audience. Even if you’re funny, lots of times your fellow students are focusing on learning and don’t appreciate your wisecracks (this is a 100 percent appropriate response). Other times, they don’t feel like they should laugh in class or they’ll get in trouble (also true). And lastly, your teachers’ job is to help students learn, not to provide the best audience for your jokes that can’t wait until after class, so they often get annoyed at the smartass in the third row (again, 100 percent appropriate), and sometimes to the point of removing a student from class (also appropriate). I spent a lot of time in detention and in the principal’s office. Looking back, I think a lot of people like myself probably owe a lot of teachers apologies.
“I used to think that humor was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is. … But now I think it’s the opposite. Humor is a way of shrinking from that wonderful and terrible world.” —Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
The thing is, constant humor can be a way of distancing ourselves from dealing with the real world, or internal sadness. The world is wonderful and terrible, and our constant access to news and viewpoints can sometimes make it feel like it’s growing more terrible every day. But creating humor can also be a way of dealing with personal suffering.
In 1975, in a study published in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Samuel S. Janus interviewed and psychologically tested 55 full-time comedians, who had been working in the field of comedy for an average of 25 years. In the study’s conclusion, Janus wrote:
The early lives of all the subjects were marked by suffering, isolation, and feelings of deprivation. Humor offered a relief from their sufferings and a defense against inescapable panic and anxiety. The presence of these same needs and fears almost universally accounts for the success of these particular individuals as humorists. The fact that humor is a language of protest appears to mitigate their anxiety and permits them to function. However its role as an aggressive expression in its own right is particularly appropriate for this age.
It is felt that comedians are able to convert their rage from physical to verbal assault and that for many their comic routines are a form of acting out. For the most part, comedians are shy, sensitive, fearful individuals, who fight their fears constantly and who win for only short periods of time, needing repetitively to do battle with the enemy both within and without. They are keenly sensitive people who have an uncanny perception of the needs and fears of their audience. For the most part they are men and women who are empathic and are able to convert fear to humor and terror to laughter.
Everyone has darkness in their lives, no matter how happy their personal story appears from the outside. My life has certainly been no exception, and although the down times have come and gone and it’s definitely not been anything like a Dickens novel, I’ve always used humor to change situations. If I’m uncomfortable, I joke. If I’m anxious about something (often), I joke. When I’m doing a public speaking gig, I joke to try to take the temperature of the crowd: Are they listening? Do they like me? How about now, two minutes later? Do they still like me? At the root of all of it is probably a deep insecurity or lack of self-confidence, and because of that, I joke. If you laugh, I feel OK about myself for a few minutes, and we both win.
My 86-year-old grandmother was literally on her deathbed in June of 2014. I was in the hospital room holding her hand and watching the cardiac monitor, along with my mother, my Uncle Dan, my Uncle Steve, and my Aunt Nora. We all knew that it was probably going to be it for Grandma, and I spent most of the afternoon alternating between trying to swallow a softball-sized lump in my throat and laughing at my aunt and uncles and my mom joking about colonoscopies and Catholic school.
No one was sure if Grandma could hear anything, but we talked to her anyway, and Aunt Nora made up ridiculous song lyrics and sang them while holding Grandma’s hand. For once, I was a little shocked that no one seemed to be taking it quite seriously enough. “Don’t you think I have a lovely singing voice, Brendan?” Aunt Nora said, after one of her songs, and then laughed, and I laughed too.
When I was a kid, I didn’t really understand that I came from a family of goofballs until I had been out of my parents’ house for a few years. I kind of assumed everyone’s dinner conversations were sort of a contest to see who could tell the best story, or make everyone laugh harder than they did at the last person’s joke. Eventually I found out that not everyone acted the way my mom’s family did, which was kind of a bummer. I don’t know how other people handle deathbed situations, but apparently in my mom’s family, we can’t even cry without trying to make each other laugh. There was plenty of crying, but plenty of laughing too. And even if it seemed a little inappropriate, it felt right.
In college, I started writing a weekly column for the campus newspaper. I didn’t have a beat, or a theme; just whatever I thought was funny that week. At some point, a fellow student recognized me on campus or at a bar and told me they liked my column in the newspaper that week and it made them laugh, and my marketing career went away just like that. Eleven short years later, I became a full-time writer, finding a space where most people weren’t trying to be funny—climbing and the outdoors—and writing essays about it.
I started a blog and wrote a post every single week whether I felt like it or not, trying hard to give people something to laugh at. Just like in elementary school, some people laughed, and some people didn’t. I always stuck to one principle: Always make fun of “us,” not “them.” I figured we all had enough negative stuff to pull us down on a daily basis, and I didn’t want to be another source of that.
Some weeks, it really took off, and thousands of people read my blog. Some weeks, crickets. I learned to just shrug it off and come up with new stuff for next week. With humor, you’re never going to please 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time. Some people are going to think you are funny, and some people are not going to think you’re funny. Some people are going to think you are funny, and some people are not going to understand your jokes. Some people are going to think you are funny, and some people are not going to be in the mood. And sometimes, your joke is only funny to you. Which is a learning opportunity. But if people don’t think you’re funny, at least try to keep it so they don’t think you’re an asshole.
A few weeks ago, I sat at a table at the Monday night jazz jam at Denver’s Meadowlark Bar, watching the drummer in a four-piece band: a youngish man who was in absolute command of the drumset, never looking at where his sticks landed; only at the bass player, guitar player, or trumpet player. Awed and a little envious, I wondered how he got that good, and how long it took him for the drumset to become an extension of his body. Probably hours of playing every week, for years. I imagined dedicating myself to something so fully. Maybe instead of playing high school football I should have stuck with band, picked up a guitar or a trumpet, and kept practicing through my adult years. Imagine: being able to walk into a jam session with an instrument, sit down for a minute or two to get the feel of it, and then just joining a sort of conversation. That seems like a pretty magical way to live life. If only I had spent more time on learning to play music over the past, you know, 35 years …
Then I thought: I probably spent all that time trying to learn how to be funny.
Humor, I believe, will always be important work, and not just for professional comedians, writers, and actors. Weekly staff meetings need humor, and so do meals with friends and family, and transactions with clerks and servers. I don’t know the meaning of life, but bringing joy to other people seems like a decently noble pursuit. At the end of the day, not much of what we do in our daily lives adds up to much more than folly. Being a goofball, although it may seem like you’re not taking life (or your career) seriously enough, is no more ridiculous than most of the things that take up our time.
Here’s my favorite joke ever, appropriate for all ages and all situations. It’s somewhat dependent on confident delivery and timing, so it’s a great joke to use to practice on people if you don’t think of yourself as particularly funny (but maybe would like to be someday):
A polar bear walks into a bar. He goes up to the bar and says to the bartender,
“I’ll have a gin and ….
The bartender looks at the polar bear and says, “What’s with the big pause?”
The polar bear says, “I don’t know. My dad had ’em too.”