The other day I was driving to my mom’s house. My daughter was in the backseat, as usual, and she was playing an imaginary keyboard on her door. Suddenly, she says to me, “Mom, I’m going to tell you a joke, okay?”
My daughter delivers this statement for two reasons. First, she is putting me on guard that she expects me to laugh. Second, she is telling me I need to focus on what she is saying to time my responses accurately.
My mind focused, I was prepared to laugh at her attempts at joke telling. Which, up to this point, came up a little short in humor as she’s been playing with knock knock templates but failing in delivery and point.
“Red light means go.” After a second delay, I genuinely chuckle.
“Penguins fly around the world.” My laugh gets stronger as my amusement grows.
She delivered a few more, some successful and some not, but overall the experience was better than earlier attempts. We arrived at my mom’s house, and joking was set aside as we immersed ourselves into shortbread cookie baking.
This five minute experience had me thinking about humor, development of humor, and how we gauge and communicate our humor to other people. Because, let’s be honest, most people would not have considered her jokes funny. If I had taken the time to tell my mom the jokes, my mom would have responded with her “oookkaaayyyy,” which translates into I’m not understanding what you are saying, but I don’t want to come out and ask for clarification so I will imply my doubt and confusion without admitting to either.
I’m going to put it out there. In general, I present a very serious and reserved persona. Most people who meet me think I have zero sense of humor. In fact, my husband and I regularly debate the nature of humor. However, I do have a sense of humor.
Unfortunately, it does not suit my environment. Which means I have to observe you, watch your facial expressions and tone of voice, and get a reading on your humor before I begin delivering my own.
Unless you are a personality I find far too tempting, at which point I will begin deadpan assaults. I don’t care if you get it or not, you getting my joke is not the point. If I feel you are high handed and aggressive, you will likely get rapid fire snark from me.
Which brings me back to Vivian’s jokes. While very simple in structure and nature, my daughter has started showing a rudimentary understanding of verbal irony. Which is one of my favorite forms of humor, as well as a favorite literary device.
Unfortunately, irony and it’s sibling satire are not often found in American mainstream humor. We have developed a penchant for slap-stick comedy (one of my least favorite forms of humor), humiliation comedy (I don’t get this one at all. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m referring to Jackass et. al), and observational comedy, which combined with parody, is about as close as we get to irony, satire, and deadpan.
So, how did I develop irony and deadpan as my personal humor when surrounding environment suggested otherwise? Watching Vivian, I think some of it is innate to personality and how we view the world. As far as reinforcement, most of my entertainment was by way of books. When I did watch television, I preferred British and some Canadian shows. Also, I had a fair amount of exposure to Mel Brooks parody.
Both exposure and literary preferences has strengthened my sense of humor.
I watch Vivian test her humor, including what works and what doesn’t depending on audience. She found a gold mine with me when she tested her abilities with irony. However, those didn’t go over as well with her father. So she added a character (Mr. Pickle), told a longer story, and finally hit upon his funny bone with “and then the pickle crossed the road and we ran over it.” Yeah, I don’t get it.
As writers, though, we don’t get to test our audience. And if we do, the results are haphazard at best because we are communicating through words alone.
One of the funniest books I’ve read is 13 1/5 Lives of Captain Bluebear, by Walter Moers. If you haven’t read it, you should read it.Though, I won’t vouch for you finding it funny. The reason is the book is layered with wit, satire, irony, and word play. Part of the reason I found the novel hilarious is because the narrator deftly handles irony while naming specific characters, traits, and events after literary terms.
Yet I acknowledge not everyone will be as amused by this series of novels like I was, though I challenge anyone not to be entertained. The novel’s humor depends heavily on the reader’s pre-existing knowledge. Which is the fun, and detriment, of using irony and deadpan.
Luckily, I am not a humor writer. I’m not exactly sure what my genre is, but humor rarely finds a place in what I’ve written so far. If I’m in the right mood, my humor will find a place in my tweets. Not always to the best of responses. I’ve been blocked due to someone misunderstanding my satire.
Even if I chuckle at something, I rarely respond with my own wit. Why? Because I never know if people intended the humor, or if I just find the situation humorous. Without the facial expressions, tone, and body cues I rely on heavily, it’s hard for me to gauge. So instead I play it straight.
Ultimately, humor is something I tend to keep to myself. Instead, I enjoy laughing inside and will watch with anticipation as Vivian tests the waters of humor.