Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Quest for Humor

What Is Humor? (A Myth to Discovery)


I think writing can sometimes be a little like trying to fit a puzzle together to get a picture. You start off with a single piece's shape and a portioned image which fit together with other shapes and images until it becomes clear how the remaining pieces fit together and the image they all create. Writing's like that, except you have fragments of ideas and it isn't until you have at least half the story written that you know how each sentence connects and forms coherent paragraphs which will make up the story.
But lately it seems like all the puzzle pieces have been the same shape and I always end up with the same picture of The Village People oiled up wrestling with one another (I appreciate the gift, Aunt April, but I was horrified when I discovered that the jigsaw puzzle was not of a sailboat like on the box).
So how do I get out of this writing cycle? Humor always draws me into writing, whether it's an idea or a real event that happened to me. But what is humor? How does one accomplish it? Perhaps an analysis of what humor is will yield different pieces and images of this puzzle called writing, but if it comes to it, I'll settle for a less disturbing image of The Village People.

I've never really understood humor because it's different for everyone in its ability to make people laugh. Take the average TV show. A common, generic exchange on a common, generic sitcom between a common, generic man and his common, generic wife, "Hey honey, did you take out the trash?" "Yeah, why?" "Because there's a huge pile of it outside the door!" will always yield raucous laughter from an audience that happens to be common and generic (or lobotomized). My inquiries into why this exchange displays "humor" is always answered with a "This show is funny." "Well, what makes this show funny?" "It's just a funny show." "But that exchange happened between me and my girlfriend the other day and we weren't laughing at the end of it." "Gah, it's just a funny show! I can't explain it!" So in addition to being suspiciously unfunny , humor from these types of shows seems to lower the viewer's intelligence enough so that any attempt of communication on explicating the show's humor becomes incredibly frustrating and painful for the viewer. So my search for understanding humor was paused by this response.

But, I prevailed and began to wonder. Perhaps humor is making light of situations and interpreting something awful, embarrassing, and awkward as being funny. This new view on humor reminded me of a time last year when I was sitting at a bus stop while raining. I wasn't raining, but the skies were, and a bus that happened to drive by at an excessive speed picked up water in its tires and flung them upon me and a man sitting beside me. After spitting out a mouthful of the brown sludge, he turned to me and with a Cheshire grin yelled, "This is just like a waterpark!" "Maybe there's something to that, " I mused. I encountered several different situations that met this new definition of humor: "Oh, I got a bad grade on this test...It's just like summer camp!" I'd chortle. "I can't find a job or a place to live...Just like California's Skid Row!" "I have no food and I haven't eaten in weeks...Just like Sudan!" I began to have misgivings and started heavily question this new humor I'd found. I was completely miserable and after experiencing a humorous bout of stomach flu, I threw the new definition of humor in the toilet.

I was in a tunnel-visioned, depressed mood. What if my entire life is funny, but I don't know it? Or what if my entire life is awful, but I keep on thinking that it's funny? There should at least be some sort of legal definition or law on what humor is and isn't. Relief came with a source that actually defined humor. It was a book that I was reading that credited the quote "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when I walk into an open sewer and die," to Mel Brooks. Perhaps that's what the problem was. People like me were confusing tragedy with comedy. For once in my life I was able to walk around and tell people with bravado what humor really is. Until someone pointed out that Mel Brooks had only defined COMEDY and NOT humor! This was a stumble backwards, I admit, but I had a definition of what comedy is which includes humor, so that was a step forward. So with the stumble backwards and the step forward, I sort of had my legs stretched out longer than was comfortable, straddling the notion of humor. And fate as it were happened to smile at me (or maybe kick my backside since I fell over), but I immediately found the situation humorous. And it was humorous because I was in a quest to try and define something that can't easily be defined, plus I looked silly sprawled on the floor of the Student Stores with everyone walking around, avoiding me. It started as a slow, rolling chuckle which morphed into a maniacal laugh that forced all the air out of my lungs and manifested itself as tears coming out of my eyes. It seems that I had discovered humor, or that humor had discovered me.
And! at once! I was able to see what things were and weren't humorous! The unique juxtaposition and embarrassment that occurred after the fundamentalist campus preacher pointed to a woman wearing a dress and yelled, "All you women should wear what she's wearing and be just like her!" which prompted said woman to lift up her dress to reveal that she had forgotten to wear panties that day. That was humor!
Or the light-hearted misunderstanding between an African gentlemen and myself where he repeatedly insisted that he was looking for "Ah-POH" road and my tenacious rebuttal of "Yes, yes! You're looking for Airport! Airport Rd!" which was always refuted by him with a shake of his head and a louder exclamation of "AH-POH!" Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, I wonder if he ever was able to find his "Ah-POH!" road and happiness. Or if he just had to settle for Airport Rd.
I was confident I knew what humor was now. When prompted, I told the masses, "Humor is a certain trait that presents itself in seemingly unlikely and unusual events, or something that is jovially ludicrous. And as I've found, there's a certain amount of unexpectedness and pain involved."
It wasn't until a month later when I was moving my bookshelf that my Merriam-Webster dictionary fell and landed with the pages open on "h." M-W's definition of humor was on the top, left hand side of the page and it was a paraphrase of what I was telling people, which forced me to ask myself, "Why the hell did I spend that much time trying to find an answer when any old fool could have looked it up in a dictionary?" How ironic.


So in my quest to discover just what humor is, I was more than a little saddened to discover that humor had already been defined and discovered. I was downright in the dumps when I reminded myself that I'd made this discovery by dropping my dictionary. I mean, imagine if Alexander Graham Bell first tested his telephone weapon prototype, expecting it to shoot sonic waves that could blast through walls, and then all he got was a muffled voice coming out of the horn saying, "HELLO? HELLO? Why this piece of junk doesn't work!" I'm sure Bell was discouraged by not having an awesome weapon that all the babes would admire, but he found his silver lining in the cloud and refashioned it as a humble instrument that made distance communication possible. So for the sake of humor, I've determined myself to define possibly another word that would have some usefulness in breaking my formulaic writing. I think I'm going to understand and define that feeling you get when you feel like you been somewhere before, or done something already. And I shall call it "R-r-r-r-r-repetitive awareness."
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