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The Hard Work of Humor

A few years back, during a difficult time, I was listening to a program on National Public Radio when I heard the host, Scott Simon, laugh. It wasn’t one of those fake, almost under the breath snickers. It came from a place deep in his belly; he was genuinely tickled, surprised, and amused.

It was like an alarm bell to me—a siren really. For whatever reason, I hadn’t found myself in that carefree and charmed zone of laughter or even a little chuckle or a sarcastic tittle. This, I decided was unacceptable. Where had my giggles gone? I was on a quest. I had to unravel the humor of humor, along with my apparent lack thereof.

I knew I had a sense of humor, or at least recognized funny situations. I thought of my favorite TV show as a child—I Love Lucy. Then I was always trying to do something I shouldn’t, and trying to wiggle out of it, just like Lucy. So much so my mother’s nickname for me was ‘Busy Lizzy’. I liked the fact that for a change someone else was getting in trouble other than me, so I connected with Lucy, laughing with her.

I thought of other comedians that were genuinely funny like Robin Williams or Jerry Seinfeld. What was their secret? Could I work hard and be funny, too?

Pondering Williams, I think of physicality. He used his body as a tool, and it supplemented his comedy, as did Dick Van Dyke and Jonathan Winters. Along with witty lines, they used facial expressions or contortions of their limbs—humorous because what they were doing appeared impossible or ridiculous, but relatable.

Seinfeld is a different animal. He’s deadpan. He takes everyday, ordinary images and points out obvious traits, but attributes we often never verbalize. He talks about chairs or forks and makes us chuckle. Why? Because he’s clever. And he works hard at it, testing it on audiences by the timbre of their laughs. He tweaks each syllable in his jokes, trimming them to the simple and essential: "Why does moisture ruin leather? Aren't cows outside a lot of the time?" Or: "A two-year-old is like having a blender, but you don't have a top for it." 1

Did I say he works hard at being funny?

If he can be funny, could I, if I only worked at it? Or is it a natural gift, like say, long jumping, and if you don’t have long legs, you just are not going to be able to do it? Or was it more like piano playing; where you need some natural ability, but you have to practice. If you don't practice, it doesn't happen. My piano playing career can attest to that.

I can’t let go of my mission for humor, so I have decided to be like Jerry, practicing on a test audience.

The other evening my husband and I were walking to our car after dining at a burger joint. It was cold. Twenty-eight degrees that felt like twenty-four. We got in the car and looked at each other. I raised my eyebrows, opened my eyes-wide, like Lucy, and said, “I forgot, when did we move from Georgia back to Minnesota?”

“It is January,” he said then paused, trying to hide a snicker. "Keep trying.” Then he started the car.

Was it my delivery? My timing? My choice of words?

All I know is my work is not done, yet I have more determination now then ever to be funny. And if I die trying, at least I’ll go with a smile on my face.


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