Don’t mind me. I’m just sitting here writing.
As you can see, my high school friends were the height of wit and I found them hilarious (that's me to the left, laughing). Photo by Melissa Benton.
I grew up in a family of smart asses, leading to a widely-held theory that all Mungers are born with an extra funny bone (probably stored in our extra-big heads). Since I grew up in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, there was plenty to laugh at, of course. It’s hard to keep a straight face when everyone around you is sporting a shag haircut and wearing bell-bottom pants. (Which reminds me, have you ever noticed that even when 70’s fashions come back in favor as a vintage look, no one ever goes so far as to suggest bringing back shag haircuts? There’s a reason for that.)
The ability of my family to see the humor in just about any situation was—and is—our saving grace. That's my dad, at left, during one of our many family camping trips to New England and Canada. Finding signs like this one gave us something shared to laugh about. Humor also got us through many a difficult moment and it remains one of my favorite tools for enjoying (and sometimes enduring) life today. This reliance on humor is probably one reason why I’m one of those absolutely terrible people who have trouble controlling their laughter at a funeral. I swear it’s not because I find death funny, it’s just that the absolute sadness and intensity of the moment gets to me and triggers a deep, somewhat panicked laughter that I must consciously keep from bubbling up. This is particularly hard to do when, for example, a woman with a 3-story beehive hairdo is singing The Old Rugged Cross in operatic style and the 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old’s sitting in front of me are giggling their asses off. Yes, that really happened. I’m surprised I was not invited to leave on the spot. At the reception, in a show of solidarity, I felt compelled to stand with the little gigglers in the corner their mother had banished them to as punishment. (Also, the lady with the beehive hairdo scared me.)
In addition to being absolutely essential, humor is also undeniably personal. What makes me laugh may not make you laugh at all. That’s probably one reason why readers tend to either really like or really dislike my Casey Jones series. Her flippant, often sarcastic humor does not sit will well with everyone. And that’s okay.
My Hubbert & Lil series is quite different. It is closest in humor to P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote the delightful Bertie and Jeeves series, or perhaps the wonderful, late American-Canadian writer Charlotte McLeod. Like them, my Hubbert & Lil books rely on eccentric characters and feature low-key, genteelly sarcastic humor at times, but are mostly absurd in its funniest scenes—which are usually ordinary life moments that have unexpectedly gone wrong and placed the characters in uncomfortable situations.
All of which is to say, for some reason, despite being surrounded by eight other smart asses in our crowded family on Park Drive in Raleigh, it’s this kind of squeaky-clean humor that makes me laugh the most. I have no idea why, except to say that I truly believe that modern life offers us an endless parade of ridiculous moments, usually of our own creation, and if you don’t acknowledge the humor in the predicaments that life hands you, then, really, you’re missing out on an awful lot of life.
So here I am these days, working on a new Hubbert & Lil, cracking myself up. I find myself smiling my way through my writing hours. Trust me, during a pandemic, there are worse places to be.
Is it a bad sign that I find my own writing funny? Does it prophesize that others will disagree? Honestly, I don’t care. I’m about five minutes from turning feral tucked away in my little house on a country road, forbidden by circumstances to see my friends. If I am sitting here in my back office, still in my bathrobe in mid-afternoon, cackling away to myself, then: so be it. At this point, I’m just trying to get through the days, people. I am sure that you are, too.
With that in mind, I thought I might share my humor-based survival techniques. I hereby confess that what I find funniest in the world are the unintended and deeply hilarious mistakes that other people make without realizing it. These are the things that you will find me laughing at when the world gets too much for me. Go ahead, and try them out:
Headlines that accidentally go off the rails (a taste I picked up from my father, a lifelong newspaper man); and
Derry Girls, a UK-based TV series that combines eccentric family moments with teenage life amid 1980s conflict-torn Northern Ireland. (Note: subtitles are essential…)
Things I find not all that funny:
Toilet humor. Really? I had to share a house with nine people growing up and we only had two bathrooms. There was nothing funny about that.
Making fun of other people. It’s not that I don’t do it, I just don’t do it in public. An understanding that this can be hurtful was something I learned the hard way, when an acquaintance in junior high school had the nerve to flat out say to my face, “Yeah, but you don’t always have to be funny by making fun of other people.” They were right, of course, and I’ve always remembered those words, even if I don’t remember who said them to me. Whoever you were: thank you. And I bet you’ve lived a good life, surrounded by love and laughter. At least, I hope you have, because you deserve it. You helped me live a better one myself.
Puns. What are you? 125 years old? People can barely use the English language correctly these days and you want them to understand a pun? Let’s just say that Mark Twain was right about puns and we need to file them away alongside of satire and irony.
Stand-up comedy. First of all, virtually every comedian I’ve ever seen reeks of a desperate need for attention and that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I want to invite them to lie down on a couch and tell me about their childhood. Secondly, a night of stand-up comedy is full of pregnant pauses in which the comedian prepares for the punchline and we, the audience, sit there in dread, thinking, “Will this be funny or will the poor sod bomb?” This is stress I’m just not prepared to take on during a lighthearted night out. Finally, there is the inherent expectation that the audience has to laugh. Nothing makes me lose my sense of humor more than being pressured to laugh. This goes to my deep dislike of being told what to do, but that’s a topic for another blog post. So, when it comes to stand-up comedy, I make one exception, and one exception only: John Mulaney. He is quirky, self-deprecating, and deeply on my wavelength, probably because we both endured a Catholic childhood. I could watch him all day long. If you’re having a bad day, you should, too. Youtube has tons of clips you can watch for free.
I hope that each and every one of you, as we make our way through this strange time that we’re in, are consciously seeking out things that make you smile or, best of all, things that make you lose all control as you surrender to a belly laugh. There is nothing that re-calibrates your psyche better than giving yourself up to laughter.
Please tell me that I am not alone and that you, too, find church bulletin humor and inadvertent headline mistakes hilarious. Or use the Comments section to tell me what you find funny. I’m always looking for a laugh.