Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Where does humor come from? (09/15/08)



Featured writer: Susan Bono



Contributors this month:
Betty Rodgers
Bree LeMaire
David Hoag
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Inez Castor
Jeremiah Krigbaum
Nancy Wallace-Nelson
Susan Bono


It Hurts to Laugh

by Susan Bono

"The buzzing of the bees in the cigarette trees,
The soda water fountain…"

For some reason, Burl Ives' version of the song, "Big Rock Candy Mountain," comes to mind. It's tempting to think that humor originates in the place where anything your heart might desire is dangling from a branch or bubbling up from the ground.

But, of course, "Big Rock Candy Mountain" was a Depression-era song about men who were out of money and out of luck. Who else would want to go "where the handouts grow on bushes" and "the cops have wooden legs"? It shares the stage with songs like "One Meatball," in which the humor is fashioned from the darkness of hunger. Folks with safe, comfortable lives don't dream of a place where "the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs."

And then you have Rodney Dangerfield's "I can't get no respect." Even if you don't find that kind of caustic bad-mouthing funny, the people who laugh know just how he feels.

I think it was Lenny Bruce who said "Tragedy plus time equals humor." I'm not sure if it's time or distance, but I do know that humor is one of the tongs we use to take the hot stuff out of the fire so it can cool.

Susan Bono is keeping her distance in Petaluma, CA.
Hear what's playing in her head: Big Rock Candy Mountain


Where does humor come from?

  by Betty Rodgers

My husband and I were driving south on Hwy. 89 down the west side of Lake Tahoe. We had left Boise, Idaho, at 8 a.m. and it was now about five in the afternoon. Ken was tired and irritated by the Saturday traffic, to the point where he could not appreciate the pristine beauty of Emerald Bay or the various lakeside mansions along the way.

Soon we were veering away from the lake and into the shady woods toward Hwy. 50 and Placerville, our destination. A camera rested in my lap. After rounding a bend, my eyes caught a patch of sunlight bathing a mossy, weathered fence in fluorescent green. The sight framed by the dark woods was a photographer's dream, but with our destination nearing, it wasn't prudent to suggest stopping.

As I verbalized to Ken the idea of burning this image on the film in the back of my brain, he suggested I write about it in this essay. I said something like, "I don't see the humor in that scene." He said, "You could write about how it isn't humor, or where humor doesn't come from."

For the next few days, I pondered his idea. Then last night, we attended our daughter's wedding rehearsal dinner. Between the main course and dessert, her fiancé expressed his appreciation and then opened up the floor for anyone to speak. He even suggested funny stories be told. A panicked expression froze across our daughter's face, while the wheels began to turn in the minds of guests and mischievous wrinkles formed around their eyes.

Total hilarity ensued. There were tales of former girlfriends, first jobs at Wal-Mart, and much more. After dinner, Sarah asked her fiancé why people do that...make each other uncomfortable like that. She enjoys humor as much as anyone, but is perplexed by this scenario. He replied, "That's the point...to see how they handle being put on the spot while everyone else rolls in laughter."

I concluded that what's humorous to one person may not be funny to the next. Humor may be at someone else's expense, or it can bubble up when watching an otter cavort at the edge of a pond. It comes to relieve tension, or for sheer delight. It pauses the conflict in a novel, and brings a sense of balance to a serious poem. We know laughter releases endorphins and improves health.

So let me think, back to the humor in that fence…

Betty Rodgers loves to laugh in Boise, Idaho. Usually at herself. She and her husband are delighted with their new son-in-law who appreciates good humor. She can be reached at bettykrodgers@msn.com.

Where Does Laughter Come From?

  by Bree LeMaire

Our family was big on gallows humor. When my mother died, we laughed all the way to the cemetery. It amazes me that we could make jokes under such sadness.

My father made statements that didn't seem to make sense, like it being a great day for a funeral, with much snow and slush on a cold New England day. He was mainlining "tranquilizers" to stave off his grief, under the advice of a doctor friend who told him if one pill was good, two were better. He doubled that. (The doctor later died of acute alcoholism.)

One big laugh was how my mother never got to see Grant's Tomb. We'd drive by Grant's Tomb as we passed through New York on our way to Massachusetts. "It's up there on the hill," my father said while my brother and I chuckled at the craziness of seeing Grant's Tomb and passing by the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. My mother, ever the schoolteacher, insisted on visiting Grant's Tomb and was always outvoted.

"She didn't even know how to smoke," I'd say and we chuckled at her attempts to smoke, coughing and gasping for air while trying to artistically hold a cigarette. The unfiltered Lucky Strike hung in her hand like a pen saturated at the tip. Her eyes watered, and yet she persevered, wanting to shed her Maine farm girl beginnings.

"She couldn't smoke," my brother agreed and we laughed again at her ineptness.

She would have laughed along with us. Without her there was a hole in the back of the long limousine. She loved being with her family. Humor was the thread we hung onto, as we went through the motions of burying my mother.


Bree LeMaire continues rewriting her mystery. She has the beginning and the ending down but the middle sags worse than an old bed with dying springs and a pancake mattress covered with a rust-spotted chenille bedspread.
Peraltapal@aol.com


What’s Funny Now, Wasn’t Funny Then?

  by David Hoag

Mark Twain said, "There are several kinds of stories but only one difficult kind—the humorous."

Does it come from tickling or being tickled? Does the other party need to think it's funny too? Or, does a good bit of irony stand on its own? How does sarcasm work? Does it mean to laugh out loud? Didn't Gabriel Garcia Marquez win the Nobel Prize because he combined mystery, satire, and humor in his writing?

The answer to these questions and to the latest topic, "Where Does Humor Come From?" is: Why not?

My best chance of becoming funny was to have been born a Yamelucke; not that I knew what one was. It was open to conjecture—the annotation of con. I know now, looking back, it's a kid who experiments.

It's like when I was a pre-teenager. My parents smoked. Dad with roll-your-own paraphernalia, Mom with packs, smoke curling out of ash trays—also butt holders, cigarettes lying around the marble top tables.

The corn cob pipes went for a quarter or two. Corn silk roots grew green off the cob, sun burnt brown off the stuck-out ends. Pull the corn silk out, make a pile, and bake it brown over a tin foil plate under the summer sun. A few puffs, cough, squint, and that's enough—for one day. So what's funny, yet? This story is, if you're a Yamelucke.

The next step after this mirage was pulled? No one took it seriously, smoke from a Rexall Drug Store corn cob pipe. Why not try a pack of real cigarettes? In 1959, nobody allowed a ten-year old a pack, maybe a puff, not a pack.

The wooden carton holder nailed to the door frame between the kitchen and utility room held a carton. Ten hard flip top packs—two hundred cigarettes. The smoker could grab and slide one pack out the bottom. The return from the grocery store, half-empty bags of groceries, lay on the kitchen table. Full carton end opened, lying exposed. Could I pull it off? How did I do it? Here's how, from memory fifty-years later.

Did they keep count? Move fast while they're loading fruit and vegetable cans in the utility room cupboard. Climb up on a chair and fill the half-empty pack holder to the top with five. Snatch one for my pocket, four left in the cardboard carton. Grab a plastic food bag left-over foodstuff holder. Dash outside, roll up the pack in plastic, and hide the bundle in the tall grass at the edge of the hop vines.

You've met three of us and now for the other two—my two older brothers in their adolescent teen-age years. Adolescent, there's an adjective—enough said.

At dinnertime, it was time for a family conversation. Mom kept the business books for the ranch; and, we learned, she knew how to count packs of cigarettes.

Which one of you guys took the pack of cigarettes? She wanted to know.

I sat upright, looked straight ahead, and breathed through my mouth. Those two, the adolescents at that time, shook their heads. I did too.

I'll take the carton back to the Economy Food Store tomorrow, she said. And, they'll give me another pack.

And she did. And they did.

I'd found my hiding place for the bundle. In one corner of the old straw roofed calving shed under a pile of manure. I drew one a day, four or five a week, until school started again. They never did smell smoke on my breath.

The punch-line: Did you find questions at the beginning, intrusive? Now that's not the funny side, anytime. Bottom-line: Fifty years later, I still feel like a Yamelucke.


David Hoag is an Eagle, ID writer trying to figure out, “What does it mean to be a man in the Twenty-first Century?” dhrunwalk@gmail.com



Finding the Humor in it All

  by David S. Johnson

Humor ultimately comes from the need to laugh. Comic relief is necessary to keep us all from jumping off bridges. Great dramatists, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Martin Scorcese recognize this need. It's what makes the sometimes jagged pill of life easier to swallow. The Bible, with its murder, incest, betrayal, fratricide, sodomy, plagues, slavery, and four horsemen, might be a little easier to swallow if every once in a while someone threw a pie.

Humor comes from preconceived notions, misdirection and the unexpected. The most effective punchlines are unexpected and outrageous. When I was a kid, I walked into the living room when there was company to show Mama a balloon with all these tiny little bumps on it that I had found in her chest-of-drawers and blown up. When I was told what it was, I wondered why someone would put plastic on one's tally-whacker. That seemed downright weird to me, but everyone else thought it was so funny.

Humor comes from a need to heal. In January 2006, my sister Melody's father (my step-father) died on a Arkansas hospital bed after a devastating and heart-wrenching decision to end his life support. By the time we'd made arrangements for his memorial services in Clinton, Arkansas, and Hilliard, Florida, we were emotionally and physically fatigued and laughs were few.

Melody, her baby Logan and I drove to Little Rock to pick up Stanley's ashes. Melody sat in the backseat of my 2-door Honda with Logan. It felt weird to put Stanley's ashes on the floorboard, so I put the varnished wooden box containing his ashes in the front seat and buckled him in. Stanley always groused about seatbelts ("They kill more people than they save!"). Melody leaned up and said, "Now hold on, Daddy." Melody and I spent the entire hour it took to get back to Clinton laughing our asses off about what Stanley might say to being forced to wear a seatbelt. Macabre as it may have seemed, it was pure therapy.

Humor comes from everyday, humdrum, boring life. When I was an employee at Wal-Mart, I found what I thought was a small raccoon or large rat behind a tricycle box on the lowest shelf of a tier of shelves on the back wall of the Toy Department. It turned out that the fuzzy, log-like creature had been left behind by a desperate or disturbed soul who couldn't make the extra 50 feet to the restroom. Despite the gross-out factor, there was nothing I could do but laugh at the end of the day thinking about some giant-sized adult cramped into a 3-foot high space trying to take a Number 2 in Department 7.

The death of humor is political correctness. Humor isn't a bad guy; he's just misunderstood sometimes. Jokes about retarded people, ethnic and gender stereotypes, the elderly, crackheads, rednecks, butt pubes, slurping spaghetti through a tracheotomy hole, boy-loving bishops, necrophilia, penguin sodomy, and coke whores are going to be offensive to someone. It's not humor's fault; he's just trying to help out because no matter how depraved, desperate, or sad a situation is, humor is the friend that talks us down to keep us from jumping.

David Johnson finds humor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


LOL

  by Don Edgers

The word "humor" originally comes from Latin (Pig Latin): umorha, meaning "fluid." Ancient physiologists believed one's disposition, or "humor," was determined by the proportions of the "four fluids of the body": blood, phlegm, choler, black bile. Over time "humor" has morphed into meaning: "The quality that makes something laughable or amusing." [American Heritage Dictionary]; "funny or amusing quality"; [Thorndike Barnhart Comprehensive Desk Dictionary]; "that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous" [Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary]

It's in the genes.

In the book The Bad Seed, a girl inherits an "evil gene" which causes the desire to kill for gain, or just for the fun of it. I believe there is also a "funniness gene" which creates the desire for one to be humorous.

Author Bill Bryson, known primarily as a travel writer, definitely has the "gene" and caused me to laugh uncontrollably in several parts of his memoir, The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. He says, "The whole process of taking a situation and trying to present it comically on the page is a learned skill, just like painting or composing music." I would add that a sense of humor would also be aided by an encouraging environment and good role models.

It's a gift.

Only a handful of writers can claim the title "prodigious humorist." These are the few who have "the gift." Those blessed with the gift are the ones who are able to cause aqueous humor (the liquid in the eyes between the cornea and lens) to run down their audience's cheeks.



Don Edgers gets his laughs in Port Orchard, WA
www.anislandintime.com


Just a pinch

  by Inez Castor

Honey, I know where humor comes from! To one cup of tragedy add a teaspoon of perspective, because a teaspoon of perspective is all you can manage when you have a cup of tragedy. But I missed the deadline, which is the required tablespoon of poor timing. There's much more to the recipe, but you'll not get it from me.

Inez Castor lives up near the Oregon border and is the author of the infamous "Gopher Gulch" newspaper column, may it find a way to live forever.

What's so Funny

  by Jeremiah Krigbaum

I drug my feet as I left the stage. The pathetic echoes from a few clapping hands seemed more daunting than anything. I hate this. I had dreamt for so long of a crowd, roaring with laughter; But this, this was a shame.

"That was good, pal." A surly-faced little man with shallow eyes and a wide, vacant smile said as I stumbled past him through the backstage to find the exit. This place smells like vomit. I crashed through the back door and out into the damp night, stumbling over an old wooden pallet. I watched the world dance around me as I tumbled face first, into a murky puddle. I can still taste the oil and old cigarette butts.

Nearby, a group of college kids howled with laughter. At least I had gotten what I had come here for. Their laughter filled my ears and I began to smile. The disgusting mixture of oil and vagrant urine cascaded down my face and soaked purposefully into my old Who's the Boss shirt.

As I drew to my feet, I caught my own reflection in that very same puddle. The fractured image gazed with intense curiosity back at me. That filthy water offset my pale skin, and it began to look like running makeup. I could feel the laughter brimming in my throat and couldn't contain it. I laughed so fully and maniacally that those kids who'd been roaring only moments ago were suddenly drowned. The person staring back looked just like an old tormented clown.

Later I would use this very story in my standup. I've never heard the audience more delighted. I can't see them; the stage lights are too high. I can, however, hear the roaring that I'd waited so long for.

Humor, I thought, is born of misery. There is something comical about human suffering, and we as people thrive on others' despair.

So I told my miserable little story, and they loved me for it.



Jeremiah Krigbaum. Western Kentucky University. Bowling Green, KY.

FROM WHENCE COMES HUMOR

  by Nancy Wallace-Nelson

Barbara Hannah in her biography of C.G. Jung relates that Jung often quoted Schopenhauer's conclusion that a sense of humor is the only divine quality of man.

I puzzle over this as I remember English class discussions about comedy and tragedy. It was a major "ah-ha" moment in High School when I came to see that they were flip sides of each other, two faces of the same coin of human predicament. This resonated with me, because from early childhood, when I was exploding with giggles and humor, my father would say: "You'd better be careful or you'll be crying." And soon I was. And still it happens. My best laughs so affect me that I end up in tears.

If you think of some of the memorable comic routines, like "Who's on First", or Mel Gibson's toll booth, or George Carlin's stuff routine, there is a sad side to each of the laugh-producing stories. The Marx Brothers were finding the comic side of common interpersonal misunderstandings. Mr. Carlin was making light of the dark burden of United States over-consumption. And Mel Gibson was highlighting our human tendency to over-generalize authority more often than we think independently. A recent joke works to find some comedy in our tragic destruction of Iraq: when an Iraqi man is entering the United States, the customs official says to him: "Occupation?"
"No, just visiting," says the Iraqi.

Weeping over the details of our human actions is a heavy thing that none of us can do for long without cracking or seeking relief. Humor can be that relief from our collective suffering.

Humor can also provide relief from personal suffering. It provides a balance to our personal hubris, that inner voice that says we've been wronged, that we simply should not be misused or mistreated in the way we have been. It enables us, IF we are able to laugh at ourselves, to see ourselves in the larger context of what other humans face and suffer: in other words, to see simply that we are not alone in whatever our "suffering" is. One of the readiest examples of this is the proliferation of male/female jokes. Anyone who has ever been in a hetero relationship of any kind knows that feeling of wondering what alien planet spawned our sexual opposite.

Humor is a reminder, then, that we are not alone, that others suffer a plight such as our own, over and over. And therein lies the divine spark of humor: God created man so HE would not be alone.


Nancy Wallace-Nelson is a Mendocino writer and teacher whose favorite tee shirt says: “Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, for we will never run out of material.”

It Hurts to Laugh

  by Susan Bono

"The buzzing of the bees in the cigarette trees,
The soda water fountain…"

For some reason, Burl Ives' version of the song, "Big Rock Candy Mountain," comes to mind. It's tempting to think that humor originates in the place where anything your heart might desire is dangling from a branch or bubbling up from the ground.

But, of course, "Big Rock Candy Mountain" was a Depression-era song about men who were out of money and out of luck. Who else would want to go "where the handouts grow on bushes" and "the cops have wooden legs"? It shares the stage with songs like "One Meatball," in which the humor is fashioned from the darkness of hunger. Folks with safe, comfortable lives don't dream of a place where "the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs."

And then you have Rodney Dangerfield's "I can't get no respect." Even if you don't find that kind of caustic bad-mouthing funny, the people who laugh know just how he feels.

I think it was Lenny Bruce who said "Tragedy plus time equals humor." I'm not sure if it's time or distance, but I do know that humor is one of the tongs we use to take the hot stuff out of the fire so it can cool.

Susan Bono is keeping her distance in Petaluma, CA.
Hear what's playing in her head: Big Rock Candy Mountain


Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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