On the Origins of a Sense of Humor

When I think back to my childhood, I [subjectively, of course] feel [retrospectively, which is unreliable, of course] like it was during second grade (age 7) that my sense of individuality, self-confidence, and humor initially began to develop and reveal themselves publicly.  It was also around this time that I would often find myself sitting near a rambunctious kid whose father was dying of cancer and who was acting out, getting in trouble, and being given ritalin frequently by the school nurse.  This kid had an older brother and, as such, knew all kinds of dirty jokes.  Remember “What’s grosser than gross?”  I do, because of this kid.  I remember him asking me what was grosser than gross and then telling me, “When you kiss your grandmother and she slips you the tongue!”  I had no idea what this meant but laughed because I was a polite kid and, further, enjoyed learning all of these taboo jokes and hearing about rated PG-13 and R movies, as I spent most of my time like playing ball and riding my bike (whereas I imagine he was at home alone while his mother was at the hospital ,_,).

I remember him telling me about Crocodile Dundee and the scene where the main guy gropes the transvestite in detail, and indeed his recollection may have been when it finally clicked with me that “dick” meant penis…. though I also remember another time on the bus a guy telling me a dirty joke that sort of made that connection clear; I can’t remember which happened first.. In any event, I remember not totally grasping the significance of the story–I mean, I got that he was telling me on the premise that it was funny, and I laughed because he paused after talking increasingly excitedly..  but it didn’t seem funny just as a matter of concept.  And this isn’t me trying to win politically correct points either, for the record; it was many of the stories he told that I recall being not particularly funny but laughing out of a sense of courtesy, a practice I would abandon not long after but in which I indulged as a child because it seemed like a tacit agreement in conversation.

The reason I mention all of this is because I was thinking this morning about things that are funny to me and how many of them are built on a lot of context and specific knowledge, much of which can require so much explanation that it’s not worth explaining what makes it funny to other people, because the time it takes to explain exceeds the maximum humor value (as a side note, someone should study and formalize this theory at some point).  What I’m getting at now, though, is that when something is generally funny, as in funny to a broad audience, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s just a common reference, something funny because it’s broadly accessible.  Rather, I have more nuanced thoughts now, based on my own reflections on developing my own sense of humor.

Growing up, my dad had a bicycle shop and was engaged with the community in various ways.  He was a pretty smart guy, well-liked by many, and light-spirited, getting laughs and smiles throughout the day.  He used words like “apparently” and “obviously” in a sort of snarky way, but his humor was never mean-spirited*.  I _obviously_ internalized all of this as a boy and sought to get laughs and be thought of as clever and funny, myself.  I can vividly remember talking without raising my hand in second and third grade, looking for funny ways to comment on my teacher’s sentence or finish it for her in a funnier way.  I would say I was a borderline turd but that being well-intentioned and, further, being the progeny of a well-liked dude led teachers to give me the benefit of the doubt (with exceptions, of course).  Thing is, while I was doing these things and developing my sense of humor, I had no realization that that’s what was going on.  I think if I had grown up without my dad at an earlier age, I may’ve just laughed at the troubled kid’s stories and dirty jokes out of “good manners” and never really thought to dig into what actually makes me laugh; in a way, my father’s sense of humor showed me the possibilities for being funny without being crass or mean.

It’s in this context that I considered, just moments ago when I had a clear idea of what I was going to write (before I started writing), that broadly accessible humor isn’t about finding something everyone will laugh at so much as a matter of making references that are commonly understood as things that are commonly found in a humorous context, therefore accessing the part of people that elicits polite laughs and probably stimulates some minor pleasure sensor in people but has little to do with things which people find actually funny on an individual basis.  That, to me, is kinda funny (but maybe only because I find dramatic irony to be a hilarious literary device).


* I would be remiss if I failed to mention that my uncle, who grew up as my father’s younger brother, would likely dispute this liberal use of ‘never.’

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