January 25, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Heard any good jokes lately? Don’t forget to laugh

Cynthia DewesAmong all the many traits which humans display, I’m beginning to think a sense of humor is the most important one of all.

Finding the incongruity or silliness in almost any event or action that confronts us can save us from despair. In that sense, it’s almost a religious imperative.

Just think about the continuing inter­national political and cultural wars or the poverty and ignorance which plague too many parts of the world. Think about the presidential campaigns going on, and on and on. If we didn’t laugh about some of this stuff, we’d cry non-stop.

Of course, what strikes one person as funny leaves another one wondering what the joke is. Depending upon the individual, humor can be sophomoric or scatological or dark. It can be profane or tender or even physically demanding. It ranges from slapstick to elegant repartee, from pratfalls to sophisticated wit.

Humor seems to run in families. For example, my mom’s family included several great comedians. My Uncle John was a riot, drunk or sober, although I’m sorry to say it was more often when drunk. He would dress up his dog in a fedora and jacket, and pretend it “talked” to me when I was 3 years old. Of course, I was enchanted.

My mom was witty. She could produce a snapper at the perfect moment, squelching nastiness or just commenting cleverly on something ridiculous. Her twin sister was equally funny, and together they needed no one else to amuse them. In fact, they amused each other most of the time.

On the other hand, Dad’s family was serious. Not that they had no sense of humor, they just weren’t funny people. Sometimes what they did or said was terrifically funny, but not because they intended it that way. Naturally, this made them fair game for people like Mom and Uncle John.

Humor can defuse a bad situation. I’ve seen bristling confrontations turned into pleasant exchanges by the proper use of humorous comments from a bystander. Kindly joshing by an uninterested party can do wonders to soothe people in the throes of an argument, and lessen the embarrassment of onlookers at the same time.

Sometimes people offend others by joking. There was a time—and maybe still is in some places—when ethnic or racial jokes were tolerated even by those who disliked them. We may have gone too far in political correctness these days, but it’s good that that kind of humor is no longer publicly acceptable.

Humorous television shows and movies have always provided entertainment for us, sometimes inadvertently. I mean, if things like “The Jerry Springer Show” weren’t so painful to watch they could be considered hilarious. But then, not everyone relaxes when they see the Three Stooges or Charlie Chaplin, either.

The trick to appreciating humor, I think, is to consider its source. Wit born of meanness is never amusing, nor is cruel teasing or making fun of another a desirable way to entertain.

On the other hand, poking a little fun can be OK, as in the following joke about various households’ attitudes toward Christmas toys: Atheist—There is no toy maker; Polytheist—There are many toy makers; Evolutionist—The toys make themselves; or Existentialist—Toys are a figment of your imagination.

Some days we don’t feel like laughing, and some events seem too horrendous for us to find a way to tweak them. That’s when we need to work on our God-given sense of humor.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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