Funny Is All I Got

The shocking true story of a lifelong humor abuser and the trail of thoughtless amusement left in his wake

This is serious: if it weren't for funny, I'd have nothing. Funny is all I got. Everything good that has ever happened to me, from my emergence as, you know, a sentient being up until right now, is the result of two cosmic forces of limitless power: dumb luck and funny. And, really, it's just dumb luck that I'm funny.

I didn't plan to be funny. I planned to be a world-class athlete who looked like Pierce Brosnan and divided my time between writing fabulously-popular-yet-critically-acclaimed novels, fronting a mega-platinum rock band, and winning Wimbledon. And ending world hunger and war. Look how that turned out.

Maybe I grew up in the wrong neighborhood. Maybe I just got involved with the wrong crowd. Maybe I said something one day in kindergarten, and some thoughtless fingerpaint-stained urchin laughed, and some flaw in the ion transfer between my neurons was triggered, and that was it—I was hooked on H (that's the street name for humor, for the more sheltered readers out there). No more Twinkies and naptime for me, it was all just funny, funny, funny.

When all the good students were studying the Spanish-American War, I was making jokes. Of course, the teachers were too embarrassed by my behavior to speak directly about it. They turned to timeworn euphemisms like “Talks too much in class” and “He's a snotty little puke.” But I knew what they meant and I didn't care. I was funny, and that's all I was ever going to be.

And here's the shocker: I was more popular than the kids who knew all about the Spanish-American War! I was as popular as the good-looking, athletic kids! At the same time that society huffed disdainfully at me and my frivolous and dangerous embrace of h-u-m-o-r, that same society secretly encouraged and rewarded me! Funny was useful. It could get you things you could never get on your own.

Sure, maybe I didn't really deserve those things, but what can I say? I was weak. I could sit there, sniveling, and watch the cheerleaders go out with the Pierce Brosnan-looking guys with the chiseled jaws, or I could step up with the witty banter and the charming asides and get my share. Later in life, I could shrink back, sniveling, and let the work and the moola go to people who knew what they were doing and had talent, or I could jump in, get the people in the conference room laughing, believing they liked me, and steal the business away. You know my choice.

So, in a serious and essay-like way, I want to reveal how people like me use funny to get their way and reach their nefarious ends.

First, let's place funny in context. I'd define it for you, but I can't. You can't either. Well, you could, but what would be the point? Or, in the somewhat more graceful words of E. B. White, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

Humor has, in fact, been studied scientifically for a long time. Numerous organizations are devoted to it, from the International Society for Humor Studies to the American Humor Studies Association to the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. These groups are filled with learned, literate individuals from around the world. My guess is that none of them are funny.

Humor has also been viewed in a religious context: “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh,” Voltaire once said. And amateur theologian and well-known produce abuser Gallagher is fond of pointing to his bald head and asking, “Is this the work of a serious artist?”

Noted wag Immanuel Kant (the Critique of Pure Reason was laugh-out-loud stuff) formulated his Incongruity Theory, which claimed that what is comic is an expectation that comes to something unexpected, or even nothing. Which describes most of my dates in high school—but is more clearly demonstrated by the following example: “So, a dyslexic walks into a bra...”

But defining humor is not my goal. The point is that funny is as valuable a strategy for making one's way through life as smart. Funny is almost as useful as good-looking. Although it is not nearly as useful as rich.

I certainly hope none of that sounds cynical. As Lily Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.” (I don't know how that quote relates, I just like it.) I'm not cynical; I'm realistic. I have personally and empirically proven all the preceding tenets. Let's analyze them further:

Funny vs. smart. Smart is good. You have to have some smart people so stuff works. For example, say you are designing and building a new jetliner. Do you want it done by smart people—”The ailerons seem to be channeling laminar flow quite judiciously”—or funny people—”Ha, ha! The wing fell off”? But in everyday life, funny is just as useful as smart. Here's why: it takes other smart people to understand smart, but even people with the brainpower of a sea cucumber can usually understand some form of funny. So you have a much larger target audience. And another benefit: try to be smart and fail and you will look a fool. Fail trying to be funny and at least no one will be laughing at you.

Now, as noted, funny is not quite as useful as good-looking. But it has a longer shelf life. And you can do almost as well with it at any age. For example, I don't rate as burlap-bag-I-am-not-an-animal!-children-run-screaming material, but no one with remotely functional vision and a modicum of light on the subject would mistake me for the aforementioned Mr. Brosnan. And yet, against all logic, I have enjoyed the company of some very attractive female people. Quite often out of my league, as they say. Why? Funny. Funny is attractive. Funny can sometimes overcome even deal-breakers like partial baldness. (But not back hair. No one is that funny.) And when good-looking people get to be, say, ninety-three years old, they will no longer be good-looking, but they can still be funny. Sometimes even on purpose.

Funny vs. rich. Clearly, rich is much more useful. Rich trumps funny and smart and good-looking and just about everything else, including justice, the middle class, pollution controls, etc. Rich turns crazy to eccentric and old to distinguished and mean to self-assured. You can get rich by being funny (the Cosby Corollary), but you can't get funny by being rich (although everyone will laugh at your jokes, or you can have them killed).

Indeed, funny is a useful weapon in the bloodthirsty video game of modern life. So how do people like me use funny to manipulate and control the good people of this world? From the simple snicker to the grand guffaw, we use the genetically programmed primate vocalization called laughter to disrupt your breathing, weaken your defenses, and, in the most egregious cases, cause you to pee your pants. If you chuckle, we almost have you. If you cackle, we own you. If you splurt out any form of beverage through your nasal passages, you might as well give us your firstborn (who, by the way, will begin laughing as soon as seventeen days after birth).

Neurophysiology tells us that laughter is linked to the activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (but then, what isn't?), leading to the production of endorphins. So I'm a sort of natural drug pusher. I gain my unfair power over women and bullies and clients by shooting them up with a potentially contagious endorphin fix. I've even done it with schoolchildren and elderly ladies. I should feel bad about that, but it's too late for me. I just (insert evil music here) laugh.

Some people are born with a neurological condition that makes them unable to laugh out loud. It is called “aphonogelia”—or being a conservative Republican. And several people have died from laughing. It can happen from respiratory failure or cardiac stress. In the third century BCE, Greek philosopher Chrysippus died of laughter after giving wine to his donkey and watching it try to eat figs. (This incident, somehow, must explain the popularity of Judd Apatow movies.) Much more recently, in 2003, a Thai ice-cream salesman reportedly started laughing in his sleep, wouldn't wake up, and passed away. There is definitely a joke there, but it's just too obvious for such a high-toned rag as this.

Now even a person such as me, willing to use funny wherever and whenever to get what I want, would probably feel badly if something I said killed someone. But at least I could rationalize that their last thoughts were happy ones! Am I fooling myself? I think not: In the 1970s, a fifty-two-year-old bricklayer died of laughter—he was watching an episode of the British TV show The Goodies, featuring a kilt-clad Scotsman who used his bagpipes to battle a large and exceptionally vicious black pudding. Later, the man's widow sent the producers a letter thanking them for making his final moments so pleasant! Stiff upper lip for the stiff, what?

In conclusion, funny is incredibly useful for those of us willing and able to use it without shame or restraint. As noted, it's all I got. Beware of people like me. All is not what it seems. Always remember the two cannibals who were eating a comedian: one looked at the other and asked, “Does this taste funny to you?” You've been warned.


The Human Condition


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Also in this Issue

The Long Look Back

Pursuing the Science of Happiness

Love Thy Neighbor (Sometimes)

A Nation of Can-Do Optimists

How Courtenay Got Her Funny Back

Laughing Into the Abyss

Funny Is All I Got