How Courtenay Got Her Funny Back

Sexy has no place in the kill-or-die world of comedy

I was funny in the beginning. I remember him laughing. His bright blue eyes would sparkle, his nose would crinkle up and he'd bare his teeth, like a wolf dressed in a shirt and tie. But they always laugh in the beginning, don't they?

This was my first grownup romantic relationship, and I didn't know it at the time, but I was about to break the record for Number of Mistakes Made in a Single Adult Liaison, Civilian Division. (I've been far surpassed by Hollywood types whose mistakes are splashed all over the tabloids, but celebrities are in their own league with a completely different scoring system.) The principal mistake being that I lost the single, defining characteristic that most people knew and loved about me.

I wasn't the funniest person I knew or even the funniest person in my family, but I could elicit a guffaw when the situation warranted and even got a job writing comedy, so I had proof that at least two people considered me a hoot.

And if I was funny, I can thank my mother and brother for that. One of the first times I ever realized the power of humor, I was an awkward eight-year-old, standing in our family's kitchen in Aurora, Colorado. My older brother had pushed down the tips of the warm chocolate Kisses on my mother's cookies, essentially giving them nipples, and my mother was incensed.

“Scott Gregory Hameister,” she said through gritted teeth, “I can't put these in Christmas tins now! They're obscene!”

One could argue that obscene excess abounds in the holiday season, so they were actually still sort of holiday-themed, but that's not the point. The point is that Scott waited for a pause then placed a perfectly timed wisecrack in the empty, angry space. It was something like, “Stop it, Mom. You're scaring me,” which was only funny because at five-foot-two and one hundred pounds, my almost freakishly perky mother would have a hard time frightening a bunny. Then he waited. And after a moment—that excruciating moment when you're waiting to see if your joke's going to kill or die—she was cackling instead of ranting.

As adults, we're all aware of using humor to diffuse anger—it's a well-known technique we learn in therapy, “how-to-succeed-in-business” books, and in the kitchens of holiday-crazed mothers. But the first time I saw it work, it seemed like magic, how Scott used well-placed words to completely change how my mother felt—in fact, to make her feel the exact opposite of what she was feeling before.

I watched my brother carefully and learned, and eventually I became the Funny Girl in high school, turning school assemblies into stand-up routines and, in the tradition of all comics, never getting a date ever, ever, ever.

Because it's a choice we make, not as men or women, but as people: funny or sexy. Very seldom both. You can be considered sexy because you've been funny in the past, but while you're being funny? Virtually impossible.

When you ask someone to make a funny face, what are you asking her to do? Go put on some blusher and Mac's new Dramatic Lengths Clump-free mascara? No. You're asking her to pull down the skin below her eyes until she looks like a burn victim, push her nose up in a decidedly pig-like fashion, and stick her tongue out.

Mmmmm. SEXY.

And in our Maxim-and-Rock of Love-infused culture, not being sexy can be more of a problem for women than for men.

In his purposefully incendiary Vanity Fair essay “Why Women Aren't Funny,” Christopher Hitchens says one reason women aren't funny is we simply don't have to be. (He also says that a woman's sense of humor comes out of her body along with her placenta during childbirth, but I won't mention any more of his theories for fear that your head, like mine, will fly off your body and this article will become too bloody to read.) According to Hitchens, women look for a sense of humor in men; men look for boobs and ... well, boobs.

I think men do look for a sense of humor in women and are happy when they find it. But the problem is that when you're in a relationship, especially the beginning of a relationship, you want to put on your best face, and it's probably not your funny face. You want to be ladylike, and there is nothing, nothing, the least bit ladylike about comedy. Comedy is about completely losing your inhibitions and any desire to be attractive.

Think of some of your favorite iconic “funny women” moments: Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth on an assembly line, Carol Burnett wearing a curtain rod, Gilda Radner jumping up and down on a bed in a Brownie uniform, contorting her face into positions previously unknown to humankind. Not pretty at all. Stunningly hilarious, but not pretty. Not pretty, because Steve Martin was right: comedy isn't pretty. Comedy is about finding our foibles and exaggerating them.

When you're socialized to be sexy, as women generally are, it makes it very hard not to be self-conscious when you're going about the rough business of exposing the world's foibles. And the moment an audience (of one or hundreds) can sense self-consciousness is the moment you become unfunny: “Oh, no. I'm afraid I might look stupid.”

Yeah, that's the point.

And that was the problem I had with the Wolf. Our relationship was highly sexual. I wanted to have sex with him constantly, if possible: in bed, in the shower, in the cereal aisle. Wherever we could fit it in. (So to speak.) I wanted to be attractive to him at all times.

I quickly noticed, however, he didn't have much patience for goofiness. For example, my college roommate Steven and I had a very specific routine when we dropped something in the house: whatever it was would hit the ground, we'd pause for a moment, throw our arms in the air, then yell as loud as we could, “I'm okay!” It wasn't high comedy, but whoever else happened to be in the house usually got a kick out of it.

Eventually, this became my habit. Now I can't drop anything, ever, without informing whoever happens to be around me—my mother, my coworkers, the meat guy at Fred Meyer—that I'm okay. I did it in the Wolf's house, too.
The first couple times, he simply said, “Okay. Good to know.” But the third time, I dropped a metal pot onto the kitchen floor, and he happened to be in the room.

Clang!

Pause.

“I'm okay!”

Long sigh.

“Do you have to say that every single time you drop something? It's not like I think you've hurt yourself whenever I hear something hit the ground. It's ridiculous.”

Yes. Yes, it IS ridiculous. That's what was fun about it. And look at you, sucking all the fun out of it with your... comedy suckers.

So I stopped saying it around him. I didn't stop dropping things—that would be miraculous (my brother used to call me H. R. Droppinstuff), but I stopped laughing after I dropped things. Or laughing after I fell. Or laughing at all. I also stopped joking with him, almost completely. One reason for this could be his aforementioned lack of patience for dorkiness. But it could also be the fact that comedy is inherently aggressive.

When I make a joke, what I'm hoping will happen is that I'll elicit an involuntary physical response from you—a laugh. And once I do, I've gained a degree of power in our dynamic. It's one of the reasons that it's so hard for a comedian to get a laugh in a room full of other comedians. Earlier, I mentioned there are two things a joke can do. Kill. Or die. You can't get much more aggressive than that. The last thing any comic wants is to be a comedy victim. And the last thing I was, or could ever be, with the Wolf was aggressive. This was the first time anyone had loved me, and I was sure it would be the last, so I never wanted to test the bounds of that love.

And it was hard, just letting all those punch lines lie there, unused. I let openers drop. I eyed low-hanging fruit, but no matter how much my mouth watered, I didn't pick it. And it was so strange. We'd come home from a day out, perhaps even somewhere lovely like a tulip field, and he'd say, “What a great day! Wasn't that great?”

Great? But I hardly laughed. At all. What's great about that? So that was fun for you? How is something fun if there's no laughing in it? Oh, are you a robot? Because if you're a robot, you should tell me. I'm going to make very different choices if I know you were made in Japan out of metal and plastic polymers. I mean, I have some other stuff made of plastic polymers, and I know how to handle those.

Of course, I never said this, but it definitely ran through my head.

Thankfully, that relationship eventually ended, but it took me a while to find my laugh again. Partly because nothing's funny when there are wee pieces of your heart rattling around in your chest (the noise is really distracting), but also because I was simply out of practice.

What's sad about the whole thing is that I'll never know what might've happened had I simply been myself, like my mother always told me (and like I'm sure your mother always told you). It might've taken some getting used to, but the Wolf might've enjoyed some punch lines intermixed with the hot, hot sex.

All I know is that I never want to lose my laugh again, so I put all potential boyfriends through a screening process that involves watching the entire Monty Python oeuvre, making sure they know what to do with a banana peel (compost it, of course), and forcing them to listen to five minutes of stand-up material in bed (hereafter to be known as “lie-down material”).

Because the point is, no matter who we love, we love them for all the things they are—sexy, sad, loud, happy, odd, neurotic, quiet, angry, cute, crazy—the number of things that can live in us all at once is baffling and a little miraculous. And while it's almost never possible to be sexy and funny at the exact same time, there are few things sexier than someone who just made you laugh.
 

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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