It’s a good thing parents are biologically programmed to love their children; to believe that even the strangest-looking baby is the most beautiful creature on earth. Otherwise I’m not sure I would have survived. I was not an attractive child. As a toddler, I had the nose of a 90 year old man. People kindly told my parents it was just an awkward phase; surely I’d outgrow it.
Unfortunately, my awkward phase lasted my entire life.
I learned early that being funny was the key to my emotional survival. It was far better to have people laugh with me at myself, than to laugh at me. If I made a self-deprecating remark, they were disarmed. If I could laugh with them laughing at me, I was protected from their barbs. If they repeated my observation as an insult, I was able to take it as a compliment. They were using my joke, after all, and that meant they thought I was funny. Or, if they insulted me but not as cleverly as I insulted myself, I won again! Say the worst about yourself and nobody can insult you!
Humor was the path I took to love. There are other paths, but that was mine. When I made people laugh, they wanted me around. Instead of being ostracized, I was included in their social groups. I was popular, even. Playing the clown was how I negotiated my way through everything. All my life lessons came through this.
I may not have been much to look at, but what did beautiful people offer the world anyway? You have to be a decent human being to be truly beautiful. Still, I was never quite able to let go of the nagging sadness to not have been born lovely. I eventually learned that everyone hurts in their own way. Everyone carries the wounds of childhood well into old age. Maybe forever.
The funniest people (and I have known many) are always outsiders. Sometimes they’re on the outside because of their odd appearance. Or maybe they’re just quirky in some way. Usually, though, they it’s just because their observation post on the world is in an out-of-the-way place where others dare not go. From their unique viewpoint, they see the things in ways that most others cannot.
I’m not saying that it’s only funny people who have unique viewpoints, but if you can make people laugh while they consider your way of seeing things, they are more likely to remember and agree with you and see things as you do. “Speak softly and carry a big shtick.”
The funniest people are also very smart. They can pluck the seed of truth from chaos. They hone in on hypocrisy like heat-seeking missiles. Their lack of respect for authority makes them natural iconoclasts. They are natural empaths, too. They instinctively understand the deepest fears and insecurities of others; they clearly perceive the nature of the ego that drives them. That’s why comedians make such great actors. They understand the most subtle nuances of emotion, something also absolutely crucial to delivering a good story. Looking at people, they see behind the veil of bluster and into the folds and shadows where self-doubt hides. Once seen, it cannot be un-seen.
The great funny people are also often the most troubled, the most confused. We all secretly believe we don’t belong. There’s this over-reaching fear that if others saw us as we saw ourselves, they would look at us with the same pity and contempt they regard a sad, desperate, alcoholic clown at a three year old’s birthday party. “Get lost, Bozo! That red nose and big shoes aren’t fooling anyone!”
I developed a thick skin. I took the hits and stood back up again. I had no choice. I won’t say I wasn’t hurt when people said bad things about me – and they did, because I had a sharp tongue. I had no patience for the thin-skinned; for those who could dish it out but couldn’t take it; for those who pointed to the sins of others without considering their own. I pushed the edge, I know. Sometimes I went too far. I often made people cringe. I did try to limit myself to those who I believed could take it. But if they couldn’t? Well, that was their problem, not mine. I wasn’t responsible for the feelings of everyone in the world. I’d taken my licks and learned my lessons. They had to take and learn theirs.
There were the haters. Lots of them. I tried to ignore them but when they got under my skin, my salve was to surround myself with people who got me; who could laugh with me at the same stuff; who enjoyed the view from where I stood. If I could make someone laugh – even one person — really laugh from the deepest part of themselves; if I could get them to laugh at my truth, I was healed. The rejection of those who didn’t understand me no longer mattered.
To the question of whether a sense of humor is an innate talent or a learned skill, I say it’s a bit of both. Like any talent, most people pursue what they are good at. No normal person pursues a lifetime of failure and humiliation. And the longer you pursue, the better you get. Like an Olympic athlete. It’s natural talent, nurtured. I was the Nadia Comăneci of the Chuckles Olympics.
Being able to laugh at ourselves and at our tragedies takes the sting out of it. It puts things in perspective; helps us wrestle an unruly life back into our control. Laughing files the sharp edges off the pain.
(I know who this is, but we agreed that it would be best if I didn’t say. 😀 Nevertheless, we had a couple of very deep yet funny “conversations.” I was given some personal messages for others, two of which I was able to deliver. The general message for all is “Be kind to others. Make sure the people you love know it. Do the right thing, follow your conscience, be true to yourself, and if they don’t like you, f&^% ‘em! That’s their problem!”)