Humor, sarcasm, irony, mockery, me.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 May

On using my sense of humor for good, and not evil.

Too many people are convinced a person can’t learn to be funny: Either we have the built-in ability to make people laugh, or we lack it and are never gonna get it.

Which means these folks obviously don’t understand how humor works. Anyone can learn to do anything. Maybe not well, but better than previously. Anyone can learn to be funny. They just gotta learn how humor works, and practice at it.

No, I’m not trying to sell you a class. I’ll even explain how humor works—for free.

Laughter is an automatic nervous reaction. People laugh when you expose them to the unexpected. Surprise ’em, shock ’em, play around with words a little, push things to a ridiculous extreme—or even frighten them, which is why some people laugh when they’re scared. The unexpected makes us laugh, and laughter floods the brain with feel-good endorphins. It’s actually a defense mechanism. But since it feels really good, people pursue laughter.

Unless of course their brain doesn’t produce enough of those chemicals; then they don’t bother. That’s why they’re humor-deprived: There’s no payoff. So they don’t see the point.

So how do we get people to laugh? Simple: Throw something unexpected at them. Like a monkey throwing poo. See what I did there? Unexpected. Shocking. Hence laughter.

But of course not everyone will laugh at it. Some of us won’t find it funny because they expect poo: Their dad was into poo jokes, their brothers were into poo jokes, their spouse is into poo jokes, their kids are into poo jokes, all their friends are into poo jokes, they’re up to their armpits in poo jokes. Poo wore off a long time ago. “That’s the lowest form of humor,” they’ll respond. It’s old, so it’s no longer unexpected. Nor funny.

And many are offended by scat or sex jokes. Or profanity. You notice how certain comedians swear a lot: Half their laughs come from the audience being so unused to all the dirty words, or the way they juggle those words for shock. They’re giggling about as much out of discomfort as surprise. But to the easily offended, these things aren’t funny whatsoever. Loads of people don’t find the Three Stooges funny at all: Three grown men beating the tar out of one another is horrifying, not hilarious. They have the same problem with Warner Brothers cartoons, Tom and Jerry, America’s Funniest Home Videos, or someone simply slipping on a banana peel or taking a pie to the face: They feel bad for the victims of these pratfalls. They’re not amused; they’re sympathetic.

But because laughing at the unexpected works so well, it’ll get people to watch terrible sitcoms and movies. Case in point: The Date Movie/Epic Movie/Disaster Movie/Scary Movie films. Critics can’t understand why on earth they sell so well. I do: Throw as much unexpected stuff at the screen as possible. “What’s she doing there?” makes a lot of people laugh. Even when it’s not actually funny.

Young people are the most susceptible to this. When I was a kid, I used to watch the dumbest TV programs and laugh at ’em. It’s because I hadn’t yet learned all the clichés. Now that I know them, when I go back to those old shows for nostalgia’s sake, I’m surprised at how awful they are. It’s not because I have lousy taste in comedy; it’s because I didn’t know any better, and had no taste. There are entire TV networks which live off this phenomenon, like the Disney Channel or Freeform.

Likewise there are a lot of adults who never watch comedy, still don’t have any taste, and the cheesiest sitcoms make ’em pee themselves in hysteria. Or, bluntly, they’re just not that smart. Clever punchlines go clear over their heads. You have to give ’em something obvious, or explain jokes to them—and the reason explaining a joke sucks all the funny out of it, is because you lost the element of surprise. Now you’re explaining why they should be surprised. Think that’d work at a surprise party? Doesn’t work with jokes either.

Sometimes there are other impediments. Fr’instance my mom claims she doesn’t care for “British comedies.” It’s because the only ones she really knew of were Benny Hill, which was too stupid, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which went back and forth between stupid and clever. Some of it’s also the accents: I’ve repeated lines from Python in my American accent, and she totally got the joke and laughed. But when Brits do it, it zips right by her.

Abusive humor.

Sadly, some people got the sense of humor beaten out of them when they were kids. In my case I actually got it beaten into me. I found laughter could diffuse tense situations. I found I could also get away with ridiculing people when I made the mockery funny enough.

Ah yes, mockery. Now that’s the lowest form of humor. Not poo jokes, not pratfalls, not sex jokes: Mockery. It’s the stuff which should offend people.

Mockery is justifiable if you’re mocking ideas and institutions. Never so when you’re mocking people. But I have the bad habit of sliding right into it. I used to ridicule individuals a lot. I’d rip into politicians and celebrities, who are easy targets. But I’d also rip into family and friends and foes. To their face. I was pretty brazen sometimes.

Sarcasm was my usual humor of choice. No, that’s not the same as mockery. Sarcasm uses humor and irony to show disapproval. Irony isn’t just anything you find inconvenient, like rain on your wedding day or a free ride when you’ve already paid, or any of the stuff in the Alanis Morissette song. Irony is when you get the opposite of what you expected, but in a surprising way that provokes the laughter. It’s rain on your wedding day… but you’re a weather forecaster. It’s a free ride after you just got finished lecturing the kids about how you’ve gotta work for everything in life.

My problem is I used to be a really negative person. I’d mock everything. I used to identify myself as “the sarcastic guy.” In fact it was considered a family trait: People would meet my siblings and be surprised how we were all that way. But we got that way as a defense mechanism. Growing up with Dad was miserable, and the way I dealt with him was to get back by making fun. But I had to be clever about it. It had to be plausibly deniable. Otherwise he’d beat me up. After a few punches you learn to be quick-witted.

My parents separated when I was 17, and I moved out at 19. But I still had the anger. Angry at God—but I suppressed it ’cause I figured it wasn’t allowed. Angry at the world. Taking it out on others by bullying them with sarcasm and mockery.

Why’d people put up with this behavior? Because it wasn’t directed at them—and they had great fun watching me rip into others. I was their evil entertainment. Made ’em laugh. And it’s a little difficult for the Holy Spirit to convict you otherwise when the associate pastor of your church is a huge fan of the savage opinion pieces you write for the local newspaper—and eggs you on.

Took me a long while to learn sarcasm doesn’t translate into print. Sarcasm involves a bit of acting. You gotta say it a certain way, with a certain tone, with certain timing. All of this is gone in print; you gotta hope they realize what you’re doing. They don’t always.

Evil humor.

Okay, let’s skip over the 1980s and early ’90s: I started getting serious about my Christianity in the mid-’90s. But I kept the sarcasm. Because I identified with it. It wasn’t as vicious as before, but it was definitely there, ready to mock anyone who said anything I considered dumb. There were still people who hung out with me just to see what happened once the beast got out of the cage.

One day in the school cafeteria, a guy sat at my table. I don’t recall his name, but let’s call him Rolland. I didn’t have a usual table; I didn’t want to be cliquish. But this day I had a few fans at the table, and Rolland made the mistake of stating women shouldn’t be in ministry.

For fun, I decided to “agree” with him. Went him one better: I took Rolland’s idea to its logical extremes. I reached back into my Fundamentalist childhood and brought out the most chauvinist, patriarchal things I’d ever heard Christians say. Went to town with ’em, just to see how far I could push Rolland. Pretty far, actually. Disturbingly far.

My fans already knew how I think about about women in ministry. (I’m all for it.) That’s why, instead of gaping in horror at how I suddenly turned neo-Neanderthal on ’em, they found my tour de force hilarious. Two of ’em still claim it’s the funniest thing they’d ever seen. You’d think Rolland would have guessed something up by all their giggling.

What follows, I heard secondhand. I left before noon for a class.

He. “That’s the only guy I’ve ever met on this campus who had any sense about women and ministry.”
They. “Are you kidding? Leslie doesn’t believe any of that crap he just said.”
He. “What’re you talking about?”
They. “He doesn’t just believe in women in ministry; he thinks there aren’t enough of them.”
He. “Weren’t you listening? That’s not at all what he just said.”
They. “Oh, he was messing with you.”
He. “What?”
They. “You seriously think he’d be at this school with those opinions?”
He. [enraged] “That fat ponytailed bastard!

That last line’s an exact quote. The others are rough approximations.

My fans couldn’t wait to tell me what had happened. They thought it was awesome: Rolland totally got his comeuppance. I, on the other hand, got a giant attack of conscience. What on earth was wrong with me? …Other than being fat.

“Why do you do that?” my then-girlfriend wanted to know.

My lame explanation: “Because it’s what I do.”

Finally it was bothering me. About time, too. I did evil crap like that far too often. Usually to people who knew me—as if that made it any better. True, they knew what they were getting into when they engaged me, and they were likely to forgive me. Rolland, in comparison, didn’t know me at all, and I never saw him again. (He didn’t live on campus.) So I didn’t get the chance to apologize.

But I did cut way back on the mockery.

A few years later I was at church, and they were calling people forward. Usually churches do this for people if they wanna say the sinner’s prayer, but the Pentecostal churches I go to tend to do this for anything and everything. Need to give up lying?—come forward. Need to give up stealing office supplies?—bring it to the altar. Getting addicted to auto-erotic asphyxiation? Altar. Okay, the pastor never brought up that one, but pastors are rarely specific: “Anything you need prayer for” is the catch-all to get people to come forward.

One week, not entirely out of the blue, the Holy Spirit told me I had to give up sarcasm.

“But it’s who I am,” I complained.

“But I didn’t put it in you,” he countered.

No, he didn’t. Up to this point I claimed sarcasm was a family trait. Which suggests heredity. Suggests I was born with it. Suggests he had put it in me. But he hadn’t. It was a byproduct of my anger—an anger which was largely gone by that point, but needed to be completely gone, and it wouldn’t be if I kept clinging to sarcasm and mockery. It’d keep puncturing relationships, alienating people unnecessarily, and attracting the wrong sort of people—people who’d encourage me to bully so they could laugh at my victims. I was only clinging to sarcasm in the mistaken belief it’s the sarcasm which made me funny.

So I dropped it. Took effort, but I dropped it.

In the process I learned to use it properly—to point it at things instead of people. The prophets in the scriptures used it to mock evil. Yeah, sometimes they used it on people. But that’s their immaturity. God expected me to grow past that.

So for a while there, I was really weirded out whenever someone complimented me on my sarcasm. To my mind, it meant I was failing in my efforts to be rid of it. In reality most people don’t really know what “sarcasm” is. Or they’re sarcastic—and when they read my stuff, they read it in their own voice, project their sarcasm on me, and assume I’m kidding. I’m actually not.

And of course it’s made me a little more sensitive than usual when other people turn to mockery. Certain people write like I used to. Nowadays I find it pretty repellant. There, but for the grace of God, is the direction I was headed.

Justifying evil behavior.

Those who indulge in evil, abusive, destructive behavior—humorous or not—always have a justification for it. Usually it’s that the ends justify the means: “You need to talk to people this way. They won’t listen otherwise.” Yep, I did that too. It’s how Christians stay fruitless, yet still feel good about themselves.

Well, I call rubbish.

I’ll stumble into debates with people. Not because I wanna pick a fight; I have a comment, they disagree, and in the course of clarifying our points, or disagreeing with one another, they forget to be civil. God calls us to be kind, but they believe in winning at all costs, even if that includes fighting dirty.

So I press pause on the debate and call ’em on their misbehavior. The fruitless activity is wholly inappropriate, and they need to quit it. Otherwise we’re done.

Oh, they’ll try to weasel around the unkindness: “That doesn’t matter. What about my points? That’s the real issue.” Yeah; we already agree that’s the real issue. But defending it with evil behavior is wholly unnecessary. If it can’t be defended on its merits, it’s not gonna get defended just because you’re better at insults and slander. And I don’t have to stick around for the insults.

No, this tactic didn’t work on me when I was the one resorting to evil. And I did have people in my life who were trying to let me know my behavior was uncalled-for. It damaged relationships, alienated people, and likely contributed towards my losing a job or two. Yet I justified it by calling it “righteous,” which it totally wasn’t. Nothing righteous about it at all. It was a work of the flesh, pure and simple. If anyone described it using this language, I don’t remember it, because I wouldn’t have listened anyway. I remember one youth pastor tried to confront me on it, and I responded by calling him a liberal compromiser. But this sort of childish behavior has no age limit. I know people much older than me who can be just as awful.

All I do now is reject such behavior when I see it. And offer up my own experience as a cautionary tale: This is where I went; don’t go there. It’s not better, nor less harmful, just because it sometimes makes people laugh. God expects us to be fruitful, not funny. He’s going for joy here. Let’s not bend humor away from joy.