Question Seven

Where are the foundations of laughter?

You’ve heard the one about the Norwegian farmer, right?  The Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much that he almost told her?

There is that moment before a joke.  Anticipation laced with fear and caution.  Where’s he going with this?  Who or what will be the butt of the joke?  An uneasiness alongside a tension.  But why?  What elements of life will the joke utilize and possibly expose in order to create laughter?  Who will be involved?  Will there be an expense?  Will it move in, or will it move out?  We’re all waiting.  And this better be funny.

Isn’t it curious that self-deprecation is so well received?  I mean, you beat up on yourself or merely expose your own cluelessness and every head in the room nods.  Everyone is fed at your expense.  How can this be?  And if there is a price, what exactly is the cost?  Or has an investment been made that covers the cost, and now you are free to give?  Is this crazy?  Or is it true that humor carries with it price and exposure and terror?  Life revealed for all to see.  No secrets.  Full cost.  Now that’s funny.

Contrasted with what?  How about laughter at the expense of another?  And why does that often bump up against the border of offense?  When is a sacred space profaned, and also at what cost?  What is the damage?  And does this scene reveal more about the joker than the jokee?  Why are self-inflicted humor blows received as a mark of true humanity, when making others the brunt of our humor is perceived as inhumane?  In short, why is there more laughter when I make fun of myself than when I make fun of you?

What, if anything, does laughter have to do with freedom?  And whose freedom?  Is genuine laughter the purest expression of freedom?  The consummation of life’s full search?  (“Oh my…”)  Is there a transaction required if humor is to be at my expense and not yours?  Can a man laugh when he’s not at peace?  Or if he’s not at peace can he only laugh at others?  Will he then only counter, protect, and one-up?

And what of this tradition of cynicism, darkness, and anger in humor, where a man spirals down into the abyss of his aggrievement, throwing up subtle or obvious protections to guard his soul from being found out?  Why does that become heavy and unfunny, though we may laugh out of feigned obligation, sympathy, and pity?  Do we wish he had a different story to tell?

Isn’t it interesting that when I expose another the tension builds?  And when I expose myself the tension is alleviated, we laugh freely, and something life-giving moves out into the world?  But in contrast, why is something violated when I expose another?  Why is the best humor that which has ourselves at the center of irony?  Why then does it flow unimpeded and all who hear laugh openly?  And why then do others often see themselves portrayed in that same irony, and welcome it?

Is freedom the soul of humor?  A freedom in which I see my proper smallness and significance.  A proper orientation to oneself.  Hands open rather than clenched.  A sober self-assessment.  I know who I am, and I know who I’m not.  At peace with myself.  I have seen myself as I am, and now I can move gratefully forward with that understanding.  And others will join me.

Certainly there are other dimensions to the balm of laughter.  But is there enough material in your life to make fun of for a lifetime?