Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I am a funny guy. I’m not known as one who has a joke ready to tell at any time. Those individuals, and we all know at least one, have a unique talent being able to store and retrieve on demand many jokes at any time. I have a very limited repertoire of jokes, as I can’t remember them very well. So I’m not a comedian but I do have a quick wit. As soon as someone says something, my mind seems to jump into high gear to think of a funny comeback. And often I do. And when I do, I enjoy the laugh and I enjoy hearing others laugh too. But was I always funny?
I was the third of four children in our family—the first son following two daughters. As an infant, I no doubt got a lot of attention from my sisters, four and six years older than me, as to them I was a “living doll” to dress up and play with. But that all changed a couple of years later when my younger brother came along supplanting me as the object of everyone’s attention.
My mother used to tell the story of finding me in my brother’s crib, poised and ready to strike him with a pencil. (Many years later, I was most touched when my brother sent me a big brother birthday card with one of those little golf pencils inside and the comment “Thanks for letting me live.” I guess he had forgiven me.)
No longer the “baby” of the family, I had to find other ways to get attention.
My mom also used to say that after she and Dad were married, she had to teach Dad how to laugh. Maybe I picked up some of my humorous streak from those lessons as well. As evidence of my early comedy, we have a home movie of us kids clowning around in the backyard and me crashing my pedal car into a big tree. At the time, I was less than four years old.
Throughout my adolescent years, I don’t know if I lost this humor or if it just went into hibernation. In high school and college, I remember myself being pretty serious, maybe because I had to spend so much time studying first as a science major in high school and then as a chemistry major in college and graduate school.
After I was married and started a family, I know I used to try to tell my kids funny stories. One I’m sure they will remember is the story of when two brothers named “Shut Up” and “Trouble” went to a circus and got separated from each other. Or maybe my kids will remember a simple one I used to tell: “If Sally Green married Bobby Bean, she would be Sally Green Bean.”
Once I was out of graduate school and began my career as a professional analytical chemist, I seemed to have begun to develop my quick wit.
Starting out, I would sometimes make humorous comments at the expense of someone else to get people to laugh. Although never intending harm, these comments that essentially ridiculed or belittled the recipient weren’t always received well or appreciated. This feedback really hit home whenever my wife was the brunt of my humor and she verbally relayed to me how it was not appreciated.
While going through management training at work, I finally realized that this form of my humor had gotten out of hand when I was described by a colleague as having an “unexpected, wicked sense of humor.” I could only continue this course if I was the sole recipient of this humor, which I did to a degree but it warranted a new approach.
Maybe it was a conscious suppression of my facetious gene and the development of my comical gene. But over time, I developed a new form of humor, one that did not belittle or ridicule someone. And as with the exercise of any muscle, it became stronger and stronger.
In work meetings, I often make a joke to bring some lightness to the seriousness of whatever topic we happen to be discussing. And teaching has given me a chance to develop this form of humor as well. Originally, I would start with a funny line or story to help relax prior to my presentation. Now that I’ve given well over a 100 lectures, it just comes naturally, no longer needed as a relaxer but just as a way of starting out and setting the stage for my audience to have a little fun.
So the next time you happen to be around me, you won’t have to worry that my humor will be directed at you. Rather, it will be an unexpected reply to almost any comment that will likely get you to laugh. And then we can laugh together. Everyone has his or her own unique laugh, almost as a second language. My daughter has described my laugh as one of her favorite sounds in the world. So let’s get together and share a laugh—I’ll provide the unexpected comment and then we can both share in the fun.