Getting the Joke: The Bond of Humor

I was thinking back this morning over past late-Januarys since starting this blog in the summer of 2002. I felt certain that, if I went back through the archives, I would find myself at the zero point, where life seems to be at a standstill, and molecular motion ceases.

Then I got curious, found myself in the January 2004 archive, and made myself laugh. That felt good.

So instead of trying to reach conclusions by way of a smarmy nostalgic slog across a tundra of Januarys, here’s what I wrote about humor eight years ago, prompted by the fact that I had just finished watching three seasons of MASH on VCR tapes. I always felt like Hawkeye Pierce and I had a bond–a brotherhood. Who shares your sense of humor?

Cover of "M*A*S*H (Widescreen Edition)"
Cover of M*A*S*H (Widescreen Edition)

Next to sex, the bond of shared laughter must be one of the most intimate of human experiences.

If I had life to do over again, there would be more music and there would be more laughter in my life. The music I could make alone. The laughter–that is a more elusive fish.

One can laugh alone, but the most satisfying humor is shared, and just as one finds only one or a few with whom he or she could spend a lifetime, it seems that finding another who shares the same way of coping with humor–of crisis management with laughter, of word play and wit– is just as rare.

Two people who laugh at the same thing are more likely, perhaps, to stay married than two who balance their checking account the same way. Humor involves the intellect (wit), the emotions (mirth) and the physiology (laughter) and so when two people laugh at the same thing, there is a deep connection that is beyond words and a bonding occurs, or the bond that was always there is uncovered.

I am decidedly not funny as in joke-telling. If pressed, I couldn’t come up with a half dozen jokes (half of them knock-knock) and I’d flub them sure as the world. But I do see (and too often voice) the ridiculous with some clarity in the news and my own bumbling life, and absurdity abounds on every hand. I see myself as a mirthful person; my family may not agree because I’ve learned to keep many of my witty quips to myself over the years.

Language is packed with humor, and puns are not off limits, no sir. While I am definitely not into cruel humor at another’s expense (which seems so popular on TV comedy these days) sarcasm and irony are fair and oft-used tactics, but I have to be very careful where I use them and have been misunderstood by my more concrete and somber colleagues in the past. There’s nothing more lonely than to be the only one to get the joke.

The most laughter-filled time in my life was, paradoxically, while working in a multidisciplinary Chronic Pain Program as a physical therapist.

I would come home on Mondays, after our medical rounds, with permanent laugh lines etched in the corners of my mouth. While I’ll confess, some of our pitiful patients were easy targets, the more usual victims were the clinical psychologist, the nurse, my good friend the sociologist-director (who gave presentations on humor in medicine), the exercise physiologist, the PT or the DO medical director. We were all such exaggerated characters in our own right, working in a stressful situation where terrible things had happened to the people in our charge–not unlike Hawkeye and Hotlips and Radar in the heat of battle and bloody operating rooms. Lordy, it felt good to laugh.

If you and I spent time together, would we share a sense of humor?

For some whom I’ve come to know via Fragments, I think “most definitely over a pitcher of some bubbly beverage, he and I or she and I would quickly find common ground and resonate in each other’s humor-frequency… they are the BJ’s and Trappers of this little blogging world”. And there are others for whom I think “we’d get along intellectually, but he or she is too (serious, concrete, up-tight, academic…) for me to be wide-open with my authentic quirky way of seeing and expressing things… these are the Frank Burns and Hotlips of the blogosphere; we’d smile, but we wouldn’t laugh often.”

Sorry. I’ve gone and gotten ruminative about humor. I’m a mess. But then I’ve been alone with the dog for two days since Ann’s snowed in at work. I’m starting to get a little cabin crazy and everything seems absurdly tragic or funny to me. Better laugh than cry. Eh?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Boy, do I enjoy people who just naturally talk humorously. Shirley Maclaine’s character in Steel Magnolias still sticks in my mind for her inability to make any statement in just straight, concrete terms. Southern idiom in general is the most witty, in my experience. I am not a practitioner of the art, but I sure am an appreciator. Jews come in second to southerners, and I am blessed to be married to a classic Jewish humorist, who just can’t make a dull comment.