I always try to joke with my kids (because it’s requirement for fatherhood). But one memory sticks out for me.
I run a decent amount and have run marathons – none since having kids – but I’m getting back on the road more and more. One day after running about 13 miles my kids asked me where I ran. I laid out my route for them ensuring I used landmarks they would be familiar with.
“I ran up to Greenwood Pond, then I ran through Water Works Park, past the horses and over the bridge. Then I ran around Gray’s Lake and into Downtown. I ran through Downtown, past the Library, up Grand and past the Governor’s Mansion and home.”
Less than a second after I explained the route the both responded incredulously.
“You’re joking,” said Luke matter-of-factly.
And “That’s silly!” squealed Nora.
Of course, the route I explained was the actual route I had ran that morning.
Most of the time they both have different responses to my jokes based on how they think about the world.
Luke is very literal and a joke that might have some semblance of truth in it upsets him deeply.
“Why don’t you eat 45 more bites of your sandwich,” I tell him at lunch.
He immediately starts crying, realizing that it would be impossible to eat 45 more bites of the sandwich and not understanding why I had asked him to do such a thing.
Nora on the other hand has an imagination that has convinced her that there was a moose in her room that wanted to eat her. But she can see a joke two miles away. I sometimes can’t even tell her honest things without her saying that I’m silly for saying such things.
So for both of them to immediately conclude my running route was a hoax at the same time made clear that my goal of introducing them to humor was working.
Showing the power of humor to my kids serves two purposes. First, humor is the only way you can continue living when faced with the messy pool of emotions and thoughts that enter the human mind. Without the release that comes with laughter or a humorous smile we would fall apart in the face of our inadequacies.
And second, it boosts my self-esteem to actually have someone laugh at my patently not-funny poking and prodding.
My dad tells stories of his childhood when his dad (my grandpa) would tell the most unfunny jokes at dinner time – think knock-knock jokes for adults. But my dad would fall out of his chair laughing. Not because he thought they were funny at the time, but because he resized the same two purposes about joking fathers.
Luke gets jokes. That’s not say he finds them funny but rather that he understands the structure of jokes. He likes patterns – mostly numbers and letters currently – and we tell one joke that goes like this.
“What did the zero say to the eight?”
Of course Luke liked that one. And he quickly identified the structure of the joke – two numbers and an article of clothing. So he tells many variations on it.
“What did the one say to the two?
“What did the four say to the five?”
In Iowa, you have to tell a joke to get a piece of candy for Halloween. So all night long while handing out candy kids come to your door and you ask them to tell you a joke. You don’t have to rate them – “That was only OK, I’ll only give you one piece of licorice” – you just have to listen to them and hand out candy. Most of the jokes are lame. But one stands out for me because of it’s Zen koan-like quality.
“What’s in the middle of nothing?”
Comedy is all about timing. I love to watch comedy for it’s timing. And comedic timing is all about the pause, the dead air, the whitespace. It’s about letting the story settle in for the listener or viewer’s mind for few extra seconds. And then unleashing the ridiculous juxtaposition that makes the story funny. But without the pause, the ridiculous part just lacks the punch alone to make you laugh. Timing is what makes you burst in to laughter. Timing is what draws out the release.
That’s the other piece about humor I want my kids to learn. You have to pause to laugh. Space to think and reflect enables the bursts that release.
I remember watching “The Aristocrats”, a movie about a ultra-dirty joke that comedians tell to each other back stage. I realized in the middle of the movie why the joke exists. The comedians telling the joke talk about things that sane people wouldn’t even let enter their mind – incest, bestiality, defecation. And that’s the point for the comedians, all that stuff is in their heads and they have to find a way to release it or they would probably implode under the pressure of those thoughts.
Sometimes the humor goes the other way – unintentionally originating from the kids.
I sit trying to escape the chaos of family mornings on the toilet and reading the New York Times while the kids are playing downstairs. Luke trudges up the stairs and stands outside the door and says, “Dad, Nora said ‘Damn’.”
“Well, just tell her that we don’t say damn.” I tell him through the bathroom door.
As he moves back down the steps he calls down to Nora. “Nora, we don’t say the word ‘damn’.”
“And we don’t say ‘fuck’ either.” he finishes.
I just sit there in the bathroom quietly laughing to myself.