It was late in the evening, in a private back room in a nice suburban steak house, and the group of men I was with were operating at the top of their game when it came to story-telling and witticisms. I had not been in such a cleverly comedic environment in some time, and had forgotten how intensely competitive my own humor could be: meaning, when someone else is funny, I want to be funnier. Or should I say need to be funnier.
Because that is how I felt sitting at the table, fidgeting from the burning desire to top the last joke, to unravel the most intriguing anecdote, to get the loudest and longest laughs. It was not a good moment. It hearkened back to too many times in the past, when in the effort to stand out I pushed the humor envelope, feeding my narcissism with put-downs and puns, sarcasm and slapstick, mining laughs by being self-deprecating or hyperbolic, droll or mordant, highbrow or sophomoric.
It was not that I never succeeded in being entertaining, but the truth is I rarely, if ever, emerged from these times feeling good about myself. Instead of patting myself on the back for making people laugh, I worried, rightly so, that I had dominated the conversation, that I had been too controlling, too myopic, too focused on making sure everyone was having a good time to actually have a good time. It made me feel insecure, and this insecurity was the fuel that propelled me to act in a way that made me feel even more insecure.
It was a cycle not unlike an addiction, and with the need to feed my jolly jones escalating, social gatherings became more chore than cheer, draining my energy and sapping my spirit, leaving me feeling never quite satisfied and always wanting more when it came to refracted glory in the form of laughter.
But as I grew older, and settled into a good marriage, and gained wisdom and strength from navigating and overcoming the inevitable bumps and bruises of life, I noticed a change when it came to my need to be funny – I didn’t have it anymore. I mean, I still like to make people laugh, but it’s not akin to breathing anymore, and when there are other funny people in the room, as there was that night at the steak house, and the old urge to “grab the mic” attacks my psyche, I am able, finally, to resist the temptation.
And, ironically, by sitting back and relaxing, by welcoming others to take the lead, by contributing without expectations and without fear of being perceived as somber or boring or whatever else my former insecurities brewed up, I have more fun.
Which is the whole point, right?