I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with administration. The high heels didn’t help. My direct supervisor was a man. He was usually on my side. When it was time for him to go, I didn’t know what to get him in the way of a farewell gift. Then I remembered the Humor Conference.
I remembered when I was driving my mother home. She had never been more happy to see me, except for maybe the day I got married. She had spent a month with her elderly sister. The sister who thought of herself to be mainly confined to her house because of the aging process. My mother had gone there to try and convince her otherwise. My mother was a saint. Her sister was angry with the world.
Having completed her family service, beyond her extraordinary tolerance, she almost ran to get in my car to go home before I had stopped in the driveway. As we drove, I told her I had heard of the craziest thing. A group called the Humor Project was taking people’s money by hosting workshops on the therapeutic use of laughing.
I told my mother there seemed to be no limit to what could be dreamt up help intelligent people part with their money. My mother, being an intelligent person, replied, “ I want to go and I will pay you to go with me.”
My mother never ceased to surprise me.It was always wise that I listen to what she had to say. So, I was soon off to take her away from reality again. She insisted that my sister, the university chemistry professor, come along, too.
We all laughed until we cried, again and again. We returned to our hotel room with weary cheek muscles. The hotel had made a mistake with our reservations. They had booked the room for my mother and sister without issue, but they somehow had forgotten about me, when I was the one who had made the reservations! I did my best mad man routine at the front desk and was told that the best they could do was give me directions to the next town over, because all the rooms in Saratoga Springs were taken. The Humor Conference was in town after all.
I muttered and said a roll away bed to make the room for two fit for three, would work. Sharing a room with two of my favorite women turned out to be a blast.
We kept coming back to the conference year after year. It was just as meaningful, when each time, I made sure I got a room to myself.
The introductory remarks were made by Dr. Joel Goodman, the founder of the Humor Project. No connection to The Good Men Project, until just now). They are married to each other, it seems, however, and married to the idea that comedy is a powerful approach to tragedy, big and small.
They taught me a line to use when things went wrong, “If you might laugh about it later, why wait?” They taught me the difference between “laughing with, as opposed to laughing at.” They didn’t help me explain to many women what was so funny about the “Three Stooges”, television shows. That I had to figure out on my own. They were fond of quoting the hilarious concert pianist, Victor Borge: “A smile is the shortest distance between two people.”
The Humor Project honored some of the great names of comedy for their humanitarian gift of socially relevant humor, by giving them an award and the stage.
We saw Steve Allen, The Smothers Brothers, and Mark Russell. Mark Russell was known for sitting at a piano and singing funny ditties inspired by the news of the day. He had a regular special on PBS for a while. A few days before he was to perform at the Humor Conference, a federal building was blown up in Oklahoma City. Many men, women, and children died and were injured. It remains the biggest act of “home grown” terrorism in the United States.
I knew that Mark Russell wouldn’t go there. I wondered if he could go on at all. Not only did he sit down at his piano, he took us to the rubble and made us laugh. He sang us a song about how, before the dust had settled, mass media began to warn of the Muslim menace, regarding an explosion caused by a man upset with the power of the Federal Government choosing a horrific way to express it. Making fun of xenophobia is not to make light of it, but to shine more light on it.
Before there was Jimmy Fallon, before Jay Leno and Johnny Carson, Jack Parr, picked up the torch from the founder of the Tonight Show, a man by the name of Steve Allen. Mr. Allen told a story about the early days of television, long before “reality TV.” A time when broadcast network censors were quite persnickety. The term “politically correct” had not been invented yet, but there was a narrow view of what wouldn’t offend a late night TV audience.
Allen related that before introducing a feline fancier, who had constructed an elaborate domicile for his favorite pets, the censors had warned Steve to not stoop to seek a cheap laugh based on how he referred to the structure. Mr. Allen said he took this advisement to heart, but found himself lost for words. He introduced the man and asked him what he had brought along for show and tell. The man calmly said he had brought a “cat house.”
Now there is nothing funny about prostitution, but it can be a laugh riot as to how we human beings trip all over words when we try to express ourselves.
One of my personal favorites was the Summer’s Brothers. The brothers turned a music, comedy, stand-up variety act into a highly-rated national television show. One of their core themes was humor related to sibling rivalry. It was their questioning of the advisability of the Vietnam War, that got them canceled. They refused to back down.
I can’t remember the name of the psychiatrist who gave some great small group talks. He had seen a lot of trauma working in hospital emergency rooms. He specialized in difficult to treat depression. He taught on how telling jokes is the last thing you want to do to help someone who is severely depressed. That just rubs it in that nothing feels funny anymore, like it used to.
He taught the psychological stages of humor development in the human being. Babies are pre-wired to laugh at funny faces. Older kids like to laugh at , “forbiddens” like bodily functions and waste products, profanity, and sex. Young kids like plays on words or puns. They are surprised at the answer to the questions: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “Knock, knock. Who’s there?”
They like to laugh at the confusion of others, like morons, younger children, members of a stereotyped class, mainly to sooth their anxiety about their own confusions.
Men of advanced ages laugh and make mistakes laughing at all of the above.
The Humor Conference teaches that if it can make a person anxious, people will use humor to “grin and bear it.” There is a great deal of humor associated with anxiety related to the control of the body. It is why pratfalls are funny, along with belches, farts, and food on your face.
The most advanced form of humor is irony. That is humor related to the difference between what is expected and what occurs. This is the humor of everyday life. It is the humor about nothing that made Jerry Seinfeld rich.
For many men, there is nothing like a belly laugh. This calls for loosening of the diaphragm. It is a great relief from too much sucking it up.
My departing boss was an expert in assistive technology for individuals with physical disability. He was highly experienced in what is known as “Universal Design. “ That is the design of architecture, furniture, and tools that can accommodate use by a range of differently abled people. For example, curb cuts on sidewalks were invented to provide better access to folks who use wheelchairs. Turns out, curb cuts are great for pushing baby strollers and just plain walking. When you design something to help out a minority, it has a way of helping everyone.
So, I went to a thrift store. I picked out a pair of high heels. I purchased a very used covered cake dish. I wrote my speech. I told my boss he had been a great supervisor to me and that I had appreciated his oversight greatly. I told him I was giving him some “assistive technology” to take his vision to the next level.
When the cover came off and two women’s high heeled shoes were revealed, there was silence and then my boss laughed and some others joined in. One of the administrators who I didn’t always see eye-to eye with, just glared. She knew the high heels were not for her to wear.
Even great comedians talk about “rooms” where their usually popular act bombed. I dropped a bomb on my targets that day. One belly laughed; the other didn’t. I was able to share gratitude and at the same time get away with talking some of my perception of truth into power. I, in no way, wanted to make a statement about women’s fashion or the administrative abilities of women in general. The supervisors and administrators I learned the most from in my female-dominated profession of social work, were women. My personal preference since adulthood for comfortable footwear, has always been my choice. Except the day I got married.
When men use humor, they take risks. It is always good to have comeback lines for hecklers and heartfelt responses when you go too far without knowing it at first.
I once supervised a women who loved to make fun of celebrity culture. Members of the Elvis Presley cult were one of her favorite sources of fascination. She wanted to set up a display at work, to mark the anniversary of the King’s death. I contributed a poorly done painting on velvet of the man from Memphis. We had a tape loop of some of his most popular songs.
A fellow supervisor came to me and questioned my taste. She said she had just come back from the funeral of a family member and thought fallen rock stars were better remembered outside of work time. I immediately agreed and Elvis left the building.
“The Three Stooges” are funny because they play with the anxiety-provoking threat of male violence and male bullying. There is nothing funny about these two things, but if we want to work toward eliminating both, we had best keep laughing.
This humor in this article if you liked it, was brought to you by The Good Men Project. If you didn’t like it, must be my editor screwed up. At any rate, I hope to be able to bring you more soon. Keep checking back at goodmenproject.com.
Photo credit: Getty Images