Thursday, February 28, 2013

# 46 A Funny Condition

   Today, a student paid me a compliment. She told me I am the "funniest teacher ever."  I'm assuming she meant ha ha funny rather than weird funny, but then, I never thought to ask.  I've been called "funny" by so many students over the years, I have to admit, I take the label for granted. You see, I was born with this condition called funny, I didn't ask for it.  

    Personally, I blame my mother for the condition. My mother was a brilliant story teller, and very skilled in the repartee department. She had the ability come home from a short trip to the grocery store, and tell you something funny that she witnessed during the journey. I didn't know it at the time, but her ability to laugh, and make other people laugh, would influence my whole life. 

   In elementary school my humour was just your typical class clown, attention seeking behaviour that drove my stern faced teachers to reprimand me with regularity. I guess they didn't appreciate the fact that I was usurping the stage from them. I now know their predicament, I have walked in their shoes, and yes, I have done my penance.

   Once I hit adolescence, the testosterone kicked in, and I found a whole new audience in girls. If you can't be the captain of the team, you might as well be the captain of the bleachers. Girl humour is very different from boy humour, and requires a whole other set of skills. The fact that I grew up with three sisters helped in that department.

   When I was in my twenties, I started to read about the intricacies of humour, but that proved to be a destructive venture. It was like analyzing how you walk. The research just caused me to trip over my own intuition, and I lost my ability to be funny. For me, regardless of its quality, humour is a spontaneous event, or it should at least appear that way. You can't manufacture it unless you have the benefit of a troop of writers, and laugh track like they use on mainstream television shows.

   However, my research did teach me that most comedy is rooted in tragedy. While we have the ability to think rationally, most of the time we are victims of our own impulsive reaction to the world. We make mistakes, and our peers laugh at us for the errors. Take notice of how people will stand around, and laugh at another peer who has tripped over his shoe laces. But this kind of humour is pretty rudimentary stuff. But to me, really good humour comes from the way we spontaneously react to the world around us. Maybe this is why I've never been good at delivering  jokes, they seem too premeditated. I can never remember them, and my delivery is usually off anyway.

   In addition, there are the people who are just too impatient to sit through a whole joke. I find most teachers are weak in this department. Often, they'll listen very patiently to the joke, nod, smile politely, chuckle before they exit the scene. Sometimes I suspect they are always evaluating the joke for acceptability sake. However, it could be that teachers are always strapped for time, and we spend our whole day listening and talking to people. Listening to a joke requires a relaxed mind for the element of surprise to tickle your funny bone.

   In the classroom, humour can be a positive aid, a weapon, or even a liability.  I regularly use it for classroom management, and as a teaching aid. In terms of classroom management, there is always a chance that it works against you, some people don't always get it, and become offended. I've learned to combat this by never smiling, or laughing, at what comes out of my mouth. This way the message is ambiguous and consequently, they choose to laugh, or decline. If they are offended I can clarify the message and restore continuity.

   The other negative with using humour is that there are always kids who are a little emotionally volatile, and will take a humorous situation over the line by overreacting, or becoming unruly. So, I have had to learned how to shut down an atmosphere quickly.

   Actually, now that I think of it,  I do know one joke, and it works well with grade nines and tens. Here it is: Straight faced, I say to the class, "How many have heard of a cannibal?" Then someone will say, "They eat people."  So, I repeat their answer to the class, and look around to see that everyone is on board. Then I ask them this question, "Did you know that there is one type of human, cannibals will not eat? I wait a few seconds, then I say, "Clowns!"  I wait for the interested expressions to develop, and then I hit them with the punch line, "They don't eat clowns, because they taste funny!" It is a corny joke I stole from a drama teacher years ago, but it works. I have told it a million times, and would say, I get a 80% laughter, 10% groan, and 10% blank stare. Personally, I am sick of this dam joke, but I figure, it's the only one I know.

   Most kids with a healthy disposition are less cynical about life, and so, prefer word play, sudden analysis of idiomatic expressions, toilet humour, and when I use self deprecating humour. Sometimes, when I notice a kid is drifting off in a daydream, I will causally ask them something like, "Hey! Can you do me a flavour?" Then they'll say, "What? Did you just say 'flavour' sir?"  Then I admit, "Yea, I did.  I was just checking to see if you are paying attention, or checked out for a few minutes."  This one brings a bit of groan, but it serves its purpose.

   When I teach irony to senior English classes, I use this example:  Suppose you are diabetic, and you realize your insulin supply has run out. In a frantic effort to save yourself, you call the drugstore to make sure they have some in stock. You're in luck! So, you run down the street toward the pharmacy. You arrive at the last intersection, and notice that the light is red. You pace a bit, look both ways, and think, there are no cars coming, I'll just dash across. As you hit the middle of the intersection, a five ton delivery truck, loaded with an order of insulin for the drugstore runs you over, and you die in the middle of the road. Boom! Big laugh!! Then I say, "Do you think that is a good example of irony? Why?" I have told this anecdote a many times, it's a winner!

   How about this example: A guy goes to fight for his country in World War 2, survives numerous bloody confrontations with the enemy. When he comes home, he is greeted as a hero. The town puts together a heartwarming ceremony to celebrate his return. The band plays, speeches are made, and Canadian flag is raised. As he stands there saluting the flag, a freak thunderstorm blows across the ceremony. A lightening bolt hits the old wooded flag pole, cutting it in two. The soldier fearlessly refuses to acknowledge the danger, and continues to stand at attention. The flag pole falls over, killing him in the process. Big laugh! Then I ask them, "Is that an example of irony, or coincidence?"
This works about 60% of the time, but often creates confusion. (Note to self: work on that one about the soldier.)

   These examples I've just mentioned above are from ideas I have stolen from other people, and then developed for classroom use. It has taken me several attempts before I could learn the proper timing. Often, I say things a certain way, kids will smile or laugh, and most of the time, I don't really think about it too much.  Over the years, I have asked students What was so funny about that...? And they will say, "I don't know. It's the way you said it."  By themselves, the words carry no humour, but a combination of timing, intonation and facial expression makes them work. I figure, if I could only control this ability, I might have a new career as a professional fool.

   Now, I don't want to give you the impression that my ability to make people laugh has always been a positive gift. I can assure you my spontaneous observations about the world have inspired emotions other than laughter on many, many occasions. Believe me, I have had to talk my way out of way too many misinterpretations to mention here.
    I don't think funny is a skill, it's a condition. Humans are flawed creatures, and deep down we all know it. The trick to laughter is to get people to look at their flawed contribution to humanity. If you feel secure in the group, you will develop the ability to laugh at your own foibles, but of course there are always a couple who do not feel they fit in securely enough to put their inhibitions away. If you can navigate that hurdle, finding this commonality is a great way to encourage inclusion.

   After all of these years of publicly living with my sense of humour, I have learned not fight it,  just be it.  I'll see or hear something quirky, and I comment on it, some people will laugh others not.  Sometimes I keep my thoughts silent, and laugh to myself.  Now, if you want to get strange looks, just try laughing to yourself in public.

   Many years ago I was talking to my mother about our funny condition. I told her about how I don't always intend on making people laugh, but they often do. She laughed, and said, "Well, it could be worse dear. You could have a habit of making people cry." Good point mom.