Thursday, October 29, 2009


A few years ago, I bought my current car from my dad for $1.25. This was a fun continuance of tradition because he'd bought an early car of his from his uncle for $1. (I added the 25 cents for inflation). This sort of low-stakes transaction seemed old-fashioned to me--like walking uphill to school or having a malt--and so I was glad to take part.

I grandly took out my wallet, after signing a post-it note contract, and, thrilling to the idea of my own ride, found that I was way short.

I had to borrow cash from my sister and, as far as I know, the loan is still outstanding. With interest, I probably owe her a decent-sized panini by now.

The car--a 1994 Chevy Corsica--had belonged to my Great (honorific and adjective) Aunt Edith. When she died in 1999, it sat around for awhile, and then, six years later, came to me.

Edith was one of my favorite people. She always had jelly beans for me when I was a kid, and she thought everything I said was just a plain delight. (I don't think it's a crime that I like people who like me.) By the time I was a cheeky teenager, we chuckled about everything together, primarily her pristinely-poofed lady hair.

I blame Edith for my addiction to trying to make people laugh. She had that perfect giggle that, since it was funny itself, extended a moment of humor; I would crack a silly joke, she would laugh causing me to laugh, and so on.

Laughter is believed to be a mode of communication that pre-dates speech. Cave folks, it's thought, may have laughed to express relief after they were no longer in danger of being eaten.

Some think laughter is an unconscious way of organizing a group; some suggest that it's a way to "make others know who is in charge."

The Russian author Gogol wrote of one of his characters that "Like so many blessed with the gift of making others laugh, he was himself an extremely unhappy man whose comic vein was both an escape from, and a consequence of a profound melancholia."1

According to all of this, laughing seems like it's a negative thing. Like it comes from danger, dominance, sadness.

I like getting people to laugh because it's the surest way to know what someone's thinking. In most cases, it can't be faked, and so it's an expression of immediate experience. Then, bada-boom, a shortcut to intimacy. Laughing with someone means they've seen you and you've seen them.

(Fake laughter is tremendously odious. It means, in essence, no I don't want to share an intimacy with you AND I'd like to make fun of the attempt you made at that shared intimacy. Let those who fake laugh have their faces frozen in fake joy. [And also they should only be able to eat veggie burgers]).

Before we were together, I tried to get Megan to laugh all the time, in the most shameless ways. She knew this was her soft-spot, and so she'd nod her head at me suspiciously. Maybe she wasn't ready to share that with me yet. Maybe I was heinously unfunny. I kept trying.

I was just talking to my friend Zach and I told him that instead of Halloween Candy, I would have preferred something savory, like Halloween Steak Umms. Why did I have the impulse to make him giggle by saying that? I wasn't feeling threatened by a mammoth, or trying to dominate him, or feeling super-sad.

Maybe I was trying to distract him from the fact that the other things I was saying were boring. Getting people to laugh, then, could be my re-assurance that I am interesting.

I also felt myself on the defensive about my dislike of Halloween, so, instead of explaining my unpopular opinion, I made a joke about it. This was humor as a way of distracting him from my real thoughts, my real thoughts being unvetted and over-earnest.

I think that sometimes, as a secretly grave person, I'm just afraid of what's serious. Half the jokes I tell are only meant for me, as a kind of pumping up. To me, a joke is like REM sleep; we'd go crazy very shortly without it, in an insomnia of sternness.

Arthur Koestler said that "we laugh at the juxtaposition of incongruous things in order to point out that something is wrong." (Incidentally, he wrote Darkness at Noon, which title is incongruous, which book is decidedly humorless.)

I'm not ready to say that we josh 'n jest to recognize the bleak absurdity of things or that those who make light are desperate and lonely people; but there is something about whimsy that suggests that the rest of non-whimsical existence is not quite good enough. So, I won't say we laugh because things are wrong, as Koestler said, but because things could be better.

At my Aunt's funeral, a relative came up to my brother and me and said, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, don't add water or the urn will bust."

We all laughed irreverently at that for a long minute. Later, I cried really bitterly at the church while I tried to get through a scripture.

The Chevy Corsica has no sideview mirrors, no gas cap flap, no functional door to speak of. It is filled with copious amounts of garbage.2 Thick layers of nasty trash. That refuse piles up near an old stuffed lion that belonged to my aunt.

There is a prehistoric bug in the back seat I don't like to approach.

I once left the keys in the Corsica as it sat in an airport parking lot while I flew to Washington DC from Columbus. I found out later that I'd also left it running. "Oh honey," said the airport official whom I'd called to talk to about it.

I'd destroyed the radiator.

And for this car, this heap, this lovely piece of steel called Edith, I still owe my sister eleven dollars? Worth every not-mine penny!

Laughter is caused by the epiglottis constricting the larynx, causing respiratory upset.

1 Name-dropping is not often considered a way to make someone laugh, unless you are Dennis Miller, as in the sentence, "He's name-dropping like Dennis Miller."

2 The prize piece of this garbage is a coffee cup chewed and left in the back seat by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, himself a pretty funny guy.


Zach said...

I agree with your comments that making someone laugh can be a way of making sure that you view yourself as having said something worthwhile. That is, one of the best parts of being funny is BEING funny. Laughter is the evidence that the suspicion, desire (et cetera) of this being true is actually the case. (Fake laughter is bad, check. Also ponderous, disingenuous (et cetera) is the response "That's funny" in lieu of laughs--sub pun--loo laughs: British for potty humor.) In short, laughter is about credit. Or causing and claiming it, anyway: This is why I would like to point out that while your joke about savory Halloween treats was yours, the Stakeums example was not.

Funny that you would misremember.

Dave said...

I Certainly remembered that you had said Steak umms. However, the point was about my instinct to make you laugh and so, in order to get the point across, I couldn't get mired in hejoked/shejoked business. It would have been too many syllables.

It was a tremendous joke on your part, but, since I delivered the premise, it was more of a sharing--the sort of sharing that is incredibly valuable.

Your quick wit should never be doubted. But it can't be doubted, either, that I was about to suggest something similarly funny, like Halloween Gorton's Fish Sticks.

Joe said...

This is a fine flash essay, David. It's got that intangible something.

Also, RJ got some Halloween Play-doh.