What we laugh about when we laugh

Whenever I’ve been asked to describe my sense of humor, I begin answering under the assumption that I absolutely know its definition. “I’m kind of silly and self-deprecating,” I start saying. This is about as far as I get before I start to second guess how to continue. My instinct is to continue, “I think it’s a bit smarter than other people’s sense of humor. Not in a referential sort of way, just in a more sensitive and observational way.”

It’s a good thing that’s not a vague description.

I’ve been seeing someone the last few weeks and he’ll often try jokes on me. When I don’t laugh, he seems surprised. At this point, he probably shouldn’t be shocked anymore. We have fairly different styles of humor. His jokes tend to comment more on mental models of societal groups. That’s my polite way of saying he makes jokes about stereotypes. He’s an equal opportunity commenter – Asians, lesbians, Jews, and feminists are all free game in his book.

I recognize that there’s a group of people who enjoys this vein of comedy. “It’s clever & plays on the peculiarities that we avoid articulating,” they probably argue. Maybe there are some comedians out there who do this exceptionally well. To do it successfully, I imagine you’d have to combine stereotypes, social commentary, & wordplay in a fresh way. These are probably the same kinds of comedians who ridicule the audience members who don’t laugh at the jokes. “Ohhhhhhh. Don’t want to laugh at that and get your liberal panties in a bunch, do ya? Come on, we’re all assholes here.”

Until recently, I haven’t been forced to explain why I’m not a fan of this kind of comedy. I think I’ve got it though. The way I see it, this vein of comedy functions primarily by poking at others. Beyond the obvious (making the audience laugh), I can only assume the goal is to portray the comedian as a witty, superior, and crudely charismatic alpha. I’m either too jaded or I’ve read too many books to not see through this. Whenever I hear this stuff, it’s like the comedian is offering the joke up and expecting the audience to award him for being so clever and ballsy to speak so politically incorrect.

The thing about politically offensive jokes is that if they’re not done well, it backfires and makes the comedian look insecure. These jokes aren’t gutsy. They’re simple commentary whose vehicle is previously established phrases and unevolved assumptions. Instead of uniting people in a shared experience, it divides them between those “gutsy enough” to laugh and the “prudes.” Call me idealistic, but I don’t see the humor in an offensive term or quip that reduces a person (or group of people) to single societally-decided negative characteristic.

We’re complex creatures whose narratives continuously overlap, but so much of our lives are spent focusing on obligations and frustrations to see that our insecurities and quiet humiliations are universal. The jokes I appreciate function on good storytelling and the comedian’s willingness to be vulnerable. It’s wry and sensitively self-deprecating. Instead of simply illustrating their own idiocy, the comedian is telling a personal story that resonates with the audience at an individual level.

Stand up

I’ve said this all without ever having done so much as an open mic, so that might weaken my entire argument. But that standup spotlight and mic has got to be lonely. Nobody wants tell a joke and see offended expressions and obligatory laughter. I’m sure there’s a multitude of reasons a person does standup, but the goal is the same: to feel connected. This isn’t an argument for easy jokes to get the most laughter. But if you’re going to do this at all, what’s the sense in seeking anything other than a genuine connection with the audience?

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Throwback Thursday: Zen in the Art of Pooh Journaling

Every Thursday, I dig I out an old diary and share an entry sans editing (in hopes we’ll all see my grammar and apostrophe use improve) with a short commentary. If you like laughing with/at Young Ashley, feel free to use the handy search bar to the right and simply type “Throwback Thursday” and you’ll find the whole archive. Thanks for reading!

Exciting news, you guys! I’ve moved onto the second diary in my collection! We’re getting closer to my truly humiliating entries!

You're right, Ashley. These are two COMPLETELY different notebooks. You have such dynamic taste.

You’re right, Ashley. These are two COMPLETELY different notebooks. You have such dynamic taste.

Tuesday May 4, 1999

Hello. My name is Ashley Elizabeth Otto. I’m in the fifth grade at Clovis Grove Elementary school in Menasha Wisconsin. I play the violin. My instructor is Ms. Jane B—- F—–. My best friends are Ashley A, Ashley M, Katie B, and Malee L. In my family there are 4 other people, not including myself. First there is my Dad, Kraig. He works at “J.J. Keller”, and he works for My Uncle Mark, who is my favorite uncle. (I’ll tell you about him later.) Next my mom, Eileen. Her maiden name is H——. She works at “Piggly Wiggly”. Next Corey he is 12, he goes to Maple Wood Middle school. Finnally Ryan. He is 5, he went to “Tinny Tots”. Ms. F—- says that I have extraordinary talent in music. Thats good for my dream! My dream is to be in the New York Symphony, and a hairstylist on the side. I’d like to marry a doctor and live in a big house. My dream car is a VW Beetle. End. 

Saturday May 8, 1999

I feel great today! Even though its only about 10:40, I really feel great! I have a feeling today will be  a great day. Or a “happy day” as I used to call it. Corey would call it a “Rock and Roll day.” Today I slept in till 8:00. I got up, played a game of pool with Corey. (We got a 10 in 1 pool table, its got pool, basket ball, lots of games, a lego table, and more!) I had a toaster strudle for breakfast. Then mom went to Dawn’s house. (she’s still there.) While she was there I got into the shower, shaved my legs. Then I blow dried my hair, washed my hair, and now I’m writing in you! I will work out after this too. I don’t know what else to say. End. (for now!) 

I still feel great! Ok, so there’s this girl, Hilary Hahn. She looks like she’s 11, but she’s 19! 19! Well anyway, here’s here story for Time for kids: 

[i then proceeded to copy a short article about Hilary Hahn in unbelievably tiny print]

What’s really amazing is that at age 10 she got into a musical academy! I wish I could do something like that! Well I almost did. I’ll tell you the story of when I started violin. It begins last year…

“Please dad! I really want to play violin! Pleeeeeaase!” “Well I’ll have to check with your mom first.” Well after Dad talked to mom about it, they said yes. We had to go to Gegan to get fitted for our instrument. My cousin Kyle was there, he would play the cello. I was fitted with a 1/4 size violin. On my first lesson at 9:00 on a Monday morning we learned “twinkle twinkle little star.” Plucking. I did not want to practice plucking. “OH wow! I can pluck!” So, I practiced with my bow. When my mom came to my 12:00 lesson one time I passed “Mississippi hotdog.” (a twinkle variation) Ms. F—– stood on her head! I was the first one in my group to pass it. So while there were on song #1, I was on song #2. One day when I had passed “Perpetual Motion” the 9th song Ms. F—– called and said that song #9 was the song that she wanted her students to be by the end of their second year. So she was going to give me a scholarship to Suzuki summer camp! Well even with the scholarship it was to much for my parents to pay. So I didn’t go. Well, she said that if during the summer there were no lessons that I might get private lessons. Well I didn’t do that either. So in the summer school classes there was Strings Lessons. All because of me! Me! Well sometime in March we had our annual “Strings Festival.” We had a rehearsal at 12:30….

I proceeded to list more rehearsals and lessons that establish my excitement and apparent status as a Suzuki Book 1 prodigy. “Gavotte is a simple song, but hard bowings to it” was my grammatically unsound statement about my progress at that point. It wasn’t so much an entry about me starting violin so much as an overview of my accomplishments my first year. I just sort of bragged about myself. Sort of begs the question: have I really changed at all?

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll notice the dates of these entries overlap some of my earlier Throwback Thursdays. I promise, I’m not going back, I’m just moving on to the next journal. I thought my excitement over new notebooks and journals started much later in life, but turns out it’s always been an issue. The cursive of this first entry is so tightly written that it makes my hand sore. Flipping through this diary, I find that most of my hand writing here is small. Maybe I’ll find that I was a passionate advocate for paper conservation while writing in this notebook. Or maybe it’s just that I was hoping the publisher would more favorably judge a neatly written journal when deciding which 10 year old’s journal to publish next.

Journal

I remember writing introductions for many of my early diaries, but I think this was the most deliberate one. It was as if I expected to have a conversation with it. “Wow, that’s really your name?” my diary would say. “No! Your dad doesn’t work there! And your brother went to ‘Tinny Tots’? What did they do there, study tin cans and potatoes?” For the record, it was actually called Tiny Tots – I was just a moron who didn’t know how to spell. I think these introductory entries were a sort of offering to the journal. It felt too assuming to just start writing about my days. I thought each journal needed a preface – as if anybody would read them and not be able glean the details from later pages. Obviously I was still learning the art of story telling. I’ve since learned a few things about writing.

Construct a story by establishing the plot (I needed to ask my parents if I could play violin because I wanted to join Malee when she left math for lessons), introducing characters (me, 11 and anxious; my father, work-weary with dirty fingernails; my mother, fresh-faced and wiping the counters), illustrating the setting (early fall, cool breeze brightening the warm air of my parents’ kitchen, we’re standing near the drawer with the telephone book), create tension (I had asked the year before, but my dad said no, that I was too young – maybe next year), sprinkling in dialogue (“Can I pleeeaaase, Dad? Can I?” “Your mother and I will need to talk about it”), and granting a resolution (they said yes, I kicked ass).

This second diary looks like a much more serious attempt to capture my place in the world. It was around the time I was first made aware of impermanence. I wanted something to leave behind – a collection of Pooh journals, apparently – that would justify my existence. At the time, I remember hearing my mother warn me about the end days, saying that the rapture was near. I was almost certain I would never make it to 18. I didn’t think I’d die, I would just never reach that age or I would just be raptured in a Jesus beam. I guess you could say these diaries were my gift to the sinners not raptured.

Actually that seems like more of a punishment. “For all of eternity, your only reading material will be a Pooh diary written in metallic gel pen recounting one girl’s greatest indecision: whose hotness is hotter – Leonardo Dicaprio, James Van Der Beek or Joey M? Hope all the sins were worth it, heathen.”

It’s obvious that my journaling began as a desperate attempt to stake a claim on my life. “I was here! I lived! I have thoughts that matter! My story has got to be important!” Though I don’t journal as often as I would like, I think I write for the same reason. I think this blog has established my stake (according to search terms, a claim whose only worth is its advice on encounters with ex-boyfriends), and my personal journal tackles much more personal issues. Now I use my journal for the venting I’m sick of bothering Andrea with. It’s for the thoughts not entertaining enough for Twitter and too depressing to make into Facebook statuses. I suppose my more recent journals would reveal an apparently depressed and often romantically confused woman whose biggest wish is to find a way to survive on fourteen hours of sleep each week.

Keep dreaming, Ashley. Keep dreaming.

On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t deconstruct comedy…

Sometimes I confuse myself. This morning, I woke up knowing the only thing I wanted to do today was lie in bed, watch Netflix, and eat leftover thai. I didn’t have any expectations for the day – a refreshing change of pace. Something about not having a single obligation for an entire day feels liberating. I imagine some people use free days to reconnect socially by getting lunch with a friend or calling relatives they haven’t spoken to in a while. It wasn’t that I was completely against the idea of interacting with people today, it was more that I didn’t have a problem not doing that.

I’m wondering if this is a holdover from last summer. I spent so much time wallowing in loneliness that the sensation became sort of comfortable. It’s got me wondering if I’ve become too comfortable being alone. Furthermore, it’s making me wonder if there’s any harm in that. I think most people would agree that the cruelest punishment is solitary confinement, but that’s not what I’m really talking about. I’m talking about being okay with spending six nights a week mostly on my own with books, manicures, and Justin Timberlake on repeat. When my one social obligation came around on Saturday night, I welcomed it. But it came and went, and on Sunday morning, a day in bed on my own seemed perfectly wonderful.

This was taken around noon.

Last night I went to a dinner and a comedy show with an academic. The conversation prior to the comedy show ranged from classic literature to dealing with that dirty feeling you get after watching too much of something like Louis CK or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. At one point, he started to deconstruct some of the comedy shows I wasn’t very familiar with (Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm) in order to persuade me to watch them. I followed this thread of deconstruction throughout the rest of the night. Over wine, I began to analyze our conversations, wondering if we touched on the typical date conversation topics. In those conversations, you’re each trying to decide if you want to invest more in each other. But listing favorite bands, movies, books, and television shows only reveal so much about a person, right? By the time we got to the comedy club, I was in full deconstruction mode, doing quick dissections of the jokes.

But my dissections were shallow and obvious. One comedian said he was saving up to buy a firetruck so he could safely drive home drunk. “Firetrucks are supposed to be speeding and weaving in and out of traffic. Have you ever seen a firetruck get pulled over? No.”

The dissection (which I kept to myself) was something like, “It’s funny because it’s absurd. The idea of saving for a firetruck to support alcoholism is absurd. The image of a firetruck being pulled over is absurd.” Though my initial comedy analysis was simple and obvious, it made me start to wonder why I enjoy it so much. I admire the way a good comedian can quickly illustrate a complete story well enough to make an audience empathize. I admire the ways some comedians make us laugh at ourselves and how others make us ashamed. Comedy is more than just laughter, it’s the acknowledgement of human nature and its ridiculousness.

Anyway, I ended up spending most of the day in bed trying to learn more about comedy. I started reading And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft. While reading, I compiled a list of movies and television shows to watch and re-watch, and books to read: The Graduate, To Die For, Louie; The Office (UK), Arrested Development, Spaceballs; Catch-22, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love…I expect the list to grow tenfold by the time I’m finished with the book.

The twisted thing about today is that I did exactly what I wanted to do: no more than read a good book and watch some funny television. Yet, now that the day is done, I’m a little sad because I feel like I could have been more social. I always get like this after spending a day on my own, even if I’m fulfilled and pleased with my endeavors. A couple weeks ago, I spent the day with e.e cummings’s six nonlectures, feeling myself become more inspired by each page. But just like today, after sunset, I was left feeling lonely. It felt like mental masturbation; as if I’d rather spend the day with a book – something I can interpret and manipulate for myself – than forge a connection with someone else. That’s not actually true, but I’m afraid resistance to reach out to people could be interpreted that way.

This was taken around 9pm. Way to go, Ashley. Day accomplished, I guess.

This was taken around 9pm. Way to go, Ashley. Day accomplished, I guess.

Yet I find myself telling you all about it here – an act that could be construed as a narcissistic indulgence – in an attempt to feel connected. Surely this must resonate with someone else. Other people must feel the tug of solitary pleasures while also craving deep connections, right? I’d like to think I keep posting for the same reason comedians take the stage night after night: to feel – or even just get a taste of – social resonance.