Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.
We all know effortlessly hilarious people: those people who always know what to say to lighten the conversation, whose texts, emails, and perfectly timed interjections generally make the world a better place. And we love those people. But often we don’t think we are those people. In my experience, never having been particularly funny, I sort of settled into the role of the audience. There are those people—and then there’s the rest of us, condemned for the rest of our lives to awkward carpools, excruciating work mixers, and dull-as-death emails. Sure, we might have the occasional sparkling moment of wit, but not hilarity running through our lives in a cheery little stream. That’s what our funny friends are for, and we love them for it.
What makes our good-humored friends the way they are? Surely they’re born with some special gift. And in the case of many of them that’s probably the case. I’m never going to write emails as hilariously as my head RA sophomore year. I’m never going to pull off Dr. Somerville’s benevolent irony. But good humor might not be simply a visitation of genius. Maybe there’s something else going on—maybe their sense of humor is something that they’ve intentionally cultivated. Being funny isn’t easy all the time, and even the people to whom it seems to come so naturally probably have to think about it once in awhile. If we asked them why they make other people laugh, what would they say? Maybe they’d point out that the world is hard enough as it is, without making it more difficult with grumpy phone calls and unsocial waiting rooms. And maybe they’d also mention something else: it doesn’t take that much work to be funny.
Hold up. Maybe for you it doesn’t take much work to be funny. For me, it sounds impossible. How would I know what to say? There’s a more elementary question: what is a sense of humor? According to the trusty Internet, there are multiple senses of the word “humor.” The first is what I’ve already been talking about: “the quality of being amusing or comic, especially as expressed in literature or speech.” Don’t know if I can do that. Moving on; we’ll come back to this later. Here’s another definition: “a mood or state of mind.” What is a good humor, then? It’s being in a good state of mind. But do we have control over that? Here other friends might come to mind. Some people are hilarious, and other people seem like they’re always in a good mood. The people who smile cheerily at us during finals week and make us want to throw our books at them. What would it take for me to be that way? People not being so annoying. Papers not being due so soon. Classes not being so punctual (this is a mental grumble that has actually occurred to me). Okay. Maybe not gonna happen. Then there’s the third sense of “humor,” a verb: “comply with the wishes of (someone) in order to keep them content, however unreasonable such wishes might be.” That might be a different sense, but surely it has something to do with good humor. It seems to be characteristic of a good-humored person that he or she puts up with a lot of unreasonable demands. From the hypochondriacs to the slow drivers, my good-humored friend never loses her patience. That’s the friend who strikes up a cheery conversation or shovels the front steps when I’m inside sulking. Maybe the first step toward a good humor is humoring: humoring other people, people we know or we don’t, or even just humoring the circumstances.
I’m a weather complainer. I complain about it all the time. I’m from sunny Southern California and pretty much all weather falls short of that, so the daily (hourly) changes in Michigan weather are a perpetually relevant source of disgruntled commentary. And this drives one of my dear friends crazy. The weather is what it is, she insists. I’m not changing anything. Sure, but it’s fun to complain. It’s also, as my friend reminds me, not the best approach. The spiritual writer Jacques Philippe points out that one of the most important steps toward peace is simply accepting things as they are—not only accepting them, but affirming them. Maybe the first step toward good humor is simply accepting things as they are; even, as the definition suggests, accepting people’s sometimes unreasonable demands. I’m not saying one should be a doormat; I am saying that sometimes it’s not worth it to argue with the snippy waitress or snarl back at the guy at the gas station. Because who has time to be funny when they’re disgruntled? I don’t.
Then, once we’ve established a good humor, a good “mood or state of mind,” we have time to think about actually trying to be funny. I think the first and most obvious point here is that funny people take themselves lightly. I’m a senior and, as I approach the end of my college career, my increasingly apparent incompetence has frequently given me pause. My attempts at “living real life,” though they begin in thrilled anticipation, end frequently in disappointment: food spilled all over the floor, the wrong thing said or worn or done at the wrong time, awkward introductions to important people (“I, um, I know who you are!”) and the broad heading of Mistakes With Cars. I had what I suppose is a common Hillsdale experience: being completely on top of the world senior year of high school and then facing the gradual realization, as the semesters wore on, that I had no idea what I was doing. But ever since that senior year high point, I have always held that it is essential to be Dignified. No matter what went wrong, at least I retained a sort of dignity—usually it could be worked out that it wasn’t my fault, it was actually someone else’s, or at least that if I was mistaken I was respectably so. But maybe my Dignified state (what George MacDonald called being “Somebody”) gets in the way of my sense of humor. Because we’d all admit that the funniest people we know don’t take themselves too seriously, especially some of the people we nonetheless hold in the highest respect, like our professors. The occasional bad pun or “I can say that, I have tenure” makes us realize that they’re people like us, and they’re not afraid to show, on occasion, that they might even be imperfect.
Self-deprecating humor isn’t the only genre. But pretty much any kind of humor entails one terrifying possibility, the possibility that I think holds back my own attempts at humor the most—that the joke might fall flat. Whenever you make a joke, you’re risking blank stares and sidewise glances. The constant barrier to trying to be funny is that you’re not already funny. And that means that humor itself involves a certain willingness to be undignified. Maybe the funniest people we know are coming off a high school career of painful puns and awkward one-liners. And even if they aren’t, maybe I’ll need to get through that phase before I can be one of those people.
I think it’s worth it, though. The world would be a more hilarious and happy place if our days were constantly brightened by people of good humor. I’m not sure how it happens, and I’m sure the journey toward a good humor involves a certain amount of falling on one’s face. But I do think it’s worth a try, and every once in awhile I make fun of my own ineptitude with the person next to me in the aisle at the grocery store and she smiles.
And if I could come up with a funny little quip, I’d end on that.
Emily Lehman is a senior studying English.