Non-Target Practice

May 23, 2012

Some day I’d like to be funny. So I read books like Laughing for Dummies, How To Be Funny, Quick Killer Laugh-Lines, and St. Balaam’s Spiritual Exercises for Smart-Asses. I’ve been reading one recently by a guy who writes for big-name stand-up comics and for politicians and CEOs who need humor help. He’s taught me a lot even though I haven’t finished the sections on how to get laughs at a bar mitzvah, when you break wind, or when you have to explain your plastic surgery.

But I have a beef (or should that be a vegan “quibble”?). Early on he teaches that to be funny you have to choose a target, to know who you want to make fun of, to decide which “victim” you’ll use to “kill.” Another famous humor writer insists that all humor depends on anger. To be funny you have to tap into people’s anger. A lot of humor works like that, but frankly, I don’t think we need targets or anger to be fun and funny.

Others see humor as rising out of the struggles and absurdities of being human, out of the life we share. In his autobiography, Caesar’s Hours, legendary comic Sid Caesar talks about comedy as truth exaggerated, as real life dilemmas and absurdities tweaked just a enough to make their reality, pain, and awkwardness visible and funny. The comic premise is that this is what we share. We’re in it together. Comedy shows the lives we share.

Using humor as target practice puts us over against each other rather than together with each other. Typical targets include individuals and groups – ethnic and gender humor, jokes about the other guys (whoever they are), and demeaning humor, often about people who are the most vulnerable, the easiest to pick on. You can fill out the list.

What I propose is that we all practice using humor that doesn’t need targets and doesn’t make anyone feel like a target. I suspect that for many of us this will require some practice. We can experiment with being playful together, sharing experiences about our struggles, near misses, and awkward victories. We can enjoy word play and funny stories or say (intentionally) something unexpectedly weird. We can commiserate and exaggerate over the absurdities of life. We can let our silly mistakes show or share the funny thing we just saw or just ran across in a book or on the internet. We can offer one another outlandish praise or kindness that makes us laugh and shows our love. In lots of ways we can create fun that draws us together. It’s a practical way to laugh with others as we would have them laugh with us.

So I invite you to non-target practice and hope that if you make a great discovery in the process, you might share it with us here.

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Typos Reveal Hidden Truths

December 22, 2011

You can learn a lot as a teacher, especially if you pay attention to the unexpected insights and new truths that students offer in their tests and papers. Of course, some surprises are so shocking that you wonder if you’ve failed completely. But others open new vistas and prompt hearty laughter, both welcome in late hours when the piles of papers are deep and breeding. I’ve almost missed the joy of reading papers this fall, but my colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies at George Fox University have generously shared newly revealed truths. I thank them. They’ve also reinforced my conviction that often you need to giggle, not just whistle, while you work. In these examples, most arise from typos and bad proofreading, though, even with that caveat, some gleam with potential.

In describing the “swoon” theory, one of the several explanations people sometimes use to dismiss Jesus’ death and resurrection, she wrote that Jesus only “fainted on the cross and then fell into a deep comma, only to reawaken and escape from the tomb.” That is one serious comma! Period.

Another student was eager to have youth learn some of the old hymn favorites like “The Old Rigid Cross.” Still another included a reference to a newly discovered Jewish sect, the “Pharmacies,” that kept track of and harassed Jesus. So the “Sadducees and the Pharmacies” led in this effort. I suppose the Pharmacies would be good companions, too, to the Pharisees, who committed themselves to strict purity.

In writing of the expansion of the early Church, another student referred to the “Genital Mission.” Now many of us know about Paul’s missionary travels to the Gentiles, but this is a new insight. I’m not sure this theory is completely wrong either, since Paul had devout Jews following him around and telling Christian converts that yes, they must indeed be circumcised.

Finally, I learned of the work of the great Reformer, Martian Luther. Since the name was spelled this way consistently throughout the paper, I can only assume that we are learning of a previously unknown hero of the faith. For all the good the German guy did, he left some gaps. Maybe Martian has been sent from one of the 2,326 potential alien worlds (= earth-like) that have been discovered with the Kepler Space Telescope.

So from unexpected sources, including here, you can find hidden truth revealed. Keep checking back; you never know when we’ll light up your life.

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H-P Repents

February 12, 2011

Recently a Facebook friend posted a prayer of contrition that moved me so much that I saved it and sent it to our office printer. By the time I would get to the printer to pick it up, the copy of my prayer was gone. Repeatedly. Why anyone would swipe a prayer of contrition puzzled me, especially considering these colleagues of mine, who I thought were living decent lives. Several copies later I finally snagged one of my own.

In the process, the H-P printer itself soon displayed its own prayer of contrition, for good reason, we all thought:

“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you through my obstinate refusal to print your servants’ papers and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of power and the pains of dismantling, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life.”

We hope it will lead to transformed behavior. And my thanks to brilliant work-study students, Joyce, who captured the confession, and Daniel, who noted that we have here a “prayer of reprintance.”

[Look for upcoming posts on how to see humor in the Bible, on goat-hair ruses, and on David's daring dowry.]

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Cheerful Grading

November 24, 2010

You can have fun at work, though sometimes you have to discover or invent ways to enjoy it. Most of the time I love teaching. Slogging through swamps overflowing with student papers, however, often makes it hard to walk cheerfully. When I offer colleagues the chance to grade some of my papers, their smiles and smirks confirm that grading is not their greatest joy either.

Probably with unintended kindness, students help amuse me during those lonely hours grading by making humorous mistakes in their papers. Now I don’t urge students to make mistakes just to entertain me. I even remind them that computer spell-checkers miss errors that good human proofreading will catch.

Some routine mistakes don’t amuse me, like confusing “it’s” with “its,” “their” and “there” or “they’re,” or “altar” and “alter.” Sometimes I still smile at common misspellings like “wondering” (I suppose they did) in the “dessert” and women “baring” babies. But I most like new and informative errors to liven up my reading. So I welcomed the sentence that began, “As surly as the god of Beersheba lives….” I had known that the Babylonian god who sent the great flood was dangerous when peeved, but now learned that Abraham and his heirs had to keep an eye out for their neighbors’ surly god. In the same paper I also learned that Beersheba had a “southern boarder,” who, I suppose, wanted grits every morning.

When we study Ecclesiastes we consider its teaching on the frailty of life. One student paper carefully explored “the frivolity of existence,” perhaps more in the spirit of Ecclesiastes than I had anticipated.

Faculty often enjoy bragging on student errors, almost in the spirit of “can you top this?” An Old Testament colleague relished telling me how, in describing one of the theories about how ancient Israel came to control Canaan, a student’s paper repeatedly referred to the “pheasant revolt.” Still another told the delight one of his students had in learning more about the growth of the Church. She finally understood, she said, that “the Holy Spirit had fallen on both the Jews and the Genitals.”

Top that.

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Sharing Humor at Work

October 10, 2010

In the office, with people rushing to and from class, someone asked a question.

“I don’t know,” Todd said (names changed to protect the innocent), “Ask Barry. He’ll know.” He did, of course.

Todd continued: “See, anything you want to know, Barry knows.”

Frank: “In fact, Barry knows things you don’t want to know. No really, you don’t want to know!”

Laughter. Smiles, even Barry. And everyone was off to office and class.

Occasionally my friend Paul and I happen to meet in the office hall, trade a couple of bad puns, and suddenly fall into the roles of Jot and Tittle, the Bible Answer Persons, full of word play and misinformation. This mostly amuses the two of us, while others may be bewildered, even worried. But it affirms our friendship and sends us back to work with a grin.

Sometimes I’ll ask one of the terrific students who work in our office, “Do you have everything under control today?” or a question equally odd or preposterous. It’s usually good for a puzzled look, a smile, or, best of all, a funny comeback.

Sharing humor at work helps us get along, get work done, and get good ideas, among other values. We can use and enjoy it by observing simple guidelines. Humor at work should be:

1. Quick. We all have work to do.
2. Kind. Use only positive humor that encourages and shows appreciation.
3. Playful. Invite folks to share fun together. We all love to hear, “You wanna play?”
4. Creative. Part of humor’s fun is in the new and unexpected.
5. Team building. Think of humor not as a contest but a collaboration. Give others straight lines; laugh generously at humor attempts.

Some days you may just have to amuse yourself, but shared laughter is fun and very worth the effort.

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Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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