October 8, 2013
In two previous blog posts about “Seeing Funny,” I’ve explored playing with words and using formulas. This installment will make “Seeing Funny” a trilogy, which has brought some folks to fame and fortune, even to movie contracts. Of course it may not come to that, but I’m protecting the movie rights for now. Still, free for now, here are some ideas about using your imagination to create fun.
Make words, ideas, and phrases literal. Picture them. You can have great fun by just playing with figures of speech or imaginative scenes. You hear, “She rolled her eyes,” and imagine (or better, gesture) her popping her eyes into her hand and rolling them like dice. Or imagine how awkward or painful it must be to have your “heart in your throat.” I like to invite literalist readers to picture Job 37:1, “At this my own heart quakes, and leaps from its place.” (Jerusalem Bible) When people speak of thinking hard, I almost involuntarily hear gears grinding and smell smoke pouring out. And I’ve borrowed the language of allergy. “I’m allergic to cheesecake. When I eat it, my waist breaks out with big lumps of fat.” Sometimes you just have to go literal.
Exaggerate. Exaggerating, except in arguments with your family, can create great fun. You can start with an idea or story that’s already funny and then push it to the edges. You can make things huge or tiny, ordinary things like speed, weight, size, being accident-prone. “When that guy passed me, he was going 300 miles per hour!” Comics like Johnny Carson and David Letterman use formulas like “How hot was it?” and “How wet was it?” to set up punch lines. “It was so wet in Newberg last week that my neighbor scrambled to build an ark.”
A funny, over-sized curse from Carson years ago still wanders freely in my head. “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits.” I’ve never heard a sermon about curse texts from Deuteronomy 28, but they’ve made students both shudder and giggle: “The LORD will afflict you with Egyptian inflammation, hemorrhoids, rash, and itch. You will be untreatable. The LORD will make you go crazy, make you blind, make your mind confused.” (Dt 28:27-28, Common English Bible) (For my more liturgical readers, you’ll find this in Lectionary X, the collection of texts never read in public worship.)
Re-arrange. I first played with Mr. Potato Head when I was nine or ten. That was back in the old days when the toy first came out, before it was declared dangerous. You had to use a real potato, which might in fact rot if you wanted to permanently display a version of Mr. Potato Head you had created. And the body part pieces did have to have sharp points, duller in later versions. But pioneering in Mr. Potato Head was fabulous fun; for laughs, of course, you could put eyes, ears, and noses wherever you wanted, not just in the pre-drilled holes of the later plastic potatoes. Even now, re-arranging pieces of an idea or a story so that they show up in odd or unexpected places can stir up lots of fun. Unlikely pieces in unlikely places fuel a lot of funny stories. For example, imagine Don Knotts as a bumbling janitor who mistakenly gets launched as an astronaut (in the old movie “The Reluctant Astronaut”). It’s not exactly George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in the new movie “Gravity.” Better yet, imagine your own funny pieces in funny places – at home, in your work place, in other places you know.
Play what-if. Create or change the circumstances, the players, or the plot and see what happens. For example, after years as a college teacher, it amuses me to imagine asking administrators this question: “What if we get record student enrollments next year? Would we still have to keep tightening our budget belts?” Of course, I could also imagine what might happen to me were I to ask such a question. Maybe that would be funny. In one of his novels, Kurt Vonnegut wonders what life would be like if the earth had variable gravity, lighter some days and heavier on others. How would that affect walking around? Using elevators? Some what-ifs might be terrifying (“What if there’s really a zombie apocalypse? What would I offer for trick-or-treat?”). Or wishful (“What if I win the lottery?”). So keep it fun. What if you were to play with this? What if you were to imagine having fun?
If you have some what-ifs and other imagining tools to share, we’d love to hear from you.
August 30, 2013
Some days you need a laugh, but nobody will help you with that. Maybe everyone is panicking (again) over the end of the world. Maybe your company won’t hire a stand-up comic or provide a humor/play room and they want you to double down (again) on productivity. Maybe your children haven’t said even one charming phrase to deflect your dismay at the chaos they’ve wrought. So to get a laugh, you’re on your own. But fear not. Yield not to despair! You can overcome such dark moments by developing a personal humor kit! It can work wonders, be subtle or bold, and always be distinctly yours. Here are some ideas to try.
In your pockets or your bag, on your desk, shelves, or bulletin board, and in your car, have things stashed and poking out of corners that make you smile, that remind you of fun and laughter. Or it might be something that reminds you of someone who loves you and makes you smile. These can help create a cheerful personal environment. For example, tucked at the edges of my desk, I keep a cute, 4-inch bear wearing a shirt that reminds, “Laugh Often.” From high on a bookcase corner, “Friar Gonk” stares down at me, making me smile and remember that my dear wife made him for me now more than four decades ago. Other tucked away smile prompts I’ve had include fortune cookie sayings, Hot Wheels cars, pictures, proverbs, cartoons, and (looking up as a I write) an impish Hair Fairy on my sill.
Sometimes it helps to keep things around that you can use to stir up just a moment of nonsense, whether just for you or with others. I have found a lot of uses for a sequiney magic wand, for a smile-on-a-stick to hold to my face, and for a mechanical gorilla who will sing and drum, “I don’t want to work, I just want to play on my drums all day.” And, of course, you can use a red nose in many wonderful ways. (See the Red Nose Training Manual http://howardmacy.com/red-nose-fun-2/ .) I enjoy these devices on my own, but delight in sharing them.
Humorous writer Barbara Johnson first clued me in to keeping a small box full of favorite cartoons and stories that make you laugh every time. Make sure to keep it handy so you can grab it and sneak off for a five or ten minute laugh break. Over the years I have collected a notebook full of pictures, mostly on greeting cards, that make me laugh every time. And recently I’ve been collecting pictures, cartoons, and memes in a folder on my computer desktop. My “misc fun images” folder is quick to help. (For example, from Gary Larson, “The Bluebird of Happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the Chicken of Depression,” with suitable illustration.)
Sometimes life turns grim because we take ourselves too seriously, perhaps suffering from the curse of perfectionism or from the delusion that we are, in fact, the Center of the Universe. A quick jolt to being delusional is to take a piece of printer paper, write “CENTER” smack dab in the middle of it and write “me” in one of the corners. Stare at it. Or stare at the Milky Way and imagine yourself as a dot on one of the little dots at the edge of the constellation. A fun solution to both problems is to look at a funny image of yourself. For many of us, just looking at our driver’s license photo will work. But you can draw mustaches, sideburns, funny eyes, tattoos, or whatever you like on a picture of yourself. You may have to use the copier to get a picture of your face, or nowadays you can use a computer with an on-board camera and imaging software. Maybe you want to keep handy a strip of funny photo-booth pix with your friends. Go ahead; deface yourself. Have fun.
These are just starter ideas. I have more, but you will think of ideas that work especially well for you. In any case, we can be prepared to let humor bring perspective, to break the cycle of the grim moment. Probably it’s not the end of the world, but even if it is, maybe we should go out laughing.
August 20, 2013
I recently welcomed my copy of Steven C. Walker’s new book, Illuminating Humor of the Bible. There are some fine books on humor in the Bible, of course, but far too few, so adding another well-done book to the list helps us all. Walker makes the case for his book right away: “When it gets noticed, biblical humor reveals rich irony and sharp satire and intense sarcasm and penetrating wit and outright joke in the farthest reaches of the Good Book. We’ve only to see it to realize how meaningful that Bible humor can be.” (x) Walker, a long-time professor of English, is an astute reader, well versed in the devices of humor, and he offers a wonderful array of biblical examples.
In a chapter on Jonah, for example, Walker shows how the story of Jonah, funny at so many levels, serves “to persuade the self-righteous to laugh at themselves,” often a good exercise. In another chapter he explores comic reversal in Esther, full of satire, caricature of the pompous and powerful, and topsy-turvy story lines. Frankly, missing the humor in Jonah or Esther almost guarantees that we’ll also miss their message.
One chapter features the roles of notable women in biblical stories and shows how, with humor, these serve themes of social justice. Another describes humorous stories in Acts as “slapstick,” including the folks at a prayer meeting who left Peter standing outside the door even while they prayed for his deliverance. In a chapter I particularly enjoyed, Walker explores the stories that portray David as a trickster, a common theme in funny storytelling.
Using the Hebrew proverb, “Man thinks, God laughs,” Walker discusses humor as morality. He argues that humor in the Bible is not merely for entertainment, useful in itself, but it also serves to deepen readers’ and hearers’ faithfulness, it reveals and discourages misconduct while it prods us toward the good.
In addition to the fine text itself, an impressive bibliography offers resources for further study, and subject and scripture indices will help readers who want to pursue a particular text or topic.
This new book will reward readers by showing where humor is in the Bible, how it works, and how it can surprise us with new insights about living.
Walker, Stephen C. Illuminating Humor of the Bible. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013. (Thanks to the good folks at Wipf and Stock Publishers for making this available.)
August 6, 2013
Though it may ruin my reputation as an astute music and film critic, I must confess that Weird Al Yankovic’s cult classic film UHF continues to shape me. It’s not only the film’s unfettered hope, but also its unbridled imagination. The scene advertising “Spatula World,” for example, has often stirred my curiosity about what other worlds there might be. Not just extraterrestrial, but commercial. You can see or expect places like RV World, Camping World, Donut World, or even Jello World. But it’s fun to ponder unexpected big box stores like Banjo World or World of Beans.
Creating new worlds just samples the fun you can have using common words or phrases in unexpected ways. Over time I’ve compiled a list of formulas that invite play. For example, what could you do with (blank) Hut, Center, Pit, Plaza, or Place? I beamed with pride over my students who named their off-campus house “All-Truth Center” (though I cringed a bit in West Virginia when I a saw a church sign with nearly the same title). How about Heresy Hut, or SPAM® Hut, where you could get SPAM® -on-a-Stick and other manufactured-meat delicacies? Or Hut Hut, suppliers of football gear? Try dining at Sushi Pit, or shopping at Out-Of Place (“I’m sorry, we’re all out of that.”)
You could try variations on (blank) Heaven, (blank) Galore, or (blank) Festival. For example, a senior center could add a little flash and pizzazz as Geezers Galore. Instead of our local “Old-Fashioned Festival” you could have a New-Fangled Festival. You can also stir up nonsense by playing with words like International, Federation, League, and Association. Or World’s Best (blank), Greatest (blank) on Earth, and (blank) Anonymous. How about International Snake-handlers Federation, or Butt Dialers Anonymous?
I also like to fiddle with phrases like “When (blank) go bad,” or “When (blank) run amok.” A t-shirt picture that flashed by me this week made me grin, “When Quakers go bad.” Or consider, “When actuaries go bad,” or “When whiners go bad.” Or “When bassoonists run amok.”
Obviously I’ve hardly tapped my reservoir of nonsense, but in service to learning to see funny, I offer these formula words and phrases as starter tools for play. Scatter them as seed among your habits of humor. Use them freely on the go and when you squander playtime on yourself. And, of course, please send suggestions to add to my collection.
July 31, 2013
A friend recently told me that she thinks I can find humor in almost anything. She made me smile because, for good or ill, I took it as a compliment. She may have been trying politely to get me to change my ways, but I missed the cue and intend to keep looking for funny all the time. It’s one way of living in the spirit of fun, of living playfully even when you’re doing important work. It can give perspective, stir up creativity, and smooth human relationships.
Without offering a full how-to manual about how to see funny, let me use several posts to explore some habits and ways of discovering humor. This essay focuses on word-play as one way to discover humor. Here sometimes others do the work for you; at other times you create funny yourself.
Misspellings. For people like me who are lucky enough to know how to spell, this is way too easy. Bad spelling spreads like kudzu in the world of words, but this aggressive weed gives a million laughs. I especially love mistakes in huge letters on billboards, buses, and trucks. For example, when McDonald’s was introducing Angus burgers to New York, a large sign on local buses read, “BIG APPLE, MEET BIG ANUS.” Not on a bus, but at Amazon, a book reviewer promised enthusiastically to “defiantly be more conscious of the power of laughter at work after reading this book.” Defiance is becoming more common. Also on the web, one writer urged readers to pay attention to the Biblical Tex. (I think I knew him.) And my wife once sent an email about a potluck, promising to bring “defiled eggs.” Yum. I harvest such goodies, but there’s always a fresh supply.
Silly words. Sometimes folks will use words earnestly, but in silly ways. For example, a famous Christian apologist, without cracking a smile, used to speak of “true truth.” That struck me as silly a long time ago, but Stephen Colbert raises this to new heights when he speaks of “truthiness.” He adds sophistication with its Latinate version, “Veritasiness.” You can’t always laugh out loud at earnest folly, but you can shake a little while you giggle. Again, this is pretty easy, since silliness abounds.
Unexpected words. Using a correct but unexpected word can stir up the laughter of surprise. One way is to put words from one context into another where they don’t quite fit. The following wise reminder helped me both laugh and avoid trouble: “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” In a similar vein, I keep a small bumper sticker in my desk calendar: “wag more. bark less.”
Seizing the awkward, ambiguous, or open-ended. When people put words together awkwardly or don’t clearly say what they mean, they invite smart-mouths to fill in the gaps. Do please note, though, that you don’t always have to share the fun you’re having with other folks’ words, whether out of courtesy or self-protection. One dear friend in the thick of the Seattle-to-Portland bike tour posted on Facebook that the riders were coming to the best part of the route: “No car exhaust, horn honking, or yelling of expletives for 18 wonderful miles!” I asked in response, “Were you required to yell expletives on other parts of the route? I know it’s sort of against your nature.” She thought she needed to be more specific. I think we both laughed.
Puns, malaprops, and other twisted words. Some of us love twisting and re-arranging words in surprising ways, creating laughter with surprising combinations. Mistakes have taught me, though, that it’s good to let the changes go through your brain before they go through your mouth. Puns are fun, even when they’re lame. They keep us in a spirit of play. Malaprops, named after Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s play “The Rivals” (1775), are often unintentional, but can be created for fun as well. It’s simply using words in a ridiculous way, often confusing words that have similar sounds, as in, “Listen to the blabbing brook.” Or, “He was a man of great statue,” and “Make it short and sappy.” A classic example comes from Richard Daley, former mayor of Chicago: “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.”
Using these forms of word-play, and others, can help us see funny. As I write, I also find that they remind me to always proofread. And that, even with proofreading, you often discover errors just after you press send.