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Understanding Humor

Three things that make us laugh.
Understanding Humor

You can buy books that have all the variations of humor, but there are three broad categories that make something funny.

1. It's just plain true. When somebody identifies a pain, a struggle, that is just plain true, and we recognize how true it is, and how oblivious we have been to bringing it to our consciousness, we laugh. I wrote a book called How to Live with Your Parents without Losing Your Mind. Parents began writing. " Write one for us. How come you won't write a book for us? " So I wrote another book entitled, How to Live with Your Kids When You've Already Lost Your Mind. Every time I said the title people would laugh.

We go around pretending everything's okay. Someone has defined humor this way: " Humor is a gentle way to acknowledge human frailty. " That's the way we ought to use it. That's when humor is done properly. It can also be a way to try and destroy people, but then it ceases to be humor. I rephrase that definition: " Humor is a way of saying I'm not okay, and you are not okay, but that's okay. " Believers can add, " because he loves us anyway. "

Show me people who take themselves too seriously and I'll show you people who don't have a sense of humor — every single time — because they're trying to perpetuate the perception of perfection. Nothing destroys families, corporate teamwork, or creativity more than trying to pretend you are perfect. You will never take risks, ever. You might fail. We are not perfect. That's why the people who look at my book title laugh. Parents know they're not perfect. They say things that not even insane people say. " Hey, if you cut your legs off in that lawn mower, don't you come running to me! " That's not something a sane person says.

We say things that have no foundation. " I am sick and tired. I am sick and tired of it. I have had it with you clear up to here. " How many of you have used that? Or heard it? Where did this come from? I asked my grandfather when I was writing the book, " Have you ever heard this? " He said, " Yes. My grandfather used that. " Where did this begin? Did cave people start this? Some cave guy grabbed his son by the hair, " I am so sick and tired " Is that why when they find the skeletons they're all swollen right there?

Why do you laugh? You laugh partly because I'm somewhat of an idiot, but you also laugh because you have said it. It's true.

My sweet wife — we came home from a vacation. We'd been gone for two weeks. She opened the refrigerator. The most horrible — I mean, we have two dogs; one of them fell over, his little back leg kicking out. She had forgotten a carton of milk. There is no smell worse than that. None. There was moss growing around the lip of the carton, it had been in there so long. This educated, beautiful woman said, " Ken, come here. Hurry. Smell this. " She said, " I think it's spoiled. "

I said, " Sweetheart, the dog is dead. "

She wakes me in the middle of the night. " Listen! " (How many of you are married? Does this sound familiar?) " Listen. " Now, I'm in a sound sleep. You could light a match on me.

I said, " What? "

She said, " Shhh, shhh. There it is again. "

Now my body is not touching the bed any more; only the hairs on my body are touching the bed. I'm waiting for the axe to fall. I'm waiting for a bullet to come. I know someone's going to kill us right now. She says, " It's in the garage. Oh, no, what if he's escaped from? What if he has a chain saw? " Then she grabs me and says, " Go see. "

If there's a guy in my garage that has escaped from somewhere with a chainsaw, I am not going to confront him in a pair of Fruit of the Looms, excuse me. Although my wife said, " I've seen your shorts. It will probably scare him away. "

The simple truth. How many of you have heard Bill Cosby tell a joke? Let me see your hands. You're all wrong. He's the wealthiest entertainer on the face of the earth, but I've never heard him tell a joke. He talks about truth. To My Brother Russell, with Whom I Slept. " It's one of the most hilarious albums on the face of the earth. It is about two little kids sharing a bed, drawing a line, and saying, " You stay over there. " It is about Dad coming to the door. They can't see him, but they can see his shadow. Hilarious stuff about being at the dentist and trying to talk to the dentist because he sees smoke coming up out of his mouth.

This is the least risky kind of humor.

I come in the house. My daughter has a fishing line tied around her tooth. The other end is tied to a doorknob. She is four years old. She's violently trying to slam the door. Her little head is jerking, spit is flying out. Boing, boing. The fishing line is singing. I'm horrified. I said, " What are you doing? "

She said, " I'm pulling my toof. "

I said, " Let me feel it. "

She said, " I can't. I'm tied to the door. "

So I went over to where she was, and I felt her tooth. I said, " It's not loose. "

She said, " It will be. " Boing.

I said, " Quit it. "

She said, " Leave me alone. I need money. "

2. It contains an element of surprise. Years ago there was a movie, Bambi Meets Godzilla. It was black and white. The credits roll, and a little deer is there eating — a cute, tiny, little deer. When the opening credits finish running, a huge dinosaur foot comes and goes " Poom! " and all you see is four little hooves. That's the end of the film.

Why? Surprise. It goes in a different direction than you thought it would go. Almost all jokes depend on surprise for their humor. One of the best books on comedy and humor that I have ever seen is called Comedy Writing Secrets (by Melvin Helitzer, Writer's Digest Books, 1992). (It was not written by Christians, so don't expect to read through it without seeing a bad word or two.) I want to read something it said about comedy:

Comedy is mentally pulling the rug out from each person in your audience. [Listen to this. Jean Perret wrote this.] But first, you have to get them to stand on it. You have to fool them because if they see you preparing to tug on the rug they'll move.

A guy walked into a pet shop and said, " I'd like a Christian parakeet. "

The other guy said, " What do you mean you'd like a Christian parakeet? "

" Well, the last parakeet I had cussed and swore, and I had to kill it. "

The guy said, " Well, we don't have a Christian parakeet, but we have one that's never said a word. Would you be interested in that one? "

The guy said, " Yeah, but if it swears, I'll pull all his feathers off. "

The guy said, " Well, he doesn't speak. "

He brought the parakeet home. The parakeet was with him for two years and didn't say anything. Then one day he was feeding the parakeet and accidentally dumped water all over it. His parakeet let flow a line of blue, horrible language — questioning the heritage of this man's background, talking about his mother — terrible things this parakeet said. The guy reached in the cage and grabbed it by the neck. It was all wet, the little parakeet. He opened the refrigerator and said, " Now, you will not speak like that in this house, and you're staying in here until you can decide you won't. " He threw him into the freezer, and he shut the door.

An hour later he came back and opened the door. There were little icicles hanging off the parakeet. He was still sitting on the shelf where he had landed, shivering almost imperceptibly. The guy said, " I am sick of cursing. It will not happen in my house. You will not say bad words of any kind. Do you promise? "

The parakeet said, " I promise. "

He said, " I'm not going to let you out. I'll let you freeze to death unless you promise never to say another bad word. "

The parakeet said, " I promise. But could you please tell me one thing? "

The guy said, " What? What do you want to know? "

The parakeet looked down and said, " What did that turkey say? "

It's the element of surprise that causes you to laugh.

3. It uses exaggeration. None of these elements stand alone. Humor usually involves a variety of these things. One of my favorite comedians is Steven Wright, who has the most dry delivery I've ever seen. I watched him live one night, and I couldn't even stand up afterwards.

He said, " I used to make birds levitate. " He said, " Nobody cared. " He said, " I had to take my dog to the mental hospital. Something happened to him. We named him Stay. 'Come, Stay. Stay, come.' " He said, " I spilled spot remover on my dog. He's gone. " He said, " I bought a humidifier and a dehumidifier, put them in a room, let them fight it out. " He says, " I heard that if you drop a cat — no matter where you drop them — they'll always land on their feet. And I heard that if you drop a piece of buttered bread, it will always land buttered side down. So I tied a piece of buttered bread to my cat's back. "

Steven Wright's humor is intelligent humor. It's not slapstick. It's not at anyone's expense except his own. Someone said, " The kind of joke I love the best is the one that makes me laugh for five minutes and then think for five days.

" If you know that surprise, if you know that exaggeration, if you know that truth makes something funny, then you can make anything funny.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm here today because God has laid a message on my heart that I have to give. " Mary Had a Little Lamb. " That's the title of my sermon. " Mary HAD a Little Lamb. " Not could have had or might have had or would have had but past tense had a little lamb. Notice the word little. We're not talking about some humungous ball of wool coming down the mountainside. This is a little lamb, a small lamb, a tiny lamb. " Lamb " comes from the Greek word Woolite.

We had 15 Southern Baptist preachers rolling on the floor, partly because they recognized that little element of truth, partly because they were laughing at the exaggeration, and partly because they were surprised. What you look for is the surprise, the little turn that takes people in a direction they weren't expecting to go, and the element of truth that's common to all of us.

Principles for effective use of humor

Let me show you how to do that without totally destroying your confidence.

Know your style and ability. I love making people laugh until they hurt. There is nothing I enjoy more than to watch people hold their sides. Even in my most serious presentations, I love to bring people back and forth, weaving the truth with humor so that one minute they're laughing and one minute they're crying. I love that.

I had a guy have a heart attack in one of our shows. We refunded 4,000 tickets. I was picking on him. He was laughing so hard he fell out in the aisle. Everybody roared when he fell over, and then we realized he was in trouble. Paramedics came in. It took them 20 minutes to stabilize him. You don't continue a comedy concert after that. I found out who he was and wrote to him and said, " I'm so sorry. "

He wrote back and said, " Don't be sorry. I'm ready to meet the Lord any time he's ready to meet me. Anyway, I've had four heart attacks. I want to thank you for the best heart attack I ever had. "

But not everybody is wired that way. We live in a society in which when people hear the word humor they automatically think stand-up comedy. Not so. Mark Twain had the kind of humor that cut right to the soul.

Know your style and ability. If you're not the kind of person who easily makes people laugh or you're not the life of the party, you will probably develop for your ministry a more subtle humor. On the other hand, don't be afraid to risk. Just choose the places that you risk. Risk with people who will love you anyway. Risk with people who will be honest with you. Risk with other creative people who will say, " If you just turn that phrase a little bit, you can make it much more funny. "

Be aware of the double edge of humor. Occasionally Christian folks come up to me and say, " I don't think that humor has any place in Christianity. " That's because they don't have a sense of humor. They're looking for that perception of perfection. The other reason is they have astutely recognized that almost all humor points out frailty.

That is a double-edged sword. I can use the kind of humor that will make you identify with me because both of us can laugh about what we know to be true. That's why we parents laugh together. But by changing the tone of my voice, the look in my eye—or perhaps being with the wrong audience—I can use the exact same humor and appear to lord it over the people in the audience, as though I am putting them down. Those of you who work with kids, watch junior high kids do this.

I was at a camp one time. A kid came walking around the corner. His friend said, " Hey, Four Eyes, come on. Let's go play baseball. " " Four Eyes " had glasses thicker than the bottom of Coke bottles. I wanted to strangle the kid, except I watched what happened. Four Eyes came over. They ran off together. I don't know what Four Eyes called his friend, but there was some name. You notice your kids have these names? You say, " How cruel. " No, the way they use it is to say, " So you have thick glasses. " " So you're tall. " " So you're short. " Friends will use that with each other.

Different ethnic groups have the most hilarious humor within their groups, white folks included. Sometimes when people from different ethnic groups get to know each other well enough, they will share that humor with each other. It is almost never appropriate from the stage to do it, to demean, or to be misunderstood to demean, another group.

Be aware of double-edged humor and never swing that sword when you think the edge might be misunderstood.

Don't commit comedic suicide. Here is comedic suicide: " I got to tell you a story. You're going to love this. " You're dead. Why? You told the people, " You are standing on a rug, and I'm going to jerk it out. " If you say, " I'm going to tell you a story, and you're going to love this, " they had better love it. Do you know what comedians call it among each other when they fail? They say, " I died. " That's because the pain is unbelievably incredible. Don't commit comedic suicide.

Start with low risk humor. Low risk humor is telling what your daughter did last night. Low risk humor is telling about the little boy I saw in the foyer of our church. His mom took him back there. He was just a little child, could barely talk. He had messed his britches. Everybody in the room knew he had messed his britches. But when she unpinned him and pulled down his little britches, the little boy looked down and said, " Oh, who did that? "

If you were to use that in an appropriate situation to point out that we live in a nation of victims, that we are never willing to take responsibility for our messes — if people don't laugh, have you died? No. It still works as an illustration — the truthful kind of illustration. Work with that.

When you tell a story that's going to be risky, don't tell it to a brand new group that just invited you. Tell it to a small group in your church or to a bunch of your friends and let them tweak it. Don't go out there and allow your head to be lopped off, because the pain is incredible, and you'll probably never try it again. But keep at it. If you fail the first time, try again.

Watch other people. When somebody succeeds at humor, ask, " What was funny about that? What did they do that made that so funny? "

Few people who use humor effectively get totally involved with using their bodies. But be aware: If you're going to use exaggerated, way-out-there humor, I have a little saying that might help you. If you're going to make a scene, be seen. If you're going to make half gestures or be in the least bit timid, you are going to fail. So don't be timid. And practice it over and over again. And watch other people. See what makes them successful.

Practice, practice, practice. I tried this story the other day, and it didn't work. I tried it again and it didn't work. I tried it again and again.

I backed out of my own garage, realized I had forgotten my Daytimer. I can't exist without my Daytimer. I was frantic. I thought, Perhaps it's in the back seat. I leaned over the back seat and began to dig for it. Unbeknownst to me, my car was moving forward at about five, ten miles an hour. (I'm not sure because I wasn't looking at the speedometer at the time.) I found my Daytimer. I was delighted. But out of the corner of my eye I saw things moving past. I'm an educated person. I deduced that my car was moving. I dropped my Daytimer, turned to step on the brake, and didn't get there in time. My car hit a light pole near our home. The mark is still there.

Have you ever had your airbag go off? This is not a pleasant experience. I had been fooled by TV. It's nothing like on TV; on TV they show it in slow motion. The airbag comes out in a big marshmallow — embracing, gentle, " Come to me, I will save you. " It's not like that. It's just boom. You don't know what's happened because it happens fast. All you know is that your nose hurts worse than it's ever hurt before. I couldn't open my eyes for five minutes because my glasses were embedded in my head. When I finally did open them, the airbag was gone. You still don't know what happened. You wonder who hung the hankie from your steering wheel. I'm going to be honest with you, a bad word formed in the back of my head. I wanted to curse because, boy, when you get right there it's bad. I started laughing instead.

I started thinking goofy thoughts. I thought, Who would have known about an airbag 15 years ago? When I was born, I didn't even know about seatbelts. There was no such thing. My mother was the safety device in our car. Do you remember that? You could stand on the front seat. If there was an accident or trouble, she'd save you. Do you remember? Eeeeerrr! Flboom! You say, " Mom, why did you hit me? "

" I did that to keep you from going through the windshield. "

" Could I go through the windshield next time? "

That's why I loved riding with my grandmother because she had that cushion-y thing there. It was the forerunner to the airbag.

That story started with a tiny experience. That story is exaggerated. By the way, when I found out how much it cost to replace an airbag, the bad word came back.

This article is a transcript from the workshop of Preaching Today audio #212. To order this Preaching Today audio tape, e-mail your request to store@ChristianityToday.com.

Ken Davis, humorist and speaker, is president of Dynamic Communications and author of several books, including The Dynamic Communicators Workbook (Zondervan).

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