In preparation for a military inspection during my years in the National Guard (in New Mexico, unlike Alabama, they actually took roll, and I attended most of the drills), the officer in charge of my platoon asked me to claim some quite simple military occupational specialty when the inspector general came to me.
My warrant officer suggested I list my M.O.S. as a generator operator in order to avoid getting confused over more sophisticated questions about what I really was trained in–radar.
“Am I such a complete idiot that I can’t answer questions on radar?” I asked myself. Apparently my grin gave me away, and the officer curtly asked, “What’s so funny?” I answered, “With respect, sir, I know less about generators than about radar.”
After ordering 20 pushups, he declared himself my sworn enemy.
And why did I become persona non grata? Simply because of my levity. Now “levity” is more than looking at things optimistically or humorously. A bunch of men at a frat party don’t engage in levity, but if they behave that way in church. . . .
Since that experience I’ve been acutely aware of occasions in which people ask, “What’s so funny?” or “What are you laughing at?” Seriously, what is inherently wrong in being amused?
But let me back up. At Immaculate Conception School, eighth grade, every student was required to memorize and present a poem on Fridays. If we didn’t choose quickly, the teacher would assign one. Some got assigned one- and two-liners, whereas with my luck, I drew “Paradise Lost.”
Now no teacher could ever expect an eighth-grader to memorize such an epic, yet at home I agonized over the first 30 lines of the book-length poem. The next day, Sister Teresa told the class to make themselves comfortable, as “Arthur’s going to deliver all of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ and we may be here all weekend.”
I’d prepared for the bluff, and before rising, I dropped a couple of cubic objects on the floor and took several seconds locating them. “What is the problem, Arthur?” Sister Teresa asked. I explained, “Oh, I’m looking for my pair o’ dice lost.”
Well that did it! “You are not funny, Arthur.” I learned that humor–levity, if you will–is within the purview of only the teacher and a few teacher’s pets. I was not in their league.
How many times do we hear someone ask, “What’s so funny?” And is it possible for anyone to ask that question without an angry tone?
I contend many of us are fragile, even paranoid, and we imagine that anyone who’s laughing when we aren’t is laughing at us. Does someone’s laughter ever diminish us? No, of course not! Yet, we have that feeling that those laughing are privy to knowledge to which we are not. Did I leave my fly unzipped? Do I have a hole in my shoe?
One of my classmates apparently thought all laughter was directed at her. Once, a group of us, enjoying lunch break, were cracking up over something that had happened at school. The girl in question walked in to the room about the time the laughter had subsided. Questionable timing, but the joke wasn’t about her. She just thought it was since the room grew quiet.
She accused us of laughing at her expense and admonished us not to talk behind her back.
Nothing serious had been on our minds, but what the heck! Let’s give her a reason to suspect our actions. So from that day on, whenever she came near, one of us would chuckle and the others would join in. What were we laughing about? Not a darn thing! But it was fun.
We did believe, however, that Madam Whasofunny exaggerated her importance. Once, at a football game, someone must have piqued her paranoia in telling her, “You know, I think every time the team goes into a huddle, they’re really talking about you.”
Clearly, there are occasions in which it’s best not to use levity, funerals and other church services included. Levity needs to be restrained to prevent it from detracting from or even supplanting solemn occasions. Some may recall the episode on “Mary Tyler Moore” when TV performer Chuckles the Clown met an undignified death, live, on the set. During the wake, Mary kept giggling. Then the minister announced that humor is a normal emotion and asked Mary to feel free to mention some of the more humorous events of Chuckles’ life. As soon as Mary got to the front, she broke down in tears.
At a banquet a few years back, I repeated a joke about a new priest who got rattled during his first sermon and who came up with, among other things, “10 apostles and 12 commandments.”
One person, disapproving of my levity, asked me where I’d heard it. I needed to be evasive, lest she confront the source. Today, it’s probably safe to say that the fuller version was uttered by a relative of mine, a member of the clergy. Strange, but when the padre told the joke, and we cracked up, nobody asked, “What’s so funny?”