Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them suddenly collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and frantically dials 911.
‘Help,’ he gasped, ‘I think my friend is dead! What do I do?!’
The operator says ‘Calm down, I can help. But first, I need you to make sure he’s dead.’
There is a silence, and then a gunshot. Back on the phone the guy says, ‘Ok, now what do I do?’
I was 12 when I first heard this joke. It was in my father’s Reader’s Digest along with an article about a British psychologist on a quest to find out what makes something funny across cultures, races, and sexes. This was, his studies found, the funniest joke in the world.
I didn’t have very many friends when I was 12. That was the first year of middle school, when all the elementary schools in the area would combine for the very first time. I was a small fish in a large pond and I didn’t acclimate very well. Most lunches I spent hiding in the library, reading books or drawing cartoons. There was however usually one other person in the library with me aside from the librarian. A bookish girl with black rimmed glasses, barrettes in her hair, and a red jacket in winter. One day I decided to try out the science behind the joke and see what would happen. She was at another table, reading another book, when I came over, sat myself down, and just started.
‘Twohuntersareoutinthewoodswhenoneofthemsuddenlycollapses,’ I said it in one burst of frantic breath.
She was more startled than amused. I had failed to consider that she was so invested in her book that my sudden and unannounced appearance and frenzied speech would, understandably, scare her more than anything else.
‘Oh, sorry, I forgot the rest of the joke,’ I weakly apologized and excused myself. But in my hurried retreat I misjudged the position of my chair and tripped over myself.
After an initial shock and seeing that the only thing really hurt was my pride, she actually started laughing.
Suddenly I wasn’t mortified or embarrassed. I was funny. I was interesting. I was in!
She became my first ever girlfriend. And I became an inadvertent comedian. The day I finally mustered up the courage to attempt to kiss her, I was so nervous I closed my eyes when I got close to her. My heart was racing, my palms were sweaty, I thought the world was gonna end, and then I noticed how…pointy(?!) her lips were?
Oh my god, I had kissed her nose.
And not even a gentle peck. I had misjudged the distance and speed of my trajectory that I full on mouth-butted her cute pointy little nose.
And she couldn’t stop laughing. This was the funniest thing in the world that she had ever seen. I had aggressively made out with her nose.
As most childhood romances go, the girl with the barrettes in her hair is now a woman with a career in a state across the country with a man she met somewhere other than a middle school library. I’m a bit better at aiming my kisses but what hasn’t changed has been the power of humor in my life.
If you can’t be tall, dark, and handsome, try to be tall, dark, and funny. If you can make a person laugh, you’re already in. I’ve never gotten along with anyone who didn’t find me funny. One of the first things I did when I started my new job was try to make my boss laugh. See this was a new position for both of us. She used to be the area leader where my store was located and she had a reputation for being a real hard case on most consultants, and you were on her radar if either a) you made a lot or b) you made nothing. I was perilously close to b. But now she was in charge of this brand new department and I was the only person under her supervision. She needed me as much as I needed her to like me. The first time I got her to laugh I knew we were going to be okay, and the work environment’s been great. She finds my cockiness at how good I am at what I do and my obsession with food to be hilarious. She tells me where stores need help and where I’m headed and I tell her I’ll be done with them by the afternoon and where I’ll be going for dinner. I’ve used humor as an icebreaker with almost every girl I’ve ever dated.
I have no game, no swagger, no animal magnetism. I’m witty and silly and ridiculous. I make bad puns. I argue with ridiculously stupid logic. I elicit equal amounts of chortles, chuckles, and groans. I enjoy being entertaining and humorous. I can distinctly recall the laughter of all the people in my life. How my mother gasps and shrieks for air between uncontrollable laughter. How my father laughs with his eyes and his hands more than his mouth. How one friend would cover his mouth when he laughs, the other would shake his head as though in disbelief that he could find something so silly and stupid so funny, and how yet another friend would laugh so hard she always teared up. Most of all I remember the laughter of the women I’ve been with. Some were high-pitched and fast. Other had full on chest heaves with each chuckle. Beautiful laughed with every part of her body; her hands would go up and down, her hair would wave crazily in the air, her stomach would shake, and her eyes would light up. All different, all unique, but all genuine and honest, open laughter. Laughter that meant the happiness I gave them they felt in the very core of their being.
I think humor speaks to a very core essence of our humanity. See the best jokes build on shared context. The jokes that can cross all these demographics and still be universally funny are the ones that appeal to a very primal, ancestral identity that we all share. When you laugh at something and the person across from you laughs too, you are acknowledging some shared experience, a connection that supersedes race, gender, ethnicity, and prejudice. A laugh and a smile disarms negativity and fear. It allays pain and loss. In the greatest and worst moments of our lives there is usually some laughter to be found to either lift us up further or, when we feel like we are at rock bottom, to lift the floor a little bit so the bottom isn’t so far down. We laugh when we graduate, get the job, get married, have kids. We laugh when we remember the best of people when they’ve left us. When we go through heartbreak or loss, we laugh to remember we can move on, and that happiness is still always possible. And when others laugh at heartbreak with you, it can only be because they know the pain you feel and are reaching out to connect with you.
If everything else fails, we can at least always trust that a good joke reminds us that we are connected to other people. May you never have to laugh at your own jokes alone.