The following is a condensed version of a presentation I gave to a Michigan Reading Association conference. The title of the talk was: You Have to See Funny to Write Funny

 A sense of humor is really important in life for a number of reasons:

  • Look in the ‘personals’ almost every request for a man includes ‘a sense of humor’
  • Humor is social grease – jokes bring strokes. People like people who can make them laugh especially if the humor is PC and geared to the audience and the moment (for you writers that’s PAT : Purpose Audience and Tone).
  • Humor is a way to express strong feelings of aggression or hate in a socially responsible way. If it happens to offend someone, we can always say…”I was only joking.” It helps us feel part of a group as we tease or lampoon an opposite gender, political party or management/ worker relationship.
  • Humor is a way to cope with stress…personally and in the workplace. We can diffuse a lot of situations with the right, well-placed remark that helps us all get a little perspective.
  • Laughing even has some reputed effects on our immune system and general health
  • Humor is even a way to share problems and invite empathy as we joke about aging, or marriage, or raising kids.

So if humor can do all these things for us why shouldn’t we try to encourage a sense of humor in the children we raise or otherwise encounter as teachers, librarians and extended virtual family members? Especially if kids have a ready-made interest in humor at a stage in their developmental process.

 Let’s explore some of the stages of children’s humor:

 Between 2 and 5 years of age children find the following things funny:

  • Misuse of a familiar object
  • misnaming things
  • playing with the sounds of words
  • combining real world objects in weird word combinations (banana car)
  • pictures of unreal actions (cow pushing carriage)
  • Gender reversal ‘Jimmy is a girl’
  • Physical humor (Charlie Chaplin movie)

Basically, they’re noticing differences between the real world they know and expect and the variations from it. The cognitive dissonance strikes them as funny.

 But the next stage the 6 to 7 year olds all the way up to 11 year olds is really interesting.

 This is the stage Piaget describes as ‘concrete operational thinking’ when children begin to realize abstract concepts. The world is no longer only what they can see and touch. Six is not just six apples. It can also be 2 sets of 3 anythings. Or 3 sets of 2 anythings. And most importantly for us, this is the age when children realize that words can have more than one meaning…TaDaa…enter the riddle and puns.

 As parents and teachers we may not find these incursions into the world of double meaning words laughable or humorous. But for a child’s development of a sense of humor, if nothing else, it is a critical stage of learning readiness that we should try to exploit. Why? Because that’s the beginning of an adult sense of humor. Does this mean that we want to encourage children to turn into data bases of riddles to be downloaded on unsuspecting colleagues and family members into their dotage? No. Thankfully, kids outgrow riddles. But the skills encouraged and gained during this development stage can have long-ranging implications into adult life. The same way an introduction to music, art and sports in school can lead to life-long pleasure if not professional careers.

 Let’s look at what’s happening when children tell and re-tell riddles:

  • They’re discovering new words and situations. If they read a riddle, they have to know what certain words mean and what the context is or they ‘don’t get it’.
  • More importantly, they’re enjoying the intellectual activity of creating a link between two pieces of information that seem initially unrelated.
  • That’s power. That’s mastery in a world where teachers and parents have all the answers and all the control. It’s a heady experience to get a grown-up to say, “I give.”
  • And finally, as we mentioned earlier…a good riddle teller has social coin to be earned and spent the way some children get strokes for grades, musical or athletic ability. This is especially true for children who live in generational poverty where the ability to tell stories and entertain is highly valued.

 At this point I hope you’re not thinking I want to create a hothouse for class clowns. Could you imagine what it would have been like for the teachers who taught someone like John Stewart from the Daily show? No, what’s really operative here is the ability to engage in ‘divergent’ thinking as opposed to ‘convergent’ thinking. They’re learning to look at life from both sides now. To look for and find alternative meanings behind what they see and hear.  And this is extremely important for our economy and our country as we ask future generations to ‘think outside the box’ in a rapidly changing technological world. There are a lot of companies out there spending a lot of money trying to get their employees to think creatively and come up with novel solutions to the standard operating procedures.

So you ask…all this from riddles?

Maybe. My daughter taught English in China for a year. A dominant characteristic of the educational system was to teach and require uniformity and conformity in thinking. Creativity was not a value. If a class was asked to offer an opinion everyone waited till someone offered an idea then they all chimed in…agreeing. Sure and true answers were to be learned and repeated. Open ended questions were a way to lose face.

 Isn’t applied knowledge and relational thinking what we are being asked to develop in educational settings?

 But beyond that we’re using words and word play to teach kids to not take things absolutely literally at all times. This is the same dynamic at play in creative writing: poetry, imagery. We’re asking kids to juxtapose ideas and images that wouldn’t normally go together. In the case of humor because it then becomes funny/laughable or in the case of poetry the joining of previously unrelated images adds up to new insight, to beauty…the beauty of the written word and the joy of word play.

 Here’s a humorous story that I wrote for Mother Earth News on this topic…

Help for the Humor Deprived

going for the laugh

 “Hey, Rube, look at that man burning leaves,” I said, squatting to my son’s eye level and pointing to the fire that almost singed an above-ground swimming pool. “What’s wrong with this picture?”

My claim to immortality paused, thought. “He’s too close.”

“What might happen?” I prompted.

“Burn a hole.”

“And…,”

“Water’ll go all over the fire.” Rube chortled and clapped his hands.

“Hey, buddy,” I shouted, “My son likes your fire extinguisher.”

The leaf-burner studied his fire for a moment. Then he grinned. “Actually, I was trying a new way to heat the pool.”

There was a man after my own heart – a man with a sense of humor. And that’s exactly what I wanted to teach my son – to see the funny side of life. I never had any help as a kid. Everything I learned about whimsy, I learned the hard way – on my own. But my son was going to have it easy. I was going to teach him the joy of jokes the way some people teach their children to build a log cabin – step by step.

One of the first lessons was how to size up an audience. We were getting a pre-school physical when the pediatric nurse strapped a blood pressure cuff on my arm to show Rube that it wouldn’t hurt. I took the occasion to rub her wrist. “You’ll have to excuse me,” I said. “I’m just not feeling myself today.”

“Mr. Sandwich,” the nurse sniffed as she pulled herself to the full height of her indignation and marched out of the room.

“Now we know not to waste good jokes on her,” I explained to my son. “She was probably a deprived child. I bet her parents never played a joke on her or asked her riddles or even made puns.” I sighed. “There but for the grace of God go you.”

I remember the first time I encountered comically deprived children. I had just died – as us comedians refer to a joke that bombs – at my friend’s house, in front of his parents and grandparents. It was the old gag about why we put angels on top of Christmas trees. You know the one about Santa being all stressed out because the reindeer had hoof and mouth disease, and the elves were on strike, and Mrs. Claus had the flu when an angel bounced into the toy shop with a Christmas tree and asked, “Where would you like me to stick this, Santa?”

Everyone just stared at me. I quickly added, “So, from that day to this, the angel sits on top of the Christmas tree.”

Nothing.

You can’t blame the kids in that situation. They didn’t know any better. It’s the parent’s responsibility to introduce their children to the finer nuances of humor in our culture. Somebody needs to spend quality time with those kids loosening them up to the possibilities of word play, the surprise of the unexpected; not to mention the joy of a roomful of people groaning in unison.         

You can imagine my delight in another class-clown in the making when Rube came home from the first day of school and announced, “It’s a tough house, Dad.”

“And how’s your teacher.”

“Too damned sweet.”

“I prefer that you don’t use that word.”

“Okay. She’s too damned nice.”

My efforts were paying off. But like a good coach, I looked for every opportunity to challenge my star prospect. For example, one day at the beach, a live Barbie doll lay on her see-through air mattress in the shallow water. What caught my eye was the turquoise dog’s leash – I’m serious now, humor is not a laughing matter – that trailed from her hand straight into the lake. I nudged Rube and rolled my eyes at the floating princess.

“What’s wrong with this picture?”

“She’s probably using it like an anchor rope, tied to a rock or something,” he offered.

“Come on, you can do better than that,” I coaxed.

Rube’s eyes started to dance. “Maybe she’s taking her catfish for a walk?”

I shrugged. “Not bad. Try again.”

Rube looked at me, grinned.

“Go for it.”

“Excuse me, lady,” my son said. “In case you didn’t realize… your dog’s been underwater for a long time.”

Some months later shopping for Christmas ornaments, my son and I priced a set of colored lights.

“Let’s see,” I calculated, “$9.95 plus six percent for tax brings it to…”

“Tacks?” Rube inquired. “What do you need tacks for? Don’t you just loop the lights over the branches?”

I stopped. Studied my son. “Tax, as in income tax. Only this is a sales…” That’s when I caught the corner of his mouth twitching. He got me. He had me going. For a person who sees life as a stage and every person out there as an audience, you have to admit my son did me proud. He’s got the eye, the timing – whatever you want to call it.

When it was our turn at the register, the clerk checked my ID.

“James Sandwich,” he read aloud. “Interesting name. Ever think of working in a deli?”

I grimaced. How rude – taking liberties with my name.

“And what’s your son’s name? Ham? HamSandwich?”

“No,” Rube replied, “my name’s Reuben…”

My son stopped. Stared at me for a long time. He hasn’t told a joke since. And he was coming along so fine.

psst: if you are interested in more stories like this check out my , Free-Floating Stories, under the Fun Stories section