Monday, March 16, 2009

Growing Up Unfunny

[These men > are not sharing a joke.]

I don't know about being funny.
My family didn't much value humor when I was growing up. 

My father, the son of Sicilian immigrants, is very literal minded, which doesn't make for laughs. Then, Sicily is not an island that floats lightly in the blood. Sicilian humor is bizarre, along the line of dead baby jokes. 
My father had rejected his parents' culture, anyway, to become a college professor and to marry my mother. (He does have a darling childlike side, but I didn't see much of that growing up.)

My mother, the Southern belle, was caught up in suffering and tended to tell me stories that reflected her mood. I grew up hearing about the Holocaust. When I was nine, she told me you should never smile when you say the words "Hitler" or "Nazi." (I broke her law when I went to see Life Is Beautiful, and laughed. I did not discuss this with my mother.)

To be fair, my mother could tell incredibly funny stories, in the Southern tradition, when she felt like it, but never about herself and never as relief from suffering.

For my intellectual parents, humor was suspect. It was insufficiently serious, except for humor that relied on prior knowledge. I remember my father loving a joke about the koala-tea of mercy being unstrained, for instance, a pun on "the quality of mercy." 
But that sort of humor rests on the pleasure of feeling superior more than the pleasure of laughter.

The one with the comic gift in the family was my little brother. When our mother died, he told me he had always resented being the funny one, it made him feel like a performing seal. He wanted to be seen as smart, not funny, and in our family, those two didn't go together. 

I think he may be funny with his wonderful wife and other people, but toward me, he expresses the Sicilian gift for resentment perfectly. His seasonal cards, which are the only time I hear from him, are whetted blades. The last one was a personal photograph he'd added a copyright statement to. I'm sorry, I can't show it to you or he'd sue me. (He's a lawyer.)

So, I never learned the art of humor. I only even started to see it as an art, something you could practice, like the piano, last summer, when I got interested in the art of acting because over and over, the Star Trek actors at the Las Vegas con said that what we saw on screen was, in fact, acting. 

They kept answering fans' questions about "How did you feel when your character did this or that?" with the response, "I was just pretending."

My parents didn't do that. It's not that they never laughed, but it wasn't something one cultivated. We barely even went to see funny movies, we went to see Death in Venice.

Last fall, I took an improv class, wanting to learn how to loosen up some of those "you must always be serious" shackles. But I didn't like the teacher, and I spent a lot of time resenting her. 

Its hard to loosen up enough to be spontaneous when you're watching out for slights. (This is a very Sicilian problem. They--we?--may not be very funny, but Sicilians are geniuses at being offended.)

I didn't get very far, but when you start from nothing, even an inch is progress. I keep working on it, in my way, which means I think a lot about it.

Recently, you know, I've become fascinated with Stephen Colbert. I think because he's obviously intelligent and knowledgeable, which I value, and yet at the same time, he's willing to be entirely undignified. This combo gives him an elasticity, a tippy-cup bounceback, my parents (and their children) didn't have. He's both powerful and ridiculous.

My parents were (are, my father's alive, but he doesn't read my blog) rather rigid, brittle people.
If you're trying to maintain your dignity at all costs, which is the job of the Sicilian male, you are not going to drop your emotional trousers in the public square for anything. This was a part of his inheritance my father didn't reject.

And if you feel that you're suffering alone, like my mother did, watching what looks like a mockery of suffering is like stabbing yourself with a fork.

Stephen Colbert has worked a lot with 
< Amy Sedaris (Strangers with Candy, etc.), and her humor is something else again. 
Talk about no holds barred. I wish she'd been my improv teacher, even though she sorta scares me. 

I bought her book I Like You; Hospitality under the Influence, and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Unlike Colbert, who never loses the sense that he, the actor, is a nice guy--and I like that--Sedaris gives few such reassurances.
I like that, too, in a hard to admit way.

Because of course that's another rule from childhood: 
you should always be nice and never make fun of anyone (this was reinforced with super glue and nails in my politically correct twenties). 

Some of this comes with being female--be nice or people won't like you. Some of it comes from taking care of a beloved mother who was always suffering, so the idea that people are robust enough to take a joke was just a theory to me.

Also, mock a Sicilian at your own risk.


Annika said...

This is interesting, because my childhood was the polar opposite! Nothing and nobody was ever taken seriously, no movies or TV shows were left on that weren't (or rather, weren't supposed to be) funny, and intellectualism of all descriptions was mocked. If somebody cried, they needed to be cheered up, not comforted. When my sister was angry, and she was more or less born angry, she was laughed at and teased, not listened to. If I had the opportunity to watch a culture program - which only happened if nobody else wanted to watch TV right then - Dad would come in and ask what kind of boring crap that was.
(Come to think of it, Dad took and takes himself dead seriously. It's probably part of why I don't like him that much.)

I've only recently realised how bad this was - at the time I mostly appreciated our sitcom family jargon, but I'll do everything in my might to allow my own children to be serious and to be taken seriously. I'm not saying that I envy you your family situation; both kinds of unbalance are bad, of course. But you've alerted me to how important humour is in a childhood, I just longed for honesty and a bit of thought.

bink said...

Well, I started to write a comment about my childhood but it got too depressing--training for a life of bland niceness and normalcy.

Humor: squashed.
Deep thought: huh?

Best to start over as an adult. Childhood: Yuk! (I'm jealous of anyone who didn't have a miserable youth.)

fresca said...

ANNIKA: Wow, it's like our families were mirror images of each other! (maybe from the Mirror, Mirror universe) Like you, I appreciated my family's values, but as an adult see how out of balance some of them were. That's one of the reasons I love Star Trek. We weren't allowed to watch TV shows like that (until after my mother left, then we could watch and do and eat anything we wanted)--but anyway, as an adult I have reveled in its silly pop-culture elements, yet also see serious, smart issues in much of it too. THe best of both worlds!

BINK: "Humor: squashed/childhood: Yuk" are deep thoughts, and sad ones. That's why I'm having a happy childhood NOW!
Let's do more improv.

deanna said...

Wow, serious thoughts on humor, and then seriously intriguing comments. What an individual mix we each become.

Want to play questions only? Haven't you heard of that game? Did you guess that last sentence was sarcastic? (Hm, it loses something in 2-D...)

momo said...

Well, speaking of Amy Sedaris, if you haven't read her brother's stories about their family, you really should

My first introduction to Amy Sedaris was as a character in one of his hilarious-but-OMG-that's- awful stories. I will try to find the exact essay, but the punchline is when he is on the subway with her and she jumps off at her stop, and then calls back cheefully just before the doors close,"Good luck with your rape trial!"

fresca said...

Deanna: Yeah, people I'm talking to reveal that humor in families is a touchy topic! I suppose like anything else in families.
Sorry--I don't get the "questions only" reference.

MOMO: I haven't loved David Sedaris--like his sister, he borders on cruelty in his humor... makes me too uncomfortable to fully enjoy them. Yet I do relish their freedom and adore some of their stuff, so do send me the essay, if you find it.
David's essay about learning French in a beginning class (in Paris, I think) in "Me Talk Pretty" is one of the funniest things I've ever, ever read.

Bianca Castafiore said...

"Then, Sicily is not an island that floats lightly in the blood."

Ar! *Great* essay, fresca. Thanks for it..

fresca said...

Thank YOU, Mme Castafiore!
You pulled out my favorite sentence.

deanna said...

Questions only is one of the improv games from Who's Line is it Anyway. My son plays it a lot, I think, with his improv group. Each participant tries to keep up with only questions in a conversation. Fun for the brain.

fresca said...

Thanks for the idea, Deanna! But, oh no! Don't tell me about another show to watch! (I've never seen Whose Line..) Ooh, but that game does sound really fun. I like how improv gives the brain a great workout.

Jennifer said...

I had forgotten until reading comments that Amy and David are siblings and indeed, their humor leaves me...uncomfortable. Sometimes hysterically funny, but you're absolutely right, in both cases they make no effort to reassure you that under the cruelty is a nice person sharing a laugh with you. That's a powerful and frightening thing.

fresca said...

JEN: "Powerful and frightening"--I like that. I want the freedom from constraints that the Sedarises seem to have, but coupled with the Colbert niceness.
In his interview with Charlie Rose (did you see it?), Colbert talked about how doing interviews is his favorite part of his Report, and how sometimes it's hard because while he wants to be funny, "I'm not an assassin," and that he didn't want to make any guest feel unwelcome! This cracks me up. Indeed, a lot of the humor comes from him setting them up to hoist themselves on their own petards--he doesn't actually skewer them himself. Like when he interviewed the conservative who was campaigning to get the 10 commandments carved in stone on a courthouse--Colbert just asked him to name the 10 commandments. That's not cruel. It was the guy's own inability to either name them or to turn the question around in a funny way that was funny.

I know what we're seeing is the comedian's persona--who knows what these people are really like (like that post you linked to: "Wil Wheaton is not your friend and you don't know him, even though it feels as if you do")---but that's a separate issue.

fresca said...

P.S. The Charlie Rose interview starts with this clip, which links to the rest.
I thought it was fascinating to see SC being serious for more than a second. (More like 45 min?)
Colbert on Rose
(If that link doesn't take, its

Darwi said...

Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't read about Colbert's own past, I'd recommend it in light of this post. He's the youngest of eleven, I believe, and lost his father and the two brothers just older than him in a plane crash on Sept 11, 1970s. HIs sister (the one who ran for congress) moved back home from college so he wouldn't be the only one with his mother. For the next few years, his goal became providing a means for his mother to smile, with sci fi/fantasy as his escape.

In an interview with a drama prof of his (or with him about college?), the prof says they went out to lunch and s/he called him out on rarely doing serious stuff. He responded that he'd done that in real life and comedy was where he found meaning/wanted to be.

I might not be getting all of it right and it certainly is less about the role of laughter/humor in how he was raised, but I found it a fascinating backstory for where his skill comes from and your musings reminded me of it.