My Father’s Sense of Humor

A sense of humor is a funny thing to try to describe, of course, very personal and ticklishly hard to render in words.  What’s funny?   It’s like pornography to that famous Supreme Court justice whose name nobody today remembers: I can’t exactly describe it, but I know it when I see it.  

Very hard to describe somebody’s sense of humor, which is always seen in a sudden flash. It’s like trying to describe a unique smell, or the essence of music to a deaf person.  

Music is these wonderfully organized sounds that hit the eardrum in a beautiful way and stir ineffable emotions, you know what I’m saying?  Hey!  Are you fucking listening to me, deaf guy?  I’m trying to explain what music is here.  

Tell a funny story, and watch the confusion on the listener’s face as to why this story is funny, or even worth telling, and in the moment of defeat you’ll say, or just as often the tired listener will say “I guess you had to be there.”  And it’s usually true, you usually did have to be there.  

There’s the matter of timing, pacing, facial expression, and body language, when and where the supposedly funny thing happened, and who it happened among, the context, what the stakes were.  Take a funny bit by a great comedian, something that cracked you up, and write it out verbatim.  Chances are it’s not nearly as funny, if at all, as it was when performed by the talented comic.  I can assure you, it was fucking hilarious.  I guess you had to be there.  Are you even listening to me, you deaf bastard?

My father was fucking funny, is what I’m trying to tell you.  He was a lot of other things that were not funny at all, true enough, but he also had a keen, dark sense of humor and a quick wit.  It’s hard to give you examples, though.

My father, standing at the top of the stairs leading from the kitchen down to his bathroom, pointing his ass at his family, his wife threatening him, timing his exit to the predictably horrified reaction to his perfectly executed fart, is it really funny?  And if it is funny, is it “ha-ha” funny or just funny as in weird?

I consulted a psychotherapist on this particular instance of my father’s wicked sense of humor and her take was that “he came off as less funny than hostile and angry, at least as regards the farting part.”  She noted that “blatant public farting can serve as a means for people who feel ‘powerless’ in their lives to exert a measure of control/power over others.”  Bingo.  I recognize all that, that’s why he was doing it, but… I guess you had to be there.  I guess asking a fucking psychotherapist about humor is pretty funny in itself.   

Eli, that great, funny, savage older first cousin of my father’s, once tried to describe my grandfather’s sense of humor to me.  Eli was a great story teller, and very funny himself, but it took him a long time to dig up a few tiny examples that gave me a sense of my grandfather’s deadpan style.  He described Harry’s face with an unforgettably poetic image: “two eyes, a nose, and a mouth”.  That was it.  Eli zipped a finger across his lips, showed the mask, blinked once impassively to show what he was talking about.

“OK, I got one,” he said at last.  “I was trying to teach Uncle Harry to drive, you know, he was out of work and my father was going to hire him to work in the garage, but he couldn’t be much use unless he could drive and move the cars around.  So I took him out in the car in Peekskill, which is very hilly territory, if you remember what Peekskill is like.  And we’re going along and we come to a hill, and he starts losing power.  So I say ‘Uncle Harry, give it gas, give it gas!’ and he turns to me with that face and says ‘gas costs money’ and the car starts rolling backwards, and we’re going to get killed.  I shoved my foot on to the gas pedal and grabbed the steering wheel, and pulled the goddamn car over at the top of the hill and that was the end of the driving lessons, but that was him.  ‘Gas costs money.'”

Funny I am only now making the connection.  Gas costs money, unless it’s the gas that comes out of your ass, which costs nothing except the horrified look on your children’s faces when you tell them to ‘prepare for…. gassing’ and blast them with it.  I will get back to you with examples of my father’s sense of humor as I am able to dredge them up, so you will understand I am not making this up.

OK, I got one, though a minor one you probably really did have to be there for.  When my grandmother was dying at home, in my former bed, actually, she was in a lot of pain at the end and wouldn’t take her synthetic heroin except at precise four hour intervals.  She’d cry out in pain for two hours at a time sometimes, refusing her pill until it was exactly four hours from the last one, no matter what any of us said to assure her it would be fine to take one after only three hours if she was in agony.

She’d asked me to hang up a small painting on heavy paper I’d done for her, so she could study it on the wall.  I went downstairs to get a hammer and nail.  As I headed up the stairs with the hammer my father said “is that for the fly on grandma’s nose?”

You had to be there, perhaps, but I remind you, there are few things more important for the doomed than a good laugh whenever possible.

My friend mentioned that his children had taught him what to do when they received a text that asked them to do something they weren’t ready to do: ignore it.  “It was a great lesson, though it took me a long time to catch on.  Now I do it all the time whenever they send me a request to do something I’m not ready to do.  And the beauty is, they taught it to me and so they really can’t complain about it.” 

I offered him one of my father’s staples.  “You show me a man who doesn’t respond when his father texts him a request, I’ll show you a man who lost the right to whine like a fucking baby when his father does the same to him.”


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