Laughing At Yourself
This piece was an expanded version of a conversation I had with several friends.



People think it's arrogant to laugh at your own jokes, but I don't think so.  I do it all the time.

It isn't necessarily that I think what I'm writing is so brilliant.  Instead, it just surprises me.  I don't know where a lot of it comes from, so it's almost as if someone else is writing it through me.

I'm not the first person to experience this phenomenon.  Sometimes things just appear on the page and you wonder where they came from.

In Neil Simon's play, "The Odd Couple," Oscar says, "I can't take it anymore, Felix, I'm cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you're not here, the things I know you're gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow. 'We're all out of cornflakes. F.U.' Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Unger!"

Simon admits that throughout the years he has been accused of naming the character purely to set up that joke, but he swears it isn't so.  Rather, this is a case where a joke found its way onto the page before the author thought it up.  I love it when it happens out of sequence because it's just like watching a really good comedian who keeps the punchline from you until the last moment.  You never see it coming, then Wham!  Some comedians manage this by being clever, others by being completely random, but either way you are caught off guard, and that's what makes it funny.

I can't begin to count all the times I managed to spring something on myself, but the first one I can remember was in writing a personals ad for an on-line service.  I just listed a bunch of interesting things about myself, then I started to come up with silly items.  One of these was the line "I fathered Jodie Foster's children to impress the President."  I wrote the first half the line and the rest just came out before I even thought about it.  I honestly sat there laughing for the next half hour at what was a thoroughly Dennis Miller-eque reference that made connections between two otherwise independent pieces of information (i.e., the mysterious paternity of Foster's children and Hinkley's unhealthy obsession with Foster than drove him to attempt an assassination on then-President Reagan).

I wish I could say that there was a conscious element to that one-liner, but there honestly wasn't.  In fact, I routinely observe the same phenomenon on late night talk shows.  Conan O'Brien is perhaps the best example of a variety of Tourette's Syndrome that is socially acceptable.  It isn't that Conan spouts profanity or lacks control over his outbursts; rather, I think that with few exceptions he honestly has very little idea what he is going to say next.  He sort of knows this, but he has gotten so good at pouring out of himself absurdist quips that he has unconsciously developed, that there is little room for him to think about them until after the fact.  The nature of his show is such that he doesn't really have the time to calculate the perfect punchline.  Instead he relies on instinct and tries not to think about it too much until after it has been released.  If a line works, he can laugh about it along with the audience.  If it doesn't, then there's an opportunity for a little self-depricating humor.

In his New Yorker article "The Art of Failure," author Malcolm Gladwell examines why some people "choke" in activities that require them to perform actions they have practiced to the point of perfection.  The essence of practice is to move a skill (be it a gymnastics routine, reciting a poem, or flying an F-16) from the realm of conscious thought to more "primitive" parts of the brain where even acquired programs operate like pure instinct.  The performer only "chokes" when (s)he thinks about the performance too much.

Similarly, I have played guitar for more than ten years now, and my hands often remember songs I barely remember having learned in the first place!  But that is all information about routine, isn't it?  Yes, but as with the best comedians, there is certainly room for improvisation.  The surprising thing is that these opposite ends of the spectrum (i.e., being procedural vs. working with spontaneity) are not necessarily conscious.  I still find that my hands will discover interesting musical phrases across the fretboard that I would have never come up with on my own.  I usually give a surprised look at whomever happens to be listening at that moment.

This all points to the fact that the separate components of our brain are always working somewhat independently.  Odd things can happen when one of them originates something without consulting the rest.  Sometimes this is tragic (e.g., schizophrenia, drug addiction, Parkinson's Disease, etc.), but some populations like that of split-brain patients, for example, are full of amusing anecdotes about one part of their brains originating an action completely independent of what they *think* they're thinking.  After all, not everything is under conscious control.

People who are unwilling to accept this fact probably ought to do a little more writing (or engage in other creative endeavors).  If any of you ever find out what part of your brain is responsible for creativity and how to talk to it, let me in on your secret.  Please?


Copyright asymmetricAle[x].
Back to the index