What is this thing we call “a sense of humor“? Is it just the capacity to laugh? Not all laughter comes from comedy. Or from things most of us would consider “funny”. Bullies laugh all the time but bullies never laugh with people, they always laugh at people.
There’s a difference.
Take Donald Trump, for instance. Trump’s a bully who laughs all the time – at people but never with people. That is unless the people he’s laughing with are also bullies. Trump’s notoriously thin-skinned. But, what do we mean by that? We mean he cannot laugh at himself. If circumstance or other people suddenly make Trump an object of fun, Trump is literally incapable of pulling the camera back so as to get in on the joke – and laugh at what everyone else is laughing at, too.
Instead, Trump bristles. He gets defensive. Bares his teeth and attacks. He doesn’t see a joke, he sees an insult. His inability to laugh at himself is the tell that he has no sense of humor.
Now, here’s the thing about the Trumps of the world (people with no sense of humor): they blend in with the rest of us. They look “normal”. Sure, the occasional Charles Manson gives it away that jokes around them are like time bombs waiting to go off, but most humorless people? They’re our friends and neighbors. Sometimes even our loved ones.
You have to watch them with an educated eye in order to see their defect but their defect is right there in the open. Tough guys like Trump can tell you THAT something’s funny. They’re capable of laughing at regular things we all laugh at. But they can’t tell you WHY a thing is funny.
The Funny Thing About Comedy
Comedy itself is like a dissection lab frog. It doesn’t do well under extreme examination. But, people with a sense of humor can point to the human foible underlying the joke with self awareness whereas people without a sense of humor cannot. If you don’t “do” self awareness, you have no future as a standup.
Pretty much all comedy flows from the human condition. Comedy is us laughing at ourselves – seeing the futility of our situation. Success doesn’t breed comedy anything like the way failure does. Pain will always produce more laughs per pound than happiness. And, whereas success sets people apart (how nice for them!), failure tends to bring people together if only to commiserate. “Coulda-shoulda-woulda” itself is good for a few knowing chuckles.
The key component here is the humanity. The human experience is messy and fraught. But it’s comedy rich. That’s what makes great comedians great. They speak to our humanness. To our frailty and fear and uncertainty.
The human experience is richest of all for people who can see their own warts and laugh at them.