When I bring up the subject of humor, what is the first thing that pops into your head?
A comedy show?
The fact that the British need a second ‘u’ in the word?
Whatever it may be, I just wanted to clear something up: humor (or humour) is not the same thing as jokes, comedy or even funny, so what is it?
Humo(u)r is an internal process that solves the tension of two competing thoughts by connecting them in new and unexpected ways.
Jokes are one way to connect these competing thoughts. Explained simply: all jokes are a form of humor, but not all humor is jokes.
Funny: Connecting competing thoughts may produce some unexpected results, which can lead to laughter, but the outcome of using humor need not always be funny.
Sense of humor: If you have a good sense of humor, it means you’re open to the idea of multiple unique ways of these competing thoughts. For example, if you laugh when someone teases you about losing your hair, you’re both holding onto your elevated sense of self-importance while being open to someone else’s observations. You can see the connection, and you’re willing to not hold so tightly to preconceived notions.
Comedy: The practice, science, and art of connecting two unlike thoughts — the setup to the punchline — until it generates laughter from an audience through repeated trial, error, and revision. Comedy can certainly include jokes, though they’re not always necessary, but a comedian must have a sense of humor. If a comic fails to work out the connections between his or her incongruous thoughts, there’s no way an audience will make those connections either, and everyone will be sitting in silence, wondering why this weird person is talking at them.
If you were to go through my Twitter and Facebook feeds from ten years ago, not only would you notice how terrible my joke-writing was:
“If ranch dressing is made in a home with more than 1 floor, does that automatically make it house dressing?”
“Was walking by #Fraternity Row today and saw Kappa Kappa Kappa wasn’t one of them. Baffling.” — Why did I hashtag fraternity?
“Okay, a grim reaper costume wasn’t the best costume idea for our weekly visit to grandpa in hospice.” — I actually tagged Jimmy Fallon in this one, so I must’ve thought, “Yeah, this is the tweet that makes me famous.”
You’d also notice that I harbored completely different opinions about the world than I’ve shared recently on social media:
“Just saw a girl on campus wearing leather pants. the only time leather pants look good is never. No matter who u are,” — I emphatically retract this statement. Especially using “u” instead of the actual word.
“I LOVE carpet! Makes floors so much more tolerable.” — I live in a house that’s 90% hardwood floors and I LOVE it. It’s so much better for my tap dancing career.
“Mitt Romney keeps #poking me on Facebook. He’s got my #vote.” — I absolutely voted for Mitt in 2012, and it wasn’t because of all of the poking. At the time I was a staunch Republican, and there was nothing you could say to convince me otherwise.
Since then, I’ve gone back and deleted insensitive tweets — not to avoid one of my 225 raving fans seeing it and “cancelling” me, but because I’ve grown as a person and I actually care about people, so I’d rather not hurt anyone. Back then, I only cared about trying to be funny. I thought crossing the line when it came to jokes was the secret to funny, and if you were hurt, then you were being too sensitive. As “cancel culture” became more and more prevalent, I continued getting offended at other people’s offense until I came to the realization that if I want to make people feel good, I probably shouldn’t be writing jokes to offend them. Not only that, but I should probably learn to write better jokes.
Instead of saying, “I’m right, fuck off,” I opened myself up to new opinions, was able to see a bigger picture, and I’m now a much better comedy writer — not to mention I’m way happier because of it.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who don’t see conflicting opinions as opportunities for growth, but as personal attacks. The same goes for their past mistakes or being presented with new information that challenges their beliefs. It isn’t their fault — we’re wired to assign fixed orientations to objects, events, and ideas, so that when we’re taught to believe something, it becomes part of the core of who we are. In actuality, if our beliefs were more flexible, we’d be able to see a bigger picture, make more informed decisions, and have a higher chance of success and happiness. If we can simply be open to the idea that we may be wrong, we open ourselves up to unlimited possibilities.
The world is incredibly dynamic, and in order to keep up, we have to keep our minds agile and open to the potential of new thoughts, perspectives, and ideas.
Here are two simple self-talk techniques that psychologists recommend for resetting your perspective and opening yourself up to new possibility:
1. Say “for now”
Once my parents stopped telling me when to go to bed, I would stay up as late as possible and sleep until noon or later. I’d tell myself, “I’m a night owl” and “I’m not a morning person,” so every night, I’d find excuses as to why I had to stay up. Even on nights before I had to wake up early for an appointment, a meeting, or a speaking gig, I’d stay up until 3 AM, wake up at 7, wonder why I was tired, and be irritable the rest of the day. Then one day last year, I started saying, “I’m a night owl, for now,” and about a month into the pandemic this year, I began to go to bed before 2 AM and wake up before 8 AM. Now, it’s a daily habit, I’m way more productive, and I eat breakfast when it’s socially acceptable to eat breakfast. All it takes is the repetition of a simple, foreboding “for now,” to open your brain to the possibility of change, and you’ll be in bed by midnight and up before the sun comes up before you know it.
2. Ask “What else could be true?”
Over the last couple of days, my girlfriend has snapped at me over the littlest things: I asked a question during an unsolved mystery documentary about said documentary, I asked if she had taken the dog for a walk at all during the day, since he was bothering me to go outside. At first, all I wanted to do was focus on how irrational her yelling was, but once I pulled myself from the situation and asked “What else could be true?” I began to see a bigger picture. “What else could be true? Well first, asking questions about the same movie we’ve both been watching is annoying. Just watch the goddamn movie and let that answer your questions, David.” But by asking this question, I remembered that her job has been causing stress to the the point of anxiety, and I know that when I’m stressed, I get angry at the littlest things. Things that are no more responsible for my anxiety than my bed is responsible for the 3 hours of sleep I got after going to bed at 4 and waking up at 7. Because of this simple form of self-assessment, I avoided snapping back, I laughed to myself about my limiting thoughts, and now things are back to normal. (It also helps when you make her coffee and a breakfast sandwich).
Today, tonight during the presidential debate, or next week as you’re scrolling through the madness of social media, be open to expanding your perspective. Don’t be married to your ideas and stances, so that when you’re presented with new information or ideas, you stand in the way of your own growth. Heck, in ten years, I may use this blog post as an example for how much I’ll have changed, but what I do know for a fact is that I will always be open to applying new ideas to what I think I know. Also, don’t judge me on my joke writing from 2020… 2030 will be my year.