Humor Delivers Pain

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Humor Delivers Pain. That may sound like a strange thing to say but listen to me for a little bit. If you look at a joke, and really see why it's funny, the humor comes from delivering pain. Mark Twain said, "The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven."

Let me give one example of humor that is funny because it delivers pain.

There was a man who decided he was going to become an icefisher, so he brought a bunch of equipment, got on the ice, and started to drill down a few inches. A deep, booming voice said, "There are no fish there!"

Startled, the man moved over fifty feet and started to drill again. The voice said, "There are no fish there, either!"

The man moved his equipment a hundred feet further, looked around, and the voice said, "Nor are there any fish there!"

The icefisher asked, "Who are you, God?"

The voice said, "No! I'm the arena manager!"

What's so funny about this? The answer is that we have been slipped a bit of pain, slipped a very large bit of pain in fact: someone who genuinely and dearly wanted to be an icefisher was stupid enough to try to go icefishing in a hockey arena. Let me give another example.

For background to what is a bit of an inside joke, field service engineers enjoy a terrible reputation among a certain type of IT guru who, by the time they call for help, have done enough due diligence to understand the system better than the field service engineers do. And often field service engineers who don't know how to solve a problem try swapping out parts with known assumed good parts to identify which part is the problem. This is called by the extremely pejorative metaphor, "Easter egging."

Q: How can you tell if a field service engineer has a flat tire?

A: The car's jacked up and he's swapping one of the tires with a spare to see which one's flat.

Q: How can you tell if a field service engineer is out of gas?

A: The car's jacked up and he's swapping one of the tires with a spare to see which one's flat.

This reminds me of one time I heard a local guru on a call with technical support; he was trying to talk with Dell because they shipped him a computer with visible chunks of dust under the screen. I didn't hear the other side of his conversation, but I did hear his words: "There's dust under the screen... And why are we messing with the BIOS [software settings]? ... Dude, there's dust under the screen!" He had to finally speak with the helpdesk employee's manager to recognize that the computer had been shipped with noticeable chunks of dust under the screen, that this was a problem, and the problem was not going to be solved by fiddling with software or anything else besides removing the dust from under the screen.

His side of the conversation was not intended as humor; it came out that way because it was painful enough that we laugh when we hear it. And the two field service engineer jokes, if they are really two jokes, deliver pain. The first joke delivers pain that a field service engineer will go Easter egging when casual observation would make it clear which tire was flat. The second joke, which uses the first joke as part of its buildup, says, metaphorically speaking, that a field service engineer has no strategies beyond swapping tires, and no concept that there are problems that are not solvable by swapping tires. If the first joke delivers pain, the second joke delivers unbelievable pain. And it's the same sort of scream as, "And why are we messing with the BIOS [software settings]?"

Let me step back from these minutia to quote the great humorist Mark Twain again: "The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven." I'm not sure if you've noticed this, but on stage at least professional comedians are bitterly miserable. I don't know about their private life; it could possibly be just an act. But on stage, at least, comedians draw from a well of sorrow, and there is something in the same vein of "Send in the Clowns," which is not an ode to joy, but a dire bid to anaesthetize misery.

In my own life I have moved from telling jokes a lot, and making jokes for that matter (The Joy of Windows, and a joke I hope the reader doesn't get), to starting to move away from humor as delivering pain. In my last speech on iPhones and spirituality, I described two Far Side cartoons about television. But the point, the entire point, of their inclusion was not to make my lecture more pleasant. It was to deliver pain. And what I have found in trying to unplug humor as something that slips bits of pain is that my total pain is less, and there is more joy. It was terrifying to contemplate letting go of at least some humor, but what I have found is more freedom and more joy. Which sometimes happens when you let go of something you are afraid to let go.

There is no humor in Heaven, and letting go of humor may be more joyful than we think.