Once, at a family get-together, I listened to a relative describe his wife’s process of becoming a naturalized US citizen. They would, he said, have to travel out of town for what he called our citizenship interview. The pronoun amused me, and I asked whether they would, if the interview went badly, take away his citizenship. He informed me, with all seriousness, that the interview was not about his citizenship, so I had to inform him with equal seriousness that I was joking. I felt clearly then – and I hold onto the judgment now – that the clarification should not have been necessary.
Now, I am not saying that he should have thought my remark was funny. But I think he should have been able to grasp that it was meant to be. As it was, I had to assure him that I didn’t really believe the United States government strips Americans of their citizenship on the provocation of a botched interview. Incidents like this raise a critical question: What are we to do with humorless people?
The first impulse is usually to explain the joke to them. This impulse should in almost every circumstance be resisted. When you finish dissecting the humor of it for their enlightenment, it still will not be funny to them. At that point, it might not even be funny to you anymore. Jokes die of examination. Besides, laughter should be spontaneous, an involuntary reaction – like a sneeze. If you don’t get it more or less at once, you will never get it. The lifespan of jokes is to be measured in seconds, and it is best to let them die in peace.
Although jokes shouldn’t be explained, sometimes they do have to be declared. Depending upon the joke, people may rationally assume that if you are serious, you are dense, or strange, or sick. In such situations, it is necessary to alert people who take you seriously that you are joking. You’ll know them by the concerned looks on their faces. Just be sure that you keep the declaration brief and to the point. The people in question do not have to know why you are funny. They do not have to agree that you are funny. They only have to understand that you are trying to be.
Some people attempt to encourage a sense of humor. All sorts of arguments have been put forward in favor of humor, accompanied by the promise of benefits: better health, less stress, more happiness, etc. There are people who can expound, quite lucidly, on how a sense of humor can cushion the bumps and jostles on the long road of life. But if there is anything less conducive to humor than explanation, it is philosophy. People do not laugh because they think it would be good for them.
As you can see from this brief examination, we do not lack options in dealing with humorless people. What we lack is good options. As a parting thought, therefore, I leave you with the immortal observation of King Auberon in The Napoleon of Notting Hill: “In a world without humor, the only thing to do is to eat.”