Friday, December 02, 2016

Telling Jokes

Back in my junior executive days, a colleague and friend, a young man with whom I shared a wall and a secretary, was offered a sweet new job. He was a great guy, even if he was a bit full of himself. When he announced at a staff meeting that he was moving on, I quipped, "Wow, you're leaving one big hat to fill!" There was a beat of silence as the room took it in, then an explosion of laughter. I still think of it as the best joke I've ever told, although looking at it here in black and white perhaps it was one of those for which you had to have been there.

My jokes tend to be hit or miss, and often my best ones are funny only to myself. For instance, I'm more likely to get an argument than a laugh when I say, "The difference between your neuroses and mine is that mine make sense," but I think it's hilarious and 100 percent true.

I'm not a "funny guy." I think I have a decent sense of humor, but I can also assert, unequivocally, that I'm simultaneously the most hilarious man in the world . . . if the only audience that matters is the kids I teach. Oh, it does wonders for the ego, indeed it does, when I get the whole crowd screaming with laughter by making a silly face, or pretending to get mixed up about the lyrics to a song, or engaging in some simple slapstick. One of my best bits is one I learned from my father. He would walk toward a doorway, then pretend to bump his nose on the door frame, creating a realistic sound effect with a well-timed kick to the wall. That one always makes them laugh; a beat of silence and then an explosion of laughter when they see I'm not really hurt.

Anyone who has ever worked with young kids knows that if you want a laugh, all you have to do is start a conversation with, "Knock, knock . . ." Pretty much anything you say, so long as it matches the rhythm of the joke, will get a laugh.

"Knock knock."
"Who's there?"
"Table who?"
"Table chair!"

Then everyone laughs. It's collaborative poetry, the Knock-knock Joke, a duet that ends in laughter. It never bugs me, it never bores me, because in the end we laugh, forced perhaps, even phony-sounding, but communal: we're laughing together and that's the point. We spend entire circle times just taking turns telling these nonsensical jokes, laughing harder and harder as we go.

Even though I'm not a funny guy, humor (or at least silliness) stands at the center of my relationship with children. When a kid says, "You're silly, Teacher Tom!" I answer, "Silly is a complement around here! Thank you for saying that!" I like that "silly" is part of my reputation.

There's another "joke" of which I'm proud, this one having occurred on the streets of Manhattan. Our family was living in Soho for a month because my wife had business there. I was walking the dog early one morning, when a car alarm went off. The street wasn't NYC crowded, but there were still a lot of us out there. I stopped and loudly asked, "What's wrong with you people? Can't you hear that car is being stolen?" There was a beat of silence, then an explosion of laughter. I guess you had to be there.

There is nothing that brings people together more than laughing with them and you do, in fact, have to be there.

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