For the first time, thinking was dangerous to my survival.
I share a birthday with Kim Jong-il. Today, in fact. All the kids in North Korea receive gifts from the Party today. Sometimes my birthday coincided with a day off school, thanks to a President’s birthday, but I always pretended it had something to do with me.
I wonder what a North Korean kid thinks who shares our birthday.
This is a memoir of a woman who went into North Korea pretending to be a missionary (but was really writing a book about) teaching English to college-age boys. It’s a fascinating glimpse behind that curtain. It’s hard to imagine myself living in such a closed system, but she does an excellent job of making you feel the panic and suffocation.
There were only a handful of times any student veered from the script. During our conversation about Park Jun-ho’s birthday party, one of the boys blurted out that he liked singing rock ‘n roll, and then he turned red, quickly checking to see who might be listening. I had never seen anyone scan the room so fast, and the other students went quiet and looked down at their food. There was no explanation for such an instinctive reaction except for a sort of ingrained fear that I could never fathom…..Was this really conscionable? Awakening my students to what was not in the regime’s program could mean death for them and those they loved. If they were to wake up and realize that the outside world was not crumbling, that it was their country that was in danger of collapse, and that everything they had been taught about the Great Leader was bogus, would that make them happier? How would they live from that point on? Awakening was a luxury available only to those in the free world.
This just made me laugh.
In 2004, Willibald Ruch coined the term “gelotophobia” to refer to the fear of being laughed at. There’s no known cure for gelotophobes, but for a start, it’s best to keep them separated from gelotophiles (those who enjoy being laughed at) and katagelasticists (fans of laughing at others).
And here’s what they suggest, after their global research. I couldn’t agree more.
Surround yourself with the people and things that make you laugh. Seek out interesting places and interesting people. Focus on the friends who make you laugh, not the ones who bring you down. Choose as a partner someone with whom you share a sense of humor, someone who helps you see the lighter side of life…. And it may be cliched, but remind yourself that everything is going to be okay. That thing that seems so scary in the moment, so catastrophic and worrisome, is only scary because you’re paying so much attention to it. It’s okay to complain, but add a bit of wit to your grumbling. Figure out a way to make that violation benign.
And pick up this book. There’s a fascinating section about the Mohammad cartoonists. They were writing about the events from 2005-ish, but as the Paris bombings were fresh in my mind, it took on added significance.
The authors set about crafting the world’s funniest joke, using all the tools they’ve learned along the way.
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls emergency services. He gasps, “My firend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s makes sure he’s dead.” There is silence, then a gunshot. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Okay, now what?”
Not very funny, eh?
In hindsight, the joke’s blandness makes sense. The world’s funniest-rated joke isn’t going to be the zinger that the most people find hilarious, it’s going to be the zinger that the least number of people find offensive…. “It’s the color beige in joke form.”
They’re still in Japan …
The country is so homogeneous, so unified in its history and culture, that most zingers don’t need set-ups at all. There’s no need for explanation or detailed backstories. Folks get right to the punch line. One common joke, about an Olympic gymnast whose leotard was too high, has apparently become so familiar that even the punch line isn’t necessary. All you have to do is gesture to your upper thigh.
I suppose we have a little bit of that, like when someone tells a story about some stupid incident. We might shorthand it and say, “Was this person blond?” Or perhaps quote a movie line that sums up a more detailed response. But my mother and my kids, for example, rarely see the same movies.
I can’t think of any other way a joke might work with all swaths of Americans. Can you?
They’re in Japan now.
Apparently, if you go up to strangers in Osaka and point your finger at them, they’ll pretend to be shot without missing a beat. (Later, we ask Reilly if we should try this. “No,” he says. “You might point your finger at a yakuza—a member of Japan’s mafia—”and they might freak the [heck] out.”) Osaka’s brimming with hilarity, says Inoue, because it’s long been “the belly of Japan,” the country’s trade and commercial hub, so the samurai left the city alone, realizing strict hierarchies and customs weren’t good for business. That left Osaka’s merchants free to haggle and barter and banter as much as they pleased—and a lot of jokes lubricated those transactions.
Now, I really, REALLY, want to go to Osaka.
First, they posited, at a point sometime between 2 and 4 million years ago came Duchenne laughter, the kind triggered by something funny. An outgrowth of the breathy panting emitted by primates during play fighting, it likely appeared before the emergence of language. This sort of laughter was a signal that things at the moment were okay, that danger was low and basic needs were met, and now was as good a time as any to explore, to play, to start laying the social groundwork that would lead to civilization….”What the humor is indexing and the laughter is signaling is, ‘this is an opportunity for learning.’ It signals this is a non-serious novelty, and recruits others to play with and explore cognitively, emotionally, and socially the implications of this novelty.
This, to me, makes perfect sense because we always learn better when there’s even the teensiest smidge of humor in the teaching. Think for a moment about your favorite teacher or class and see if you agree.
These guys traveled the world in search of what makes things funny.
It doesn’t help that the term “humor” has had all sorts of different connotations. It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that humor became widely used in its modern sense, as a virtue. Before that, “humour,” from the Latin word for “fluid,” referred to bile, phlegm, and other bodily fluids believed to wreak havoc on people’s moods. A “humourist” was someone whose body fluids were so imbalanced they acted mentally ill. A “man of humour” was someone skilled at impersonating an insane person.
Their working theory is illustrated as a Venn diagram. One circle represents something benign (“Grandpa”), the other circle is a violation of some sort (“erection”), the intersection is the funny (“Grandpa’s erection”).
As a side note, they made reference to a website I’m happy to report is absolutely real, Animals Being Dicks, which makes the authors my new besties.
Two things, actually.
• “What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these savage lions, and monstrous creatures?” ~ St Bernard, 12th century
• “Indiana oolitic limestone is relatively soft and easily cut when first quarried, but it hardens during prolonged exposure to air, enhancing the lifespan of whatever form it takes.”
Which is why they built then National Cathedral with it, which is where I bought this book, which is because I love gargoyles, which is why I’m sharing it.
This is actually over more than one day of reading. So sue me.
• You could not say she was fat, or that she was skinny, any more than you could say the Eiffel Tower is or is not lonely.
• I always felt you had to be important to have enemies. Example: Historically, Germany has had more enemies than Luxembourg. Margo was Germany. And Great Britain. And the United States. And czarist Russia. Me, I’m Luxembourg. Just sitting around, tending sheep. And yodeling.
• [the car was] composed primarily out of duct tape and spackle…. [it] ran not on gasoline, but on the inexhaustible fuel of human hope.