Funny is good. Wouldn't you say? Oh sorry, I'll wait for you to stop laughing.
Laughter is the best medicine. A sentence I associated with Readers Digest for a very long time. It's a cliche, isn't it, but so very true. There is nothing like a good laugh to make you feel GOOD, to make you feel at PEACE with the world. Apparently, there are all sorts of biological theories about how laughter is physically beneficial to you. I'm not going to go into those because I don't understand them and they are the last things on my mind when I laugh hard and manage to fart at the same time. I can tell that's extremely pleasurable without the help of a scientist.
Let's cut to the chase: what makes us laugh? I'm pretty sure the answers to that question would be as diverse as the grains of sand on one beach. The best part of that? You can find humour everywhere if you look hard enough…because we are all so different. True, there are some things that make most of us laugh. But there are also some things that others laugh at and you wonder whether they are on some sort of illegal substance.
I prefer humour that makes you think a little bit. You know, something that makes your grey cells work before you burst out laughing. Here's a very simple example (because my brain is fairly simple): Kwahu men are so tight-fisted that they only breathe in. Here I have taken a fairly common English joke about Scotsmen and I have adapted it to the Ghanaian tribal environment. On first reading this I already had an established idea of what a stereotypical Kwahu man would be like. How? I am a Ghanaian and I live in Ghana, and I have, consciously or unconsciously, encountered these stereotypes all my life.
So I know that Kwahu men are allegedly tight-fisted. But tight-fisted to the point where they don't release air that they breathe in?? That's mean! But I think it's very funny. In my mind, I visualise a Kwahu man (a particular man, but I won't mention his name), standing outside his house holding his breath, because he is too mean to release the air he's holding in. It's his air! And he's about to explode! Literally! And I laugh.
What about this example: My Dad knew I was going to be a comedian. When I was born he said, "Is this a joke?". I can't remember where I first heard that but it has the kind of brevity and wordplay I enjoy. And when someone says that two stupid people arguing is like a duel of wits between unarmed opponents, I will laugh more than I would at a Ghanaian Concert Party where painted caricatures are trading physical barbs.
I do enjoy physical comedy I hasten to add. The likes of Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese have made me laugh out loud over the years when they have gotten physical in their acts. I strongly believe that some people have an advantage in being funny because they LOOK funny. Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean is a prime example. How many times does he speak in the entire series? The man's face is enough to crack me up, and he knows how to use it.
He has a sketch in the Not The Nine O'clock News series where he is walking down a street when he suddenly notices the camera filming him. He looks around as he walks to make sure it's him being filmed, and then very coyly waves at the camera. It is truly funny, and becomes hysterical when he narrowly avoids walking into a lamppost, shares the experience with the camera, walks round the lamppost….and disappears into a manhole!
Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy have performed some of my favourite stand-up routines. They get physical too, but the physicality is not the mainstay of the act. Unfortunately, their profanity constitutes a major part of the show. I enjoy them tremendously but I cannot always repeat what they say in public. And it's hysterically funny. At the other end of the comedy spectrum are Woody Allen and Jackie Mason, two white Jewish men with their own line in comedy. Funny, very funny, but in a completely different way. No profanity for one. Locally, I'm not sure I have a favourite. In the past, Tommy Annan-Forson and Fritz Baffour were always rock solid and consistent with their comedy.
But these are professional funny people. How do we handle humour from an ordinary personal perspective? I use the word personal because it is. Humour is one of the best things to have in your armour when you speak in public, and one of the most dangerous. Fact is, you can never be certain that a joke you make or humorous banter that you indulge in is going to work. When you are with family and friends that's not such a big deal. It's when you are speaking to a diverse audience, or maybe to people you've just met that a failed attempt at humour can make you sound and look daft.
I get a lot of questions about using humour in speeches, comments, correspondence, etc. Allow me to state the general advice I share in my usual 'too known' fashion: BE CAREFUL! If you are the slightest bit unsure of the humour in what you are about to say, DON'T SAY IT. Be even more cautious when you are writing to someone formally.
Offending someone through humour in public is so easy, especially in a conservative country like Ghana. Religion, politics, sexuality, and even sports are areas where I would be very careful using humour in public. You never know.
When you make a humorous comment to someone when you are with them, you bring all sorts of nuances to the spoken word, whether consciously or unconsciously. The movement of your facial muscles, your lips, your eyes, your tone, your language, your gestures, even your dressing, all affect your humorous comment. And they are all absent when you are writing! You better know how to write funny. Don't forget, you will not be there when the person reads it.
Also, do you know when to stop? We've all been in situations when someone (possibly you) has gone on too long with being funny. That extra joke or supposedly funny comment that falls absolutely flat because you got carried away by the laughter you were eliciting with previous comments. Know when to stop, know when to just bloody shut up! Learn how to stop when you've got your audience on your side. Of course, the effect of one more attempt at humour (which falls flat) is that you seem deeply unserious, and this can be disastrous in a corporate environment.
I'm not even going to go into whether the humour you are using might be culturally inappropriate. Try making a Ghanaian joke to someone from Kazakhstan (Borat anyone?). What you might find funny, someone else may find 'dry'. Or even worse, a joke that is gender inappropriate: "Where's your wife?" "In the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, as usual." Can you imagine saying that to a buddy in the presence of another woman? Would you prefer to do business with someone who makes such jokes?
One of the best uses of humour (some might say THE best) is being able to laugh at yourself. Poking fun at yourself, being self-deprecating, is an exercise in humility, and is highly recommended. It works even better when it is spontaneous, brought up by a genuine mistake on your part: "Oh dear, you've got a wet mark on the front of your trousers! Did you pee yourself??" "You see oh. I was peeing when I had to raise my hand to defend myself against my wife, and…!" The opposite of this, for me, is when you use humour as a weapon in public. Like making in-jokes that only you and someone else present understand, to the detriment of someone else also present. Bad manners!
The one thing I hate about humour? Having to explain a joke! Dear Lord! Help me! Actually, wait, isn't that what I have just done??
Ultimately humour is good. The person who utilises humour appropriately always seems more confident, more competent, and indeed more risky (in a positive way). Cultivate a habit of looking for humour everywhere and I guarantee that you will become more aware and comfortable with using it. For example, the other day I saw a hearse in a taxi rank. I wondered as I drove past, is it waiting for passengers? And if so, what sort? Or was it looking for available mourners?
I have no idea who Garrison Keiller is but I do know that he said: "God writes a lot of comedy…the trouble is, He's stuck with so many bad actors who don't know how to play funny." True. And if you don't believe him, then how about this from the book of Proverbs, chapter 17, verse 22: "A cheerful heart is a good medicine." (NIV) That sounds a lot like laughter is the best medicine.
So let's end with an in-joke: Rami, why were you late? Sorry oh, I was fixing my hair!
Laugh. Laugh a lot. Just be careful about laughing out of context oh…