When You Smile: On Humor and the Heart -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

Jokes I make are gestures that reach out to others, my hand open in offering. When they fall flat or are received coolly, my hand darts back.

Everything is easier when someone laughs. I offered my token and you accepted it and all that comes with it – I can relax a little, and edge a tiny bit closer to you. I feel safer. If I can make you laugh, maybe you won’t laugh at me.

In grade one, when I was six years old, I had a teacher named Mrs. Hood. When the phone rang with a call from the school office downstairs, she’d rush over and answer, “Pizza pizza! How may I take your order?” to our screams of delight.

She also had a great passion for Alice in Wonderland and assigned us a project associated with it – we could write a story or a poem, sing a song, draw a scene. Paper-bag puppets seemed easy enough. What I failed to realize until the last moment was that the crafted puppets were just part of the project – we were also supposed to put on a show.

When Mrs. Hood asked if I was ready, I gazed with distress at my classmates – so small in my memory now – gathered on the floor in front of a wooden fold-out theatre. I had no plan. No script. No beats to hit. I looked at my partner, who looked back at me, anxious.

I improvised, not knowing I followed in the footsteps of traditions like slapstick and physical humor. Puppets of Alice and the Queen and King of Hearts sniped at each other, asked the audience if they had seen absent characters, and made a fart joke or two. The laughter was raucous. They like this, I realized. I’m good at this. I can do this. I should do this.

When a break lingered, I realized it was over. “The end!” A burst of applause – Mrs. Hood added her praise. I heaved an exaggerated “whew!”, a ham for life.

The next year, and the year after that, I was bullied at school. Girls excluded me from their circle – I did not exist. Exasperated teachers asked if maybe I wasn’t too sensitive, suggesting I ignore my classmates or laugh it off. I was too young to understand why I would laugh with my own tormentors.

But I did understand that caring opens you to vulnerability. I learned to undermine myself first, instead of waiting for the jabs and insults to come. I distanced myself from anything that could be important to me. I preempted anyone who might want to cut the feet out from under me. My jokes became sarcastic, dismissive. I didn’t understand, or care to understand, why I felt hollow.

There’s a particular audience we want to hear our bolder, more ambitious jokes, the ones with a twist on a twist. The jokes that reveal the farthest edges of our humor, the jokes we’re not quite sure we had it in us to make. We want to know if they would laugh, what they would think, and what they might offer in return.

When I throw something out, I watch my friend’s face carefully for the moment when – if – it lights. I’m familiar enough to know her gentle amusement from genuine delight. I’m constantly trying to tease out one of those true, unfettered laughs.

The two of us met in high school, through a friend. We both had a rougher, harsher sensibility then; I was often just plain rude. It’s clung to us since.

Most of our friendship has been built on testing boundaries. Its success relies on a very specific sense of safety. For a while, that safety didn’t extend anywhere else. We dispensed with a lot of the traditional trappings of female friendship, like heart-to-hearts and crying on shoulders. I was terrified to disrupt our dynamic with anything that didn’t fit, like feelings, sadness, fear, pain.

When I finally ended the longest romantic relationship of my life, she was the one who told me she always knew I was destined for something great, something interesting. You are fiercely intelligent, wickedly funny and one of the best people I know, she wrote. I count myself very lucky to have you as a friend. Take care of yourself, and let us take care of you too.

We have been friends for half our lives. At last I’ve started to feel less scared of showing her who I really am.

My mother asked me what I saw in him. I don’t think she was looking to challenge me, only do her due diligence, while also looking for a spot of reassurance. I considered for a moment, then said, “He’s patient.”

But he didn’t make me laugh. In our relationship, I was the joker – the irreverent one, the one who cheered him up, who looked for the humor in an odd situation.

I wanted to be safe, and took being sedate to be the same. I thought I could always give and never receive in kind, but take in other ways that seemed enough. I had set a trap for myself, one of false equivalencies and compromises, one that had taken eight years to close over my head. I saw the next five, ten, twenty starkly laid out before me – nothing but the expected – and I wanted to close my eyes.

Over time, with him, my humor soured. On the surface it resembled the jabbing couples use to poke fun at each other; behind it was the whisper of a knife. There was no balm of shared laughs. Jibes came too quick and harsh, sometimes wincingly brittle and belittling. Anger and apathy I could rationalize and cope with; contempt made me a villain.

One night we were arguing about scheduling a follow-up for couples’ counseling. Through tears of frustration, he said the thing I realized I had been waiting for: he wasn’t sure it could work. He looked so tired, sitting alone in our bed.

It may not surprise you to learn that that my dating profiles are not very serious. It’s difficult to be earnest yet engaging, or informative yet charming, when writing such a profile. When I fear my hobbies or preoccupations could bore you too much, my jokes are right there, substitute offerings.One profile is just puns related to bees. One implies I am a troll who charges a bridge toll. They show prospective suitors “hello, I’m clever,” “hello, I do love to laugh,” and “hello, I’m willing to entertain.” They say something important about me, and at the same time they say nothing at all.

Two weeks after my relationship of eight years ended, I met someone new. Our first date was at a sweet little farm in the city’s centre, and a necropolis that happened to be across the street. He set the dress code for an afternoon that would take us through both life and death: casual, yet funereal.

When he gave the intersection he’d be at, I perked up, knowing a bulk store there. “If this were a movie, I’d ask you to meet by the chocolate-covered almonds,” I said, hoping he would chuckle. Not only did he love the idea, he insisted we do just that.

The day had turned hot and sunny, a late summer holdover. I texted him that I was by the dark chocolate almonds, because I couldn’t find the milk. When he saw me in my black dress patterned with bright flowers, I said lightly, “Casual yet funereal.” He laughed in happy recognition.

We ended up making each other laugh a lot. It felt equitable. Whatever he gave me, I could give back.

The problem with relying on humor to connect with people and get close to them is that eventually, you believe that what they like is the joke, not you. You begin to perform all the time, and it’s like an audition that never ends. You believe that they won’t like the person they see when the jokes fall away – or worse, they’ll be bored with that person: the serious, sincere, unflinchingly vulnerable version of you. You fear they don’t want you; they want a clown.

After our chocolate almond meeting, we saw each other again and again. We shared more snacks, and a rhythm and sensibility for repartee.

Sometimes we fell into a pattern. He would say something about my cleverness; I would say something funny and self-deprecating in response. Then, one day, he said, “There is a diminishing return on the cuteness of your deflections.”

It tripped me up. This is what people want from me. This is why people find me valuable. Don’t you find me valuable anymore?

“What should I say?” I asked. “‘Thank you, I’m quite brilliant’?”

“‘Thank you’ should suffice,” he answered. “I want you to see yourself the way I see you. That’s all.”

Accepting love, like accepting a compliment, means you think something of yourself. You think you’re worthy of praise, recognition. But it also means people can take you down a peg, because you have one or two. Accepting love means you need to trust it is given genuinely. You have to accept that minuscule risk that it could also be used against you, to ridicule you.

My instinct to a show of appreciation or love is to twist and wriggle away. But that little joke, the one I use so often to defend myself – it can also push away a hand reaching out to me.

It took years to understand what I had been told about laughing to rebuff cruelty. It took a little longer to realize that laughing can also rebuff love.

When someone responds to a silly thing I say with a thing they hope will make me laugh in turn, I look at them again. I can see them a little more clearly. I often want to lean in closer.

The joker inside is still my guide. It will tell me when something is off, when something is not quite right – when I recoil from a too-sharp jest, or when I realize I am a show playing to an audience instead of playing with a collaborator. It will tell me who isn’t worth my time and my love, and who is – the people who return my gestures, who want to see my face light up, who will put in the work to hear what I might say when I’m in earnest. It will point toward good things and good people, even if it sometimes keeps me, and them, at a distance to protect my heart.

Every little funny thing I say is a paper plane I throw into the dark, wobbly but aloft, a ghostly nodding bird. I will keep sending my jokes out, one by one, and someday someone will send one sailing back into my lap. When I open it, I will burst into laughter.

An enthusiast of puns and portmanteaux, Gloria Yip writes mostly to amuse friends and herself, so she may find more of both. She lives in Toronto.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again