A few years ago, I bought my current car – Edith – from my dad. The price was $1.25. This was a fun continuance of tradition because he’d bought an early car from his uncle for $1 (I added the 25 cents for inflation). This sort of low-stakes transaction seemed old-fashioned to me – like walking uphill to school or having a malt – and so I was glad to take part. I grandly took out my wallet, after signing a post-it note contract, and, thrilling to the idea of my own ride, found that I was way short. I had to borrow cash from my sister and, as far as I know, the loan is still outstanding. With interest, I probably owe her a decent-sized panini by now.
The car – a 1994 Chevy Corsica – had belonged to my Great (honorific and adjective) Aunt Edith. When she died in 1999, it sat around for awhile, and then six years later came to me. Edith was one of my favorite people. She always had jelly beans for me when I was a kid, and she thought everything I said was just a plain delight. (I don’t think it’s a crime that I like people who like me.) By the time I was a cheeky teenager, we chuckled about everything together, primarily her pristinely-poofed lady hair.
I blame Edith for my addiction to trying to make people laugh. Her giggle was in itself funny, so I would crack a silly joke, she would laugh causing me to laugh, and on and on.
Laughter is believed to be a mode of communication that pre-dates speech. Cave folks, it’s thought, may have laughed to express relief that they were no longer in danger of being eaten. Some think laughter is an unconscious way of organizing a group; some suggest that it’s a way to “make others know who is in charge.” The Russian author Nikolai Gogol wrote of one of his characters that “(l)ike so many blessed with the gift of making others laugh, he was himself an extremely unhappy man whose comic vein was both an escape from, and a consequence of a profound melancholia.” 1
According to all of this, laughing seems like it’s a negative thing. Like it comes from danger, dominance, sadness. I like getting people to laugh because it’s the surest way to know what someone’s thinking. In most cases, it can’t be faked, and so it’s an expression of immediate experience. Then, bada-boom, a shortcut to intimacy. Laughing with someone means they’ve seen you and you’ve seen them (fake laughter, meanwhile, is tremendously odious. It means, in essence, no I don’t want to share an intimacy with you AND I’d like to make fun of the attempt you made at that shared intimacy. Let those who fake laugh have their faces frozen in fake joy).
I was just talking to my friend Zach and I told him that instead of Halloween candy, I would have preferred something savory as a kid, like Halloween Steak Umms. Why did I have the impulse to make him giggle with a reference to fake meat? I wasn’t feeling threatened by a mammoth, or trying to dominate him, or feeling super-sad. Maybe I was trying to distract him from the fact that the other things I was saying were boring. Getting people to laugh could be me re-assuring myself that I’m interesting. And I was also on the defensive about my dislike of Halloween, so, instead of explaining my unpopular opinion, I made a joke about it. This was humor as a way of distracting him from my real thoughts, my real thoughts being unvetted and over-earnest.
I think that sometimes, as a secretly grave person, I’m just afraid of what’s serious. Half the jokes I tell are only meant for me, as a kind of pumping up. To me, a joke is like REM sleep; I’d go crazy very shortly without it, in an insomnia of sternness.
Arthur Koestler said that “we laugh at the juxtaposition of incongruous things in order to point out that something is wrong.” (Incidentally, he wrote Darkness at Noon, which title is incongruous, which book is decidedly humorless.) I’m not ready to say that we josh ‘n jest to recognize the bleak absurdity of things or that those who make light are desperate and lonely people; but there is something about whimsy that suggests that the rest of non-whimsical existence is not quite good enough. So, I won’t say we laugh because things are wrong, as Koestler thought, but because things could be better.
At my aunt’s funeral, a relative came up to my brother and me and said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, don’t add water or the urn will bust.” We all laughed irreverently at that for a long minute. (My brother and I have tried pretty systematically to define the genre known as Funeral Humor, without much success.) Later, I cried really bitterly at the church while I tried to read through a bit of scripture. Laugh with those who laugh, weep with those who weep, says the book of Romans.
My Chevy Corsica – Edith – has no sideview mirrors, no gas cap flap, no functional door to speak of. It’s filled with copious amounts of garbage, thick layers of nasty trash, and that refuse piles up near an old stuffed lion that belonged to my aunt. 2
There is a prehistoric bug in the back seat I don’t much like to approach.
Last month, I had to have holes drilled in the Corsica’s chassis so that rain-water would stop pooling inside it. Edith would have laughed at this, I think. This too:
I once left the keys in the Corsica as it sat in an airport parking lot while I flew to Washington DC from Columbus, Ohio. I found out later that I’d also left the car running. “Oh honey,” said the airport official whom I’d called to talk to about it. “I’m not laughing at you,” she said. She was, and I was laughing too. I’d destroyed the radiator, and it may have been a reasonable time to say goodbye to Edith for good, but I didn’t.
Laughter is caused by the epiglottis constricting the larynx, causing respiratory upset. Laugh until you cry, they say, and vice versa.
I will drive the first car I’ve owned until it stops making me giggle. And for this lovely piece of steel called Edith, I still owe my sister 11 dollars. Don’t tell her, but I’d probably pay at least twice that much.
David Wanczyk teaches English at Ohio University and his work has been published in The Awl, Brevity, and Defunct, among others. He enjoys presidential history, most kinds of cheese, and job offers.
© 2011, David Wanczyk
2. The prize piece of this garbage is a coffee cup chewed and left in the back seat by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, himself a decently funny guy. I think he was drinking decaf. The stuffed beast is Nala, from The Lion King.