Last winter as part of a sixth-grade language arts assignment, my son, Jack, had to choose a Greek god or goddess as the topic of his research project on Greek mythology.
He chose Rhea, of course — namesake of the word “diarrhea.”
Bonus discovery: She was the daughter of Uranus.
Jack laughed for a solid two or three minutes about that one. He eventually settled down, caught his breath, and walked to the kitchen junk drawer to look for permanent markers.
Minutes later, I found him there sifting through the drawer, still snickering.
“Daughter of Uranus,” he said, collapsing again into laughter and shaking his head. “I can’t wait for this presentation.”
My son appreciates a good play on words. But more than that, for much of his young life, he has loved to laugh and to make others laugh.
It’s a passion my husband and I try to encourage, because we know a sense of humor, like air or water, is crucial to survival. But it’s also a little like walking a tightrope, endorsing humor while also trying to explain that some situations, some audiences, require serious tones.
Jack was barely 3 when, already intent on comedic performance, he would barrel into one of his sister’s play dates, push the girls’ Polly Pocket dolls aside and shout, “Hey guys, laugh at this!”
Then he’d make a weird face or dance a jig or re-enact a scene from “Monsters Inc.” — “Put that thing back where it came from or so help me … so help me … and, cut!” — and stand there, waiting for the whoops and giggles.
Hannah, the quintessential big sister, usually would respond, “Jack! That’s not funny! Now leave us alone!” after which she’d either slam her door or find me to register an official complaint: “Mom! Jack is interfering with our work.”
I’d tell my son that sometimes, people aren’t in the mood to laugh. They’re concentrating on Very Important Things, like solving for “x” or assembling an IKEA table or cleaning the bathtub, and they shouldn’t be bothered.
That’s what I told him, but I didn’t really believe it. More likely, I thought, you just need to work on your delivery.
Because who doesn’t appreciate a good laugh, wherever and whenever? Perhaps the junior high teacher who gave a kid detention for cracking a “That’s what she said” joke in class. (Inappropriate? Of course. But, like hearing a toddler say a curse word, it’s inherently hilarious.)
In a recent HBO special, “Talking Funny,” Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis C.K. and Ricky Gervais sat down together to discuss the art of comedy and their paths to success.
Seinfeld recalled the first time, in third grade, that he met another kid who was funny, and how they lived to make people laugh.
Gervais said he inherited his sardonic wit the same way he acquired his British accent: “My family was funny, all their friends — that was the important thing,” he said. “When I grew up, once you paid your way, the point was to have a laugh.”
That is the point, isn’t it? As pioneer psychologist William James once said: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”
And I say, dance on.