All for One, Ella Van Haren
“What’s something you like about yourself?” My counselor sat across from me in her office, leaning in so far her brunette bob pitched into her face. She spoke in the high, breezy voice she so often used to charm me into a positive mental attitude. It was raining outside.
I twiddled my rings until my fingers looked rashy. “I guess I can be funny?” I looked at the shelving unit behind Dr. Keating instead of at her. We had been working on my self-image, which meant that every so often I had to say something nice about myself though it ran against the grain of my strict anti-bragging ethos. “My sense of humor has always been a huge part of who I am. I want people to enjoy having me around, so I goof off a lot to make them smile. Whether or not it’s successful is—” I made finger guns to defuse the tension “—debatable.”
She nodded. “I think you’re funny, Erin.”
Now I know my therapist isn’t the most reliable judge of my comedic talent. She’s paid to make me like myself, and if that means throwing me a bone and telling me I’m funny, then that’s what she’ll do. Perhaps my real defining characteristic is a crippling lack of self-awareness, and I should amend my previous statement to “I like to think that I’m funny.” After all, my mother sent me a link to the article “Why Is Something Funny, And Why Should We Care?” a few months ago as if to say that my technique could use some fine-tuning. “Fun and interesting article! XO, Nev,” she signed the email with her family nickname.
My mother is a confirmed article junkie, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find this message blinking in my inbox. She’s the modernized version of my grandma, who has stacks of crisply snipped newspaper articles lumped across her carpet in Blair Witch-like heaps. They make her whole house smell chalky. “What’s going to happen when you move out, Ma?” my mother will ask her, sounding annoyed. “No one is going to read these.” In the next breath, though, she’ll tell my grandma about an article from nytimes.com that she absolutely must, must read. “I’ll forward it to you when I get home.”
Despite an awareness of my mother’s obsession with sending online articles to her family members with only the most tenuous threads of connection (e.g. “You mentioned kale once last Christmas, so here’s an article I found that discusses its health benefits, and there are some kale-based recipes if you scroll down far enough; they can all be made with five ingredients or fewer. Isn’t that neat? It made me think of you.”), I immediately took this one as a personal attack. What did my mother mean by sending me this article about humor? Did she intend it to be a tips-and-tricks, You-Might-Learn-A-Thing-Or-Two self-help guide?
Though my family might say I can be entertaining, I don’t think they would say that I’m “funny.” My mother’s brand of humor vacillates between wholesome slapstick and lewd wordplay, both wholly different than the bleak one-liners I gravitate toward. Need an example? In the Notes app on my phone, I write down things people say that make me laugh—like a real ab-burning, spit-misting, asthmatic laugh—yet none of my family members have made the list, nor do I think they would appreciate what else is on there.
“I hate red because it only reminds me of the enemy blood I must spill.” –Tori
“Suburbia has ruined you. You’re like a racehorse that has to be shot.” –Emmy
“I feel like I would be in a loveless marriage with myself.” –Dan
“People disappear all the time. We just say they’re eaten by lions.” –Tori
“I’m an opportunist. Like the infections that kill you off when you have AIDS.” –Emmy
Unsettled by the darkness of my humor, my mother may have sent that article to nudge me toward the light.
The article, as it turned out, was not a passive aggressive statement about my comedic talent, despite what my maladaptive self-consciousness might have told me. Instead, it was an overview of current scientific theories on how humor works, sent for its pure entertainment value. “Wasn’t that neat, Boo?” my mom asked during our next phone call.
“Super interesting. Thanks, Mom.” In truth, the article still rubbed me the wrong way, but now for a different reason. I didn’t like hearing humor talked about like an equation—X is funny because Y; it felt wrong, somehow, like when you hear your Catholic grandparents curse for the first time. How could something as lively as humor be dissected with the language of test tubes and clipboards?
Scientists found a way, all right.
One of their favorite theories is called Benign Violation Theory, or BVT, a formulaic model of humor that asserts something is funny when it diverts expectations in a safe environment. I sat in my clunky college-issue desk chair as I read this explanation and pursed my lips to one side. Could that be true? Could any stuffy rando become a comedy legend in two simple steps?
I wanted to see if the theory would hold in my personal experience. I considered my go-to weather joke (yes, I have a go-to weather joke): when someone tells me that it’s cold outside, assuming I know them well enough for them not to think I’m a murderer, I like to counter with, “It’s only cold if you allow yourself to feel!” Bonus points if I say it in a singsong voice.
The last time I told this one, I was getting onto a campus cruiser, the bus used to shuttle students to and from class. It was a brittle morning, one of the first major cold spells of the season, and the grass’s tips looked like they had been dipped in vanilla frosting. My cue came like clockwork: “God, it’s cold!”
I don’t remember who said this, nor do I remember their response to my line (“Well, you know what they say about the cold…”). However, I do remember that the cruiser driver overheard me, and her response was not ideal. Instead of her lips curling into an unexpected grin and wagging a finger at me—“So true, so true,” she might have said—I could feel her worry lines fork her skin deeper as I mounted the cruiser steps. I tried to reassure her with something like, “Don’t worry, I’m fine,” but did not settle back into her seat with the same easy hunch.
Sometimes, my jokes are a swing and a miss, and maybe the BVT explains why. What expectation was I diverting? The expectation that playful morning banter doesn’t include depressive broadcasts? No wonder the cruiser driver was so unsettled. My humor seemed to be less about diverting expectations and more about prodding the dark corners of the world with a stick to see if they bite.
My dad once told me that humor is tragedy plus distance.
…which, to start off with, is technically incorrect. This is actually a bastardization of Carol Burnett’s saying, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” However, I might argue—and not just out of familial loyalty—that my dad’s off-brand version is more accurate. Something can only be funny when it’s far enough away that it can’t cause any serious psycho-emotional goring. True, we are all familiar with the acknowledgement of a joke too close in time to be funny—“Too soon?”—but to say that time is the only kind of distance necessary for humor is ridiculous. Distance can be geographic: it’s certainly easier to joke about the resurgence of the bubonic plague in Madagascar (the Middle Ages called; they want their death toll back!) than it is to joke about leukemia. Sometimes it’s experiential: a hairdresser who lives in land-locked Idaho will probably be more amenable to Sharknado jokes than a single-legged shark attack survivor. Oftentimes it’s emotional: any mental illness is fair game if it is tucked neatly enough into its mental hidey hole.
The last type of distance is where I often fall into trouble.
Several times I have been accused of using my humor to hide from my feelings, something to keep others off my trail of insecurity and depression. Joking about the distressing parts of life keep them at a safe distance, like when you point out the plot holes in a horror movie so you don’t have to worry about what’s hiding in the closet. By my logic, if I joke about my belief that the world is going to end in a fleshy horde of people clawing for survival after a bout of resource shortages, chances are no further questions will be asked, right? It’s my way of giving people glimpses into my bleak mental ruts without inviting pity or pulling them down with me, and if they can laugh about it, then I convince myself that I can too. Close but not too close. As Huffington Post writer Megan Ward puts it, dark humor makes one’s grim, twisty innards “casual and lowkey.”
And wouldn’t you know it: CasualAndLowkey is my middle name.
I can see how this reasoning is problematic.
According to my ex-roommate, this reasoning—this fetish for the lowkey—is my biggest flaw, and the reason why she sought distance from me our junior year of college. Even though we lived in the same room, I saw her less than I saw certain janitors on campus, and our total syllabic count the first few weeks of school was well below triple-digits. Movie nights had become obsolete, invitations subverted by vague allusions to a “busyness” unsubstantiated by assignment notebooks or day planners. We used to spend every waking moment together.
One September morning, I confronted her about the growing distance between us. From her gray vanity chair, she told me that even after two years of being best friends, we weren’t “close.” Apparently my silliness did not bode well for deep, emotional probing, and according to her, friendship cannot subsist on topical jibes. “It seems like you only want to get together to have a good time,” she told me, “but you never talk about the nitty-gritty parts of life.” Her hair straightener hung limply from her hand as she spoke. I wondered whether it would set the carpet on fire if she dropped it.
I stood there willing my tears back into their ducts, hands gripping my backpack straps in fumbling pulses. Here was my best friend—the person whom I used to share every passing thought with, the person whom I believed would be a bridesmaid at my future wedding, and the person whose quotes made up over 50% of my list—telling me that we weren’t close. “I’m working on opening up to people,” I said. “I’m going to counseling, and I know that will help. My friends back home never talked about that kind of stuff, so I didn’t know you wanted to.”
She looked on with a face of fake care—low-set eyebrows bowed upwards like U’s, mouth downturned at the edges—but it ended up looking more like disgust. I felt torn; she was the one who I used to go to if I needed relief from something upsetting, but here she was, the one causing my distress. I wanted to hug her and cry into her shoulder, but I also wanted to slap her and run in the other direction. She clasped her hands on her lap and her brown eyes flitted to the straightener. It was clear she was waiting for me to finish so she could get on with her morning routine. Our relationship never recovered from that morning.
What my roommate said irritated me for a long while, and my unwillingness to admit guilt made me bitter. Humor is an integral part of who I am, yet apparently it had pigeon-holed me in the role of “good time friend,” the kind of friend you would never go to for perspective on a depressive episode.
“It’s bullshit,” was my most coherent summation of the dispute.
This isn’t to say that I don’t want to give people a good time; I always want people to have a good time when they’re around me. I just felt betrayed that my friend had looked at the years we spent stitched to one another’s side, sharing everything from cringy details about lackluster sexual pasts to a single glass of water in the dining hall, and could say that she didn’t know me at all. Having a good time and being close aren’t mutually exclusive, I wanted to snap at her. I was frustrated, reactive.
It wasn’t until months later that I could get past my knee-jerk self-righteousness and begin to wonder if my best friend was right, that perhaps I had joked about not feeling so much that I had actually forgotten how to feel. This would certainly explain why my humor was so dark, why I had become so “bitterly amused” by sinister topics like death and depression, as Ulrike Willinger, researcher at the Medical University of Vienna, puts it. Maybe I was trundling through life in a hamster ball, always separated from the outside world by three feet of sterile space. But did that mean I was broken?
I am not often soothed by research. Online queries like, “Is this rash serious?” “What grade do I need on my final to pass the class?”, and “Can a phone still work after being put in the washing machine?” have not yielded the most reassuring results in the past. However, after an afternoon of rummaging through websites for articles about dark humor and mental health, eyes bathed in the cool glow of computer screens, I was relieved to find that the internet, in all its pseudomedical glory, has declared me a healthy, functioning adult.
According to Mary O’Hara’s BBC piece “How comedy makes us better people,” researchers agree that dark humor is a normal coping mechanism, a form of psychological processing that allows us to acknowledge the weight of the world’s problems and—unlike like my blue, turtle-necked idol from Inside Out—not obsess over them. Better yet, Willinger’s study shows that people with a dark sense of humor tend to have higher IQs, lower aggression, and fewer negative feelings, possibly due to the “mental gymnastics” necessary to turn a crime scene into a punchline.
I told my friend Tori this the moment after I read it, flushed with pride. “Tori, Tori, Tori,” I chanted across our study table in something that sounded like a whisper but without any reduction in volume. “You’ll never guess why I’m a genius.”
She looked amused as I explained. “Lower aggression? Higher IQ? You?” She folded her hands in her lap, pushed her glasses into the crook of her nose, and waited for me to see what was so funny.
“Ha, ha. You’re hilarious,” I grinned. “You’re just jealous, is all.”
Her skepticism may have been warranted. I’ve never felt smarter after making light of castration or more Zen after homicidal banter, so maybe the study isn’t as precise as it’s meant to be. And if dark humor can’t confirm that I’m certifiably brilliant (and I can certainly vouch for my lack of brilliance), how can I defend it, especially after it’s gotten me into so much trouble?
Weeks after my roommate moved out, I cocooned myself in myself in my comforter and stared at her barren half of the room, yearning to have her bar soap smell back. Without her excessive pile of throw pillows, even her twin-sized bed looked too big. I took out my phone and flicked through my quote list in the hopes that it would stave off the tears I felt stinging my ducts.
As I got further in the list, though, I realized something: true, I was the one who was collecting the dark quips, but the majority of them were not said by me. My ex-roommate was actually the prime darkness generator, and the things she said—“You’re like a pop-up book from hell,” “If I followed my feelings everywhere, a lot of people I know would be dead,” “A man with a goal is hot, even if that goal is to murder another person”—were just as harsh as what I reeled out. If even my friends were using dark humor, then what made it such a problem when I used it?
Something clicked. Perhaps it wasn’t just the darkness of my humor that was the problem, though that certainly didn’t help; it was the volume of my humor that turned people away. While most use humor when the mood is light or only sparingly to help themselves cope with life problems, I was using it as a baseline mode of interaction. What this led to was a gap between me and others that I had gotten so used to, I forgot it was there. Did I even know how to talk to someone without cracking a joke?
I think this humor abuse started in elementary school with my friend Maddy, who was prone to depressive mood swings and body image issues. Even as a fourth grader, she began asking me questions like, “How is it that you can eat so much but stay so thin?” with a dejected look at her barely bulging belly or, “I don’t think that any boy will ever like me.” I brushed off these comments with a funny pose. I would hunch over like a wizened woman, push out my stomach, and rub it sinisterly beneath a lime green nightie. I would slowly push another graham cracker into my gaping mouth and hock on it as unattractively as possible. “But we’re so hot,” I’d choke out, showering her with sawdust-like crumbs. She would collapse into a fit of giggles, and I would mistake this for a long-term solution, patting myself on the back. Humor was a cure-all, I believed, and I was the wise apothecary who could administer it.
However, as the years went on, this joking became my only way of dealing with others’ emotional confessions. I became the Clown Lisa Haisha describes in her Huffington Post article “Is Your Humor Hurting People?”: only able to cope with the world through humor, focusing on “being liked rather than being real,” and unable to “give proper maturity to discussions that demand maturity.” If I couldn’t joke about someone’s pain directly to make them feel better, then I would divert attention to my inability to comfort them instead, hoping that my emotional impotency could distract them from their own pain. I knew no other way to help. As a kid, this consolation technique was effective, but as my friends grew, their emotions became more and more complex, and it took more than a knock-knock joke to untangle their webs.
My humor tactic lost any last bit of effectiveness in high school, though I didn’t know it then.
The first time I saw my best friend Sam cry, we were in our Honors Anatomy class junior year. We usually spent the period cackling over our dissected cat, Norbert, who for some reason was gnarlier than everyone else’s. “Norbert must have been into some hard core shit back in those alleys,” I’d say as I prodded his congealed, withered liver. “When bath time goes wrong,” she’d say when Norbert’s sliced skin flaps came undone from their rubber bands in the lab room sink, and his intestines curled in the drain.
But this day was different. Sam came into class looking disheveled; her usually straightened hair was tied in a flyaway knot at the nape of her neck. Her skin was blotchy red, untouched by foundation, and purplish bags hung beneath each eye. She wore glasses instead of contacts.
She acted differently, too: stoic, distant. My jibe at Norbert’s rubbery kidneys yielded nothing but a blank stare. “Is something wrong?” I asked her, my rubber gloves greased with another one of Norbert’s unidentifiable juices.
The whites of her eyes went pink as a line of tears swelled at her waterline. “I just have a lot going on right now.”
I knew Sam had been under a lot of stress lately. Schoolwork, college applications, and 20-hour work weeks taking phone orders at Bill’s Pizza & Pub had rendered her a shell of a person, an automaton on a wind-up track that bustled her from place to place without giving her time to catch her breath.
I knew all this, but I still hadn’t expected her to cry. In fact, neither of us had ever cried in front of the other before, and a part of me had forgotten that Sam could, fooled into thinking that our non-stop banter precluded any possibility of inner turmoil. I made one attempt at engaging with her deeply—“Are you OK?”—but she just nodded. I should have probed deeper, taken her out of the classroom to give her processing space, or at least let her know I was there if she ever needed me. Instead, I asked limply, “Do you want a hug, or…?” while holding out my arms and making a goofy face: teeth bared like a fourth grader learning how to smile, arms held straight out from my chest but with my torso leaned back to maintain distance, shoulders hiked so high that my long neck vanished between their humps.
She smiled through her tears. “No, I’m OK,” she ended with a decided sniffle, embarrassed at having let slip our joking superficies and exposing the rawness beneath. I mistook this as a sign she was better and congratulated myself on a job well done.
It wasn’t until years later on a summer road trip to Saugatuck, Michigan that her younger sister, Gabriella, revealed what was going on with her sister during that time. Sam was supposed to have come with us, but a stomach bug derailed her plans. “Don’t tell her I told you this,” Gabriella confessed, sitting cross-legged on the hotel bed, “but Sam was, like, severely depressed junior year. It was scary. She once locked herself in the bathroom and threatened my mom that she was going to kill herself. I thought she might do it, too.” Gabriella stared at her hands. “She’s fine now, by the way. But for a while she really wasn’t.”
Suddenly, I understood what my roommate had meant by the “nitty gritty parts of life.”
And so we find ourselves back at my counselor’s office, back to its purposefully pastel palette and strategically placed tissue boxes.
“I think you’re funny, Erin.” Dr. Keating crossed her legs. “But do you ever feel like your humor gets you into trouble?”
I thought back to my roommate, to Sam, to the cruiser driver, even. They had all seen a problem with the way I confronted the world, and they can’t have been that far off the mark; after all, why else would I be rubbing my knees in a counselor’s office, trying to make sense of the emotional clump I let collect in my gut like the bundle of laundry that comes out of the drier? I had forgotten that humor was supposed to help cope with, not just distance myself from, the world and the people around me. Now I was left with the nauseating suspicion that I’ve never really been close to anyone in my life, or worse, that I wouldn’t even know how to be if given the chance.
I snorted and looked at my hands. “Do I think that my humor gets me into trouble? Oh boy, do I.”
Before you start getting any ideas, know that I’ll never be a comedic turncoat; humor—especially dark humor—is my ride-or-die chick, and I’ll defend her to the ends of the earth no matter the social or psychological cost. After all, I firmly believe that we wouldn’t be able to function in a transient world without joking about it; we’d self-destruct. As pleasure-driven creatures, we’re wired to subvert tragedy into comedy. I think about my friends now, the way we endure the stress of school by joking about running into the wilderness and joining a satanic cult (Satan, at least, doesn’t care about GPA’s) or the way we face our fears about ending up alone by glorifying abject spinsterhood. Our jokes have bonded us, bleak as they may be.
However, I have an issue with moderation. People distance themselves from those who can’t engage with them maturely, according to Haisha’s final diagnosis of the Clown: “Those who wish to depend on the “Clown” will find themselves avoiding the “Clown” when they encounter difficulty. This precludes the “Clown” from establishing lasting relationships, effectively relegating the “Impostor” into the category of the funny friend, or at its worst, the asshole friend.”
Take this as my wake-up call. I am putting myself in comedic rehab, determined not to push anyone else away. When friends come to me with serious issues, I enter a no-comedy zone and take time to respond with thoughtful feedback. I am rewiring my brain, relearning that it’s okay to talk about depression, family issues, and financial anxiety without a punch line. Sometimes I’m even the one to bring these topics up. Sometimes it’s easy to be vulnerable, and sometimes admitting these weaknesses makes me feel naked and defective. Sometimes I fail and I joke about someone’s pain when it’s still too tender to prod, but I can at least recognize that I’ve failed.
The point is that I’m trying. I’m trying my best to dig out true feelings beneath the layers of psychological defenses I piled on them as a young girl and trying to be more than a good-time friend. Perhaps there’s another article out there to help me figure out how.
Borgella, Sam. “Why Is Something Funny, And Why Should We Care?” FastCompany.com, 23 November 2016, https://www.fastcompany.com/3065336/the-science-of-humor. Accessed 30 October 2017.
Haisha, Lisa. “Is Your Humor Hurting People?” Huffingtonpost.com, 22 July 2012, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-haisha/self-improvement_b_1533589.html. Accessed 10 December 2017.
McClure, Max. “Stanford psychologists find that jokes help us cope with horrifying images.” Stanford News, 1 August 2011, https://news.stanford.edu/news/2011/august/humor-coping-horror-080111.html. Accessed 30 October 2017.
O’Hara, Mary. “How comedy makes us better people.” BBC.com, 30 August 2016, http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160829-how-laughter-makes-us-better-people. Accessed 30 October 2017.
Ward, Megan. “Is Fatalistic Humour A Valid Coping Mechanism For Depression?” HuffingtonPost.co.uk, 14 March 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/megan-ward1/depressing-coping-mechanism_b_15346376.html. Accessed 30 October 2017.Willinger, U.,
Hergovich, A., Schmoeger, M. et al. “Cognitive and emotional demands of black humour processing: the role of intelligence, aggressiveness and mood.” Cognitive Processing, vol. 18, 2017, pp. 159-167. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-016-0789-y. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10339-016-0789-y.pdf. Accessed 30 October 2017.
About the Author
Erin Hoffman · Colgate University
Erin Hoffman, a writer, editor, and rosé-enthusiast, earned her B.A. in English creative writing from Colgate University in 2019. Though she studied in Hamilton, New York, Erin is a Chicagoland native and continues working as an editor from her hometown. However, when she isn’t shamelessly advocating for the use of the Oxford comma, Erin writes both fiction and nonfiction, and her pieces have appeared in literary journals including The Offbeat, The Colgate Portfolio, Red Cedar Review, and Teen Ink. Erin will be attending the graduate school of University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 2020 to further her study of creative writing.
About the Artist
Ella Van Haren · University of Minnesota
Ella Van Haren is a second year student at the University of Minnesota pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in visual arts, and her creative practice consists mostly of painting and drawing. “All For One” was created for and originally appeared in The Tower magazine.