Things are funnier from a distance

November 19, 2007

by Ivan Raconteur

The degree of humor we find in any given situation is directly proportionate to our distance from the action.

I have observed this on many occasions over the years, and the more I stop to consider it, the more I am convinced that there is probably some mathematical formula that would show the correlation between humor and distance.

Recently, a friend told me a bat story.

I must confess that I laughed a bit as she told me how she locked the bat in the basement, and waited for her boyfriend to borrow a net from a neighbor and descend into the cellar in search of the intruder.

I gather from her comments that the boyfriend was not overly enthusiastic about his mission.

After hearing about this, another friend shared his bat story.

During his college days, a bat came to visit him in his apartment.

In a panic, he called his girlfriend, who was attending college in another city, and told her about it.

Her response, although she used slightly more colorful language, was something along the lines of, “What do you expect me to do about it?”

My friend locked himself in his room until the “bat guy” arrived the next day to escort the bat off of the premises.

I have no trouble at all seeing the humor in these situations.

On the other hand, I did not find it nearly so funny when I had bats in my own house several years ago.

Bears and other large creatures don’t bother me. I can see them coming, and they generally mind their own business.

Bats, on the other hand, creep me out. I understand they play an important role in the food chain, but I find their presence extremely disquieting, and I definitely don’t want them in my house.

It is hilarious to hear someone else’s bat stories. We can see the humor because there is distance between us and the situation. We are not the ones schlepping a net down to the cellar to look for a creature that we hope never to meet.

The same principle applies to other situations as well.

Take hangovers, for instance. Naturally one would not advocate over-indulging in alcohol, but many of us, at one time or another, have had the experience.

So when a co-worker drags herself to the office bleary-eyed and looking a bit disheveled, we can see the funny side of it.

There is an element of shared human experience in the situation.

We laugh, not because it is funny that the person consumed one more adult beverage than was absolutely necessary. We laugh because we are so glad that it isn’t us.

There is nothing even remotely funny about a hangover when it is one’s own. When one wakes up with a mouth like the Kalahari on a warm afternoon, and a head that is ringing like the bells of Notre Dame, life takes on a decidedly dismal tone.

Humor is like that. It is often based on tragedy one step removed. We understand the experience, but we are isolated from the real pain or fear, or whatever unpleasantness the subject is facing.

When we see Mr. Laurel or Mr. Hardy fall off a ladder or get hit in the head with a brick, we laugh, but our sympathy is still with the unfortunate victim. There is a deep understanding for each of us that some days, no matter how hard we try, things just don’t go our way.

We can appreciate the misfortune of others, and we are secretly glad that, this time, it is not us getting hit in the head with the brick.

If a friend talks about abandoning her family and all that she holds dear to get a project out on time, I may laugh just a little. It is not because I enjoy her misery; it is because I understand.

That is just the way it is for those of us who live and die by deadlines. Life can be a bit like careening down a steep hill on a Gypsy cart with dodgy wheels and no brakes.

We sometimes have to turn our backs on the rest of the world to focus on the job at hand. We start early, burn the midnight oil, and work through holidays (both federal and the real ones), and we defy the sanctity of weekends to get the project out on time.

And, when we round the last turn and hit the last bump in the road, which sends us airborne as we break the ribbon of another finish line just ahead of the deadline, we have only that one brief moment to savor the sweet taste of success.

Then, the wheels come crashing back to earth, and we are off again, trying to hold the cart together as we continue our mad downhill rush, hurtling on toward the next deadline.

If we take a moment along the way to smile at our friends’ deadline woes, it is not out of meanness. We really do feel their pain.

Deadlines, like bats, hangovers, and so many of life’s other challenges, are much funnier when they are confronting someone else.