Friday, September 27, 2019

What Makes You Laugh? #FridayReads

One of the aphorisms we hear most frequently is that humor is subjective. All comedians know this. A comic can kill an audience with laughter on a Thursday night and put another audience into a coma with the exact same jokes on a Friday night. Who can say why?

Great humor allows us to recognize and laugh at ourselves…at our foibles, our prejudices, our unsustainable beliefs, even at our goals and aspirations. But it is difficult to find truly funny works of fiction that can resonate with universal audiences.

I often think of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, one of my all-time favorite books. Most authors can only dream of achieving the success Amis had with his first novel, which won the 1955 Somerset Maugham Award for Fiction.

I read it in high school, 12 years or so after its 1954 publication. I still have that first U. S. edition and keep it where I can see it just by lifting my head from my keyboard. That simple act makes me smile, because seeing Lucky Jim on the book’s tattered spine always sparks happy memories.

I can still picture my teenage self with the book propped upon my knees as I followed the many misadventures of a socially and professionally awkward probationary lecturer in Medieval History at an unnamed university in the English Midlands. Jim bumbles through one disaster after another, accidentally setting the bedsheets on fire at a party hosted by his department head. Then he gets so drunk trying to work up the courage to deliver his final all-important lecture of the year that he passes out at the lectern, but not before telling his audience exactly what he thinks of the University and its inbred system of butt-kissing and sucking-up. Needless to say, Jim does not get the full-time lecturer’s job, but he gets oh, so much more. The ending is delicious.

I reread Lucky Jim again a couple of years ago and it still makes me laugh. It works because the humor flows naturally from the ineptitude of Jim’s character and none of it feels forced. Even though it’s set in a particular place and time, the all-too-human fears it highlights are universal, so successive generations of readers will continue to enjoy Lucky Jim in much the same way I did when I was 17 and a budding Hippie.

If you want to know why funny writing so appeals to me, I’ll tell you. Humor was both the sword and the shield that helped me make it through my childhood in one relatively whole piece. If I were unguarded enough to let you near anyone who attended school with me—I mean…just pick a grade—you would discover I was the class clown. Sister Agnes Cecile always understood I was the source of the muffled laughter snaking through her otherwise joyless classroom.

I suffered for the “sin” of being funny from an early age, being forced to kneel in a box of sharp gravel until my knees bled while trying to hold my nose within a tiny circle Sister had inscribed upon the blackboard. For five torturous minutes. And if I moved a muscle, five additional minutes were added.

I spent a lot of time kneeling in that sharp gravel. I knew better but like most class clowns, I could never keep my snark to myself. The little zing I got out of making people laugh was my catnip.

While being raised Catholic was surely loads of fun (please mentally insert sarcasm emoji here), it’s not where my sense of humor came from. I just happened to be born into a family of funny people. Our raucous dinner table was a round-robin of one-liners from everyone in the family, and we laughed so much that sometimes our food was cold by the time we remembered to eat it. My Sister Agnes Cecile impersonation was a family favorite, but of course, I never told my parents about the sharp gravel. I just kept telling them I had fallen off my bike and they told their friends I was their clumsy, accident-prone child.

I am sad to admit I don’t laugh nearly as much as once I did because there’s not much to laugh about in our modern world. Having worked as a journalist for three decades, I still find myself glued to the horrifying daily news cycle. And the more I try to get myself unstuck, the more I struggle with the desire to turn on the TV to see if Armageddon has started yet.

If one day I learn that it has, I’m just going to grab my baby blanket and Lucky Jim, and then go curl up in bed and read and laugh until the bright white lights explode.

Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.


  1. Pat, what a wonderful post and I'm eager to find a copy of Lucky Jim to read. I could relate to the Catholic school experience, minus the box of gravel. Ouch! what a horrible punishment, but then some "good" sisters seemed to relish horrible punishments. I was lucky. I sat in the back and kept quiet.

    I didn't start reading humor until after I married. Not that I needed it then, lol, it's just that I read books about animals for years, then started reading mysteries and classics. When we had kids, we were introduced to Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, as well as some humorous books from the Sesame Street characters. Our kids loved them, and so did I. I also loved reading Erma Bombeck's columns in the newspaper, and her books, and she was my inspiration for starting a humorous column.

    1. I loved Erma Bombeck as well. She frequently made me laugh out loud and also inspired me to start a funny column that I wrote for about seven or eight years.

      It's so interesting that she inspired each of us to start writing humor columns!

      Once you read Lucky Jim, I'd love to chat about it. I just love the book as it appeals to my essentially subversive nature.

  2. I also came from a laughter-prone family so gatherings were wonderfully therapeutic, even funerals. I don't have the same problem as you do with the modern world though. I find laughter bubbling up every time I turn on a "news" show. Or maybe that's hysteria. Hard to tell sometimes. :D

  3. I classify my news-related laughter as hysteria these days. I've laughed so often at what is going on that the laughter has turned to tears. I'm trying to find my funny again, but so often that is easier said than done.

    It is wonderful to be able to look back on our childhoods and have such happy, laughter and love-filled memories.

  4. It feels so good to laugh; it's also a healthy stress reliever. Laughter can defuse a tense situation and even end an argument. The challenge is getting it to flow successfully into our stories. Great post, Pat.

  5. Great that you found a book that makes you laugh. I never have. I got most of my laughs with my childhood friends. Still do. Whenever we get together, it's like we're 12 again. They're still the funniest people I know, and though most of them are in one place, two of us are elsewhere. Those are the best times I remember.


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