Tuesday, November 11, 2008


About ten years ago, while eating lunch at work with my friend Judith, we were discussing the changes that come along with aging and comparing what others had told us about it. After some dialogue, she matter-of-factly stated that the only real difference she had noticed was that she fell down more. This declaration nearly caused me to choke on the over-boiled bite of cafeteria food that I had in my mouth at the time, because having a visual mind, I immediately picture whatever anyone says to me and I find slap-stick the height of hilarity. I love guys like Steve Martin, Steve Carell and Rowan Atkinson. Even if the Pink Panther movies aren’t the greatest in terms of script, I will still view it again and again just to watch Mr. Martin crash through walls and fall through floors. I can laugh myself silly watching the old Mr. Bean show where visual humor makes up the bulk of the amusement and Mr. Bean only mutters an indistinct word every so often. And that scene in Evan Almighty where Steve Carell is attempting to build his ark and keeps hammering his finger or falling off a beam? Well, let’s just say that when I took Lily to see it in the theater she was sitting on my lap at the time of that particular scene and she started complaining because I was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face and soaking the back of her shirt. There is also a scene in the movie Nine Months where Hugh Grant is racing through town to get his pregnant girlfriend to the hospital in time to deliver their baby and they keep hitting people and having to take them along to the hospital. Well, you get the picture, I like the shtick!

Interestingly, my love of Mr. Bean is apparently shared by several million Chinese where visual humor makes up a lot of what the Chinese find funny. While in China my friend Pegeen and I had asked one of our guides, Judy, about Chinese humor and how she thought it differed from Western humor. She was the one who told us about Mr. Bean, and indeed, his most recent movie was playing on the TV while we were there and we even saw a bill board with his picture on it in China. I asked Judy what her favorite funny American movie was and she replied ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith.’ ‘Huh’ I thought, because though I had not seen this particular movie, I was familiar with it and I don’t remember it being advertised as a comedy. I was really quite puzzled so when it happened to be playing on cable after I arrived home I sat through it. Um, no, I don’t think that it was exactly a comedy and I now wish I had asked Judy what it was that she found so hilarious in it. I mean, I can sort of see the tongue-in-cheek absurdity, but laugh-out-loud funny? So, I remain perplexed.

One time when Lily was 3 and she had just started sleeping in “a big bed”, I heard a dull thunk in the middle of the night. I waited, then heard the whimpering. I rushed to her room to find her on the floor.

'What happened sweetie?'

'Oh, I just fell out of bed.' Okay, so I really tried not to laugh at that one but it was difficult and fortunately she wasn’t hurt, if she had been I am sure that I wouldn’t think it was funny, trust me. We purchased a thingy for the bed to keep her from falling out the next day.

Even if it is me doing the falling I still find it exceedingly funny. The other day I was trying to fix a cable under my desk and went to sit on the tiny plastic chair that belongs to my two year old. The thin little leg twisted and down I went, my fanny landing right on the length of that “V” shaped plastic chair leg, which amazingly didn’t break. I lay on the floor writhing in pain, yet still laughing my head off. Lily rushed to my side,

'Are you okay Mama? What did you do?’

‘My bum landed on the chair leg, oooooooohhhhhhhhhh!! Haaaa Haaaa!!’

'Oh Mom, you have to be more careful….that’s gonna leave a mark!’ More laughter from me ensued at that. And boy oh boy did it ever leave a mark, about six inches by three of dark purple. Good thing it is where no one can see it.

So a visit to China just wouldn’t be complete without me falling down at some point. The first time I went in 2001 to adopt Lily our group asked to stop at a huge lotus field so that we could take pictures of the beautiful plants. I think our tour guide thought this was a little ridiculous, but humored us. As we wandered about the edge of the field, the lotus being planted in a wet marshy-like muck, I thought I spotted a four leaf clover. ‘How lucky!’ I thought to myself. Well, it turns out, not so much. As I bent kind of sideways to pick it, Lily being strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, my heel slipped on the edge of an irrigation ditch and I fell backwards into it. I threw one arm across Lily and the other out behind me…and it sunk up to my elbow into the sludge. The ditch was just wide enough for my hips to fit snuggly which meant I was stuck like a turtle on its back. The bus driver and our guide were truly horrified and had me hauled out in seconds and then arms came from nowhere to get the baby off my chest. She was fine of course since I had fallen backwards not forwards and she hadn’t even seemed to notice her sudden change of direction from vertical to horizontal. Of course I was laughing, I wasn’t even embarrassed, it was just plain funny to me. There was a small crowd of mostly older Chinese men and women standing on the road above the fields to stare at the lao wai (foreigners) and they too were laughing gleefully. I suspect that the tale was told again and again over dinner that night of the clumsy lao wai with a Chinese baby strapped to her chest who fell in the, um…fertilizer.

So I didn’t disappoint on this most recent trip to China…I tripped of course. This time it was in Beijing and we were walking the length of the pedestrian shopping area. My eyes were everywhere drinking in the new and unfamiliar. Everywhere that is except where I was walking. I was saying to Lily and my friend Pegeen, ‘What do you suppose are in those little grey crocks with the straw sticking out?’ (see photo), when I tripped over one of those rubber electric cord protectors. There was even a big yellow sign over it warning of its presence, but I wasn’t looking there. You know that split second when you slip or trip and think you are going to catch yourself? Yeah, I hate that split second, it lies! Down I went onto the cobblestone in front a group of tables filled with locals eating dinner. I had even been holding Lily’s hand at the time, but when the big Mama goes down, a tiny eight year old isn’t gonna save her. Okay, this time I was embarrassed…a little, but it was still very funny. Looking back on it now I probably should have jumped up, thrown out my arms and shouted “ta da!”, because not one of those staring Asian faces was laughing, or even smiling for that matter. Nor did they look concerned or sympathetic at my lack of grace, which made it even worse, they just stared. Maybe they burst into gales of laughter after we had made our way out of site, who knows. Oh, and what was in those little grey crocks? Drinkable yogurt. Silly me, I should have guessed.

So what would make a person in China laugh? I wondered and so I did a wee bit of research. One form of comedy that has been popular in China is something called xiangsheng, which translates literally as “face and voice”, but is usually referred to in English as “crosstalk”. It was developed as street theater in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) and by the mid twentieth-century had become a complex oral performance form with anti-authoritarian overtones. Xiangsheng takes the age-old formula of humorous repartee being exchanged between an exasperated straight-man to a muddle-headed clown and draws upon all aspects of Chinese culture for its subject matter. American comic performers have something similar, minus the anti-authoritarian
overtones, an example would be Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First routine. Additionally, teams such as Martin and Lewis, The Smothers Brothers, Burns and Allen, Rowan and Martin, performed this kind of back and forth banter. But the Chinese form adds to this dialogue a complex play on words rich in puns and satire.

Here you can watch a classic example of Xiangsheng, although unless you understand Mandarin you will have no idea what these two guys are saying, even so, you can get an idea of how it is performed. And Mark Rowswell, a Canadian known as Da Shan in China is considered to be the most famous foreigner in China because of his mastery in performing Xiangsheng which the Chinese find amazing since Mandarin is not his first language and Xiangsheng is considered an art form like any other which takes many years to master. In our house we know of him because we are able to get CCTV, China's English language channel where he gives lessons in speaking Mandarin. Here is a link to him performing a solo Xiangsheng skit. Watching these has really gotten me interested in knowing more about this type of comedy. Although I suppose there really isn't any way of truly understanding it without understanding the language and culture in which it is spoken. (sigh)

It has also gotten me thinking about why and how and what makes us laugh and how culture plays a part in this. Our guides in China were all amazing; personable, knowledgeable and reliable. It can’t be an easy job leading large groups of addle-brained new parents around a large, busy, very crowded country. It does seem that a person with an ease of temperament and good humor would have an easier time working as a tour guide than others. All of the guides that we had while in China had a good sense humor, but one especially knew what we as Americans might find amusing, making us laugh easily using some traditional self-deprecation with a certain amount of fun being made at both our cultures. Of course, we were a very easy audience; a captive group of giddy new parents who’s only really deep thought in the last 24 hours was how to find a decent diaper among the local retail offerings. Still, she was quite entertaining and kept us smiling, which is exceedingly important to nervous parents or anyone else under constant fluctuating levels of anxiety, humor brings calm to the heart and mind in stressful circumstances.

On the opposite end of the stick, people with no sense of humor puzzle me. It always makes me wonder how on earth their branch of the evolutionary family tree has survived this predicament that we call the human experience to this point in history. There is so much tragedy in the world, how else to endure without hitting it head on with wit? Frankly, I would become hopelessly ill informed otherwise, for I would cease to listen to the news daily if I wasn’t also able to counter it with absurdity. I am drawn helplessly to people with a great sense of humor. These are also usually the folks with a ready smile and an easy ego; who don’t take themselves too seriously. I don’t think that it is an evolutionarily accident that “a good sense of humor” ranks in the top three traits that young men and women look for in a mate. It ranks higher with what women look for in a man than what men look for in a woman (attractiveness would be number one with men….big surprise). But with women, being able to make us laugh makes the man more attractive to us. Interesting isn’t it? I would be willing to bet that looking for a sense of humor in a mate goes up even further as women grow older. So why is this? Do we need to laugh so badly that we want to pass on these genes to our offspring in hopes that they too will keep us in stitches? Or is it that we wish to be entertained by both our mate and our children? Perhaps it’s just that we want someone to come along and grab the neck of that balloon of stress that inflates throughout the day and release some of the hot air in it while simultaneously making that funny squeaking noise, because funny squeaking noises are FUNNY and we all know it. Laughter releases stress, promotes bonding, encourages love and friendship. Laughter to me equals not just survival but happiness.

So writing this has really got me pondering the comical side of humans. Are we born with a sense of humor or is it developed? Are there cultures that are funnier than others? Are there cultures that use humor more effectively than others? Is what makes us laugh vastly different between cultures and individuals, or are we pretty much on the same playing field? These are all questions I am now preoccupied with and want answered. I know that there are folks reading this who are from other countries and cultures. Anyone with knowledge who would like to enlighten me, please, I am begging you, weigh in and leave your comments. Especially if they are funny!
KKW ©2008


Sarah said...

This post made me laugh! :) So did my husband the first time we met... and still does! Came across your blog through the adopt-cleft yahoo site... you have two beautiful daughters! Thanks for sharing!

Jenna said...

Well...you know you and I are two peas in a pod when it comes to this. Being an unbelievable klutz (My mil calls me "Calamity Jane"), I find physical comedy unbelievably hilarious. America's Funniest Videos is one of my favorite shows. And with Tivo, being able to go back and watch particularly hilarious scenes over and over? Such a mood lifter.
It's not that I'm laughing at other people's misfortunes, either. I think it has to do with recognizing that I'm a similar creature who also laughs at herself, so it feels good to laugh along with those people. I also find absurdity hilarious...along the lines of Oscar Wilde.

So, here's a tale to make you laugh: my most embarrassing moment. It's my freshman year of college, and my hallmate and I are late for Geology, which is in the building across the field from our dorm. The field is bordered by a single-link fence (think posts with just one chain hanging benevolently between). Well, we decide we have to run to class. So we run. Through the building, down the stairs, outside, across the parking lot and to the field. And as I'm running, I realize that I have good speed, and I think I can clear the "fence". I mean, it's that inocuous. Surely I can clear it. So I jump up and over....only to have my feet get tangled in the chain which promptly flips me over onto my face in the mud and dirt on the other side.

Did I mention that classes were letting out at this time and most of the students walking by started clapping? ;)