• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Why No One Here Is Laughing at My Jokes

I’m finishing my very brief first visit to India–Bangalore, in particular. I have given six lectures in three days, enjoyed several meals on the campus of the ACTS Institute where the week-long seminar for graduate students is being held, and driven back and forth through Bangalore’s kaleidoscopic traffic in those three days.

Everyone who comes to India for the first time records profound and moving experiences. Usually those experiences are described in terms of shocking juxtapositions: ancient/modern, Indian/British, rich/poor. I’ve had those experiences, too, but cannot think of a single original, interesting thing to say about them. They’re just real: profound and moving.

But here is something else I’ve noticed, not so profound, but disconcerting at the least. My best jokes, throughout my lectures, have flown across the room, making no evident connection with my audience, and then have silently disappeared in a far high corner where they went to die.

I am teaching some rather complex stuff: theology of religions, philosophy of knowledge, sociology of fundamentalism, theological ethics. The students seem to be understanding well enough. So it’s not as if we are simply not communicating.

No, the jokes just aren’t working. And I’ve found out why.

Some of my hosts have lived and studied in the West, and continue to travel there frequently. To a person, they get my jokes and laugh good-naturedly. So when I asked them about contemporary Indian humour among the middle-class people I am addressing–who, to be sure, come from virtually every corner of this vast and varied land–they say this: Think of North American humour a generation or more ago. Don’t think “Frasier” or “The Office” or Jon Stewart. Goodness, no! Think “I Love Lucy,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and Jerry Lewis.

Their humour, it seems, is straight on the nose, big smiles telegraphing the punch line, with no ambiguity: That’s a joke. Ours, instead, comes at you sideways, no smile, with a dash of bitters. Oh, yeah: I get it.

I like our humour better. I like clever, I like witty, I like sardonic, I like wordplay, I like irony. I hate slapstick and most physical comedy (although I love David Hyde Pierce on “Frasier” re-runs, but he’s a genius). So I’m glad for our sort of jokes, and when I re-pitched my humour for the benefit of my audience, I was genuinely glad they were amused, because I care about them, but I also was inwardly embarrassed. (“Oh, brother: You call that a joke? Why not put on some funny pants and honk a horn?”)

So what? So I’m now wondering whether I need to reconsider my almost constant use of such humour. Friends have warned me, in fact, that people near me, whom I want to stay near me and to enjoy being near me, are frequently uncomfortable with me just because they’re not quite sure what I mean by that. And not knowing means not feeling safe. And nobody likes to feel unsafe.

I might not like “I Love Lucy”–in fact, I can’t stand it. But you always know who’s who and what’s what in that world.

In my world, you often can’t be sure whether that remark was a compliment or an insult. You often can’t tell for certain who is friend and who is foe. You often can’t tell where you are, and who is with you.

So some of my students are wary of me. Some of my colleagues keep a certain distance. And some of my family members wonder–if only for a second–whether I really love them.

That’s a pretty big price to pay for trying to be humorous.

In fact, it’s really not funny.