(In which the notions of men once again slam up against stark reality….)
“Skill-Building Techniques for Stress Reduction” is the name of the program we’ve just begun on Tuesday, May 26th. Imagining this program to be a book & judging it by its title, you’d not think there was anything particularly funny about it. But apparently the 12 prisoners who signed up for the course expected this presentation to teach them how to be funny.
That’s hilarious. Comedians go to schools for a year to learn improvisation, comedic acting, timing, joke creation, dealing with hecklers, building a rapport with the audience, developing a point-of-view, and constructing an act from start to finish. What these prisoners expected to learn about comedy in 12 two-hour sessions is anyone’s guess.
About 10 minutes into the first PowerPoint presentation entitled “Program Overview,” one of the students yawns & says, “Y’know, I thought this was supposed to be funny.”
You can’t please everyone. I take off my Groucho Marx glasses. “We’re trying to show why you need a balanced sense of humor, and how you can use laughter to reduce the stress of incarceration. Did you think you’d be in LA taking a workshop at the Comedy Store?” Everyone laughs.
Mr. Bored says “See? That’s more like it! There should be more laughter!”
Says I: “We’re barely 10 minutes into the three-month presentation! Relax. Take some deep breaths a then let out some big laughs.”
A half-minute later, our noggins awash in fresh oxygen, the glasses go back on. “By the way,” I say, “What we just did was your introduction to the laughter therapy we’ll be doing later on down the road.”
“I am NOT looking forward to that!” says another. “That seems silly.”
“OF COURSE it’s silly. That’s kind of the point.”
“I don’t like making a fool of myself!”
Someone says: “Then why bother getting out of bed?” Everyone laughs.
“That’s destructive humor,” says someone.
“Yes, it is,” I say. “That’s the kind of thing we want to point out. Most of us–both Keepers and Kept–have an imbalance in our humor styles because we emphasize the destructive aspect of humor while ignoring the constructive element.”
“I’ve been imbalanced for YEARS!” says someone else. Everyone laughs.
As I’m distributing a handout on Hans Selye’s Three Stages of Stress, I take off the paper clip holding the sheets together & toss it to a student who likes puns. “Make a pun outta that before the night’s over.”
By way of illustration, the handout uses Photoshopped images of a mouse noticing a cat (STAGE ONE 1: “Alarm”), the cat chasing the mouse at 90 miles an hour (STAGE 2: “Resistance”), and then the mouse escaping and finding a safe place to recuperate from the ordeal (STAGE 3: “Exhaustion”).
Comments from the group: “Ah, that big bully. He should leave that poor mouse alone!”
“Well, EYE was hoping he was gonna EAT him!”
“You’re SICK, you know that?”
“Whaddaya MEAN? The cat’s gotta eat SOMETHIN!”
“THE CAT’S NOT REAL!”
I think to tell them not to get hung up in the example, and try to stay in the moment to deal with the stages, but I know that it’s futile. Inmates ALWAYS get hung up in the example. They need to comment on what they see. It’s a part of prisoner psychology in the class room dynamic that you grow accustomed to. The times when you need to reign it in is when someone wants to spend too much time pontificating on the example. In this case, that does not happen, so we move on.
“When are you gonna take off the Groucho glasses?” someone asks. Before I can answer, some one chimes in, “Leave’em alone, he never looked so good!”
Ha, ha, ha. “Destructive or constructive?” I ask. “Destructive!” they say in unison.
“My favorite!” smiles Mr.Bored.
“Yes, I know, because you & I go back a ways. You may discover the joys of constructive humor, where the intent is not to harm the Other but to just share an innocent laugh with someone.”
“Well, I do that too!”
“OK. Tell us a constructive joke, just off the top.”
Mr. Bored think for a few seconds, smiles sheepishly & says “I can’t think of one, but I know what they are, so that counts for somethin’!”
Across the room someone says “A pig fell in the mud! That’s constructive.”
“Yes, but why?”
“Because it’s just humor. You’re not saying it to hurt somebody.”
“Correct. Now, since destructive humor has as its target the feelings of someone else, should we NEVER use it?”
Mr. Pun says “Well, no, because it can be used within a group of friends who know not to feel threatened or hurt when its used. Destructive humor among friends can be a measure of the intimacy within the group. The better you know each other, the more intimate the humor dynamic of the group becomes.”
“Excellent. Isn’t it odd, though, that the better we know people–and this is our FRIENDS we’re talking about!–the more insulting our humor becomes?”
Says Mr. Bored: “that IS weird! I’ve noticed that, but never really thought about it.”
Mr. Pun says: “I wouldn’t characterize it as ‘weird,’ because it’s a natural extension of the intimacy the friends share. You wouldn’t go up to a stranger and use insulting humor, because that intimate bond’s not there, and you’re probably gonna get punched out. But you will chance destructive humor with a friend, because you know each other and you know that the risk of the joke will be offset by the cords of your friendship.”
“It’s getting hard to breathe in these” I say, removing the Groucho glasses.
“Oh God! Put them back on!”
Ha. Ha. Ha.
“See?” says Mr. Bored. “If we didn’t like you, we wouldn’t tease you about your looks! That’s intimacy!”
“Well, at least you’re learning. Unfortunately, it’s at my expense.”
“Well, that’s the price you pay,” says Mr. Pun. Everyone groans.
“You can’t help it, can you?”
“Where were we? Oh yeah, we were laughing at my expense.” I turn to continue with the PowerPoint, but am interrupted by a man who up to now has been quietly taking it all in.
“You say ‘At my expense.’ But I remember when I first met you. I came to your office just to get some typing paper, and you made about three destructive jokes toward me, and I didn’t even know you.”
“You know why I do that? It’s to test your sense of humor. Most guys smile and give it right back. I want to see if you’re secure enough with yourself to take a little ribbing.”
“Mr. Bored says “I’ve seen you do that many times. Is THAT the reason? Here I thought you were just actin’ like an asshole!”
“Actin’ like one? he IS one!”
Ha. Ha. Ha.
“Can I have my class back, please? We gotta get through the rest of this PowerPoint.”
“Only if you promise to put those glasses back on!”
Ha. Ha. Ha.
“Listen to all the destructive humor. The level of intimacy in this class room is intense. We must really like each other.”
“PREA!” someone shouts.
We never did get through the PowerPoint. It’s now the end of the class and, as inmates are filing out of the room, Mr. Pun hands the paper clip to me and says: “I was going to return this to you earlier, but you were going at quite a clip.”
“That took you the whole night? That joke is just fasten-ating. Get it? Fasten? Paper clip?”
Mr. Pun is nonplussed. “Destructive humor is more your forte. Stick with what you know.”