Funny, Not Funny

Jan 30, 2020

I've been doing writing exercises from the book The 3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kitely. It's my favorite book of exercises, they always challenge me and, in the past, I've come up with some great stories by going through them. This morning, though, I completely struck out.

The exercise I chose (at random) is called "Unintentional humor" and the writer is supposed to "find humor in ordinary, expected behavior." This one was tough for me, I don't write funny very often.

I tried to think of things I had seen that would work for this exercise, examples I could crib from. There was a story in an anthology of short stories about horses that used to crack me up when I was younger. It ended in a chaotic scene that involved someone trying to coax a pony up a flight of stairs with a cold piece of Yorkshire Pudding. I thought about David Sedaris, too. Most of what he writes would fit this exercise.

This kind of humor is tough, though. Even Kitely says "it feels like a guilty pleasure." It's about laughing at someone, rather than laughing with them. They're not trying to be funny. And so if the writer is not careful, these scenes can come across as cruel, minimizing a person's real problems instead of taking them seriously. I guess I don't really have the heart for satire.

But then I thought about my kids. There are so many times when they have been completely in earnest and yet the situation was so funny. Parents, including myself, tell stories about their kids like this all the time. "I tried so hard not to laugh" is basically the genre here, and I thought maybe a story like that would work.

So I began to write. The story I chose is one of my favorites. My poor son when he was little once tried to fake sick so that he wouldn't have to go to preschool. I say "my poor son" because he happens to have the champion of faking sick for a mother. My mother is a nurse and my father is a doctor, so if I was going to fake sick when I was growing up I had to go all in. My mother's favorite question when I asked to stay home from school because I wasn't feeling well was "are you dying?" The one time I remember being successful at faking sick was when I figured it out that it was easier to fool the school nurse than it was to fool my parents and she would call them to come pick me up. My poor son was not going to get away with anything. He gave it a valiant effort, though. "I have to throw up," he told me. "Best get to the bathroom," I replied.

And this is the tough part. Because what happened next was so funny in the moment. I remember my husband and I standing on either side of the door, dying laughing as my son made horrible noises in the bathroom, doing his best to prove he was sick and earn his right to stay home. But he failed, because of course he wasn't actually sick, and came out of the bathroom looking like the saddest kid in the world.

"I can't," he told me.

"All right, buddy," I said, "let's go get in the car."

I've told this story for years as a funny story. I laughed, my friends laughed, it's a good story. But trying to write it this morning, I realized that I didn't find it funny anymore. My son is about to turn 13 and more than anything I wish I had kept him home that day. I wish I had said "It's ok, buddy, let's stay home" and then spent the day cuddling with him on the couch, watching Cars, maybe building some Legos.