“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” –Erma Bombeck

The Two H’s

Imagine that you were visiting a comedy club, or were watching a standup comedian on TV. Their set appeared to be going well, with the audience laughing at every story or nuance. Then, suddenly, a joke falls flat. Instantly, the guffaws seem to turn into a groan. What happened?

Let’s consider the timing of our reaction to attempts at humor, be it with a laugh or a grimace. In either case, the response is immediate. None of us hears a joke, thinks about it for a few seconds before deciding, “Yes, that was funny. I think I’ll laugh.” We just laugh without thinking. And similarly, we moan without any deliberation when we construe the comment to be offensive, to be “over the top.”

When I was in high school, a million years ago, my English teacher made a point that always stuck with me. He observed, “All humor is a form of ridicule.” The teacher’s observation, coupled with the spontaneous negative reaction to the comedian’s poorly received quip, made a telling point about both humor and human relationships.

In my book, “Dump the Neanderthal and Choose Your Prime Mate,” I narrated the embarrassing experience of a person who told a presumably humorous tale about a tax accountant, not recognizing that a CPA was in his audience. The narrator had given unintended offense by his choice of the butt of his joke. Everyone laughed except the CPA.

So what is the meaning of today’s article title? The two H’s represent “humor and humility.” To demonstrate the point I’ll make in a moment, let me relate another story shared by a friend.

Living on a lake where high-speed boating is prohibited after 7:30 p.m., my friend became disconcerted when a boat raced past him. The man followed the offender, approached the boat, and politely explained the rule to the cruiser’s driver. The pilot of the offending craft held up his wristwatch, showed it to my friend, and stated,

“It’s only 7:27.”

We all laughed as our friend related this humorous occurrence at his own expense. The story elicited his intended chuckle, but none of his listeners bristled because HE was the target of his own ridicule.

So what’s today’s lesson? Be cautious with attempts at humor, lest we inadvertently give offense. It is safer to combine humor with humility by making one’s self the object of a foolish, embarrassing, or silly anecdote. No harm done and others will admire your capacity to be self-effacing.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less. -C. S. Lewis