By Jay O'Callahan
When I first started storytelling I was asked to tell stories at a huge gathering of dentists and their assistants. The stage was eight feet high and the members of the audience were all seated at dinner tables that seemed to stretch all the way to Ohio. I began telling a long historical story called “Magellan” and in minutes I was sailing along because everyone had turned back to their dinner, drinks and conversation. I continued to sail along for what seemed like months and I don’t think anyone noticed I had finished. It would have been a good time for some wild humor. I could have said, “Magellan’s getting scurvy and you’re all out there eating salad.” Or I could have shouted, “This is mutiny. I’m the captain, pay attention.” I had chosen a serious story for an audience that just wanted to drink and talk and humor would have been the only way to save the situation.
I was performing “Pouring the Sun” at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo when a strange thing happened. A bird flew over the audience. How in the world could a bird get into the theatre? The audience made a strange, gasping sound. I wasn’t sure what to do since this was a very intense part of the story. One of the characters, Fritz, is telling his wife, Ludvika, that their son, John, is going to be hurt in a union strike that’s about to happen. The bird flew over the audience several times so I had Fritz say to Ludvika, “There’s a bird in the house, Ludvika. This is a crazy house.” The audience roared laughing. They needed a release from the tension. They needed an acknowledgement that something very odd was happening. They needed humor.
In a story called “Edna Robinson” Edna, a beautiful woman, has fallen in love with a mysterious hobo called Blueberry Jack. Edna has asked Jack to stay in the town. They have a last supper together in an abandoned house. They laugh and talk for hours about the wild day when Jack put on a dress and wore a hat with a veil so that the townspeople wouldn’t think Edna was running after this hobo, Blueberry Jack. Before parting Edna takes Jack’s hand and says, “Jack, you look great in a dress.” Then she speaks seriously to him but it’s that unexpected bit of humor that breaks the tension. In every serious situation humor pops up because we can stand only so much tension.
Humor can be a good way to reveal character. In my story of “Equations” a frumpy little doctor arrives at the Lawrences’ house and complains to Mrs. Lawrence that her dog isn’t behaving. She says in her deep, languorous voice, “I’m so sorry, doctor. I think he speaks only Portuguese.” The doctor is stunned into silence. Mrs. Lawrence is not just being funny here, she’s revealing an unusual mind that endears her to people. When the frumpy doctor arrives, he’s one of twenty Canadian doctors who have been invited for a dinner of salmon and turkey. Mrs. Lawrence has a frozen turkey and two frozen salmon floating in the upstairs bathtub. After an hour of waiting, the frumpy doctor asks Mrs. Lawrence how the salmon are coming and she replies, “Swimmingly.”
Another form of humor is using a gesture or using the whole body in a way that makes people laugh. When I first created the story of “Michael the Grasshopper” two funny bears appeared in my imagination. They’re huge, floppy brown bears who spend their time pulling leaves off trees, putting sap in them and pinning them all over one another like medals. They delight in their own humor. One of the bears says, “General Wiggums, I pin this medal on your nose. No, my joke. I pin it on your head. No, I pin it on your ear.” The other bear, General Woggums does the same thing. Then the bears put their paws around one another’s shoulders and dance off singing their names, “Wiggums and a Woggums and a Wiggums and a Woggums.” They’re absurd and full of fun and everything about them is funny ñ their words, their deep voices and the way they move. Storytelling is a perfect medium for playing with gesture and even dance.
Humor is appropriate even in a tragedy. In “Romeo and Juliet” when Mercutio is dying he has humor even in death. When he speaks of his mortal wound to Romeo he says,
No, ‘tis not so deep as a well,
Nor so wide as a church door;
‘Tis enough, twill serve: ask for
Me tomorrow, and you shall
Find me a grave man.
And of course in Henry the 1V Part I, we have the preparations for a great battle but the character that’s the most alive in the whole play is Falstaff. Falstaff is a great, blustery, funny character and we love being with him. As my grandmother would say, “With all his faults we love him still.”
Humor can also make us see anew. Barbara McBride Smith has a wonderful story in which her character pretends to know all about the Bible. He gets the scenes and phrases mixed up and we’re roaring laughing. But next time we hear those phrases and scenes we’ll see them all anew.
A good source of humor is making fun of yourself and your weaknesses or vulnerability. Don Davis does this in his “Grand Canyon” story. He shows us his fears when he’s riding on the donkey down the canyon and we can laugh at his plight because we know we would be just as frightened. There are lots of times when we are not brave or wise or even “with it” and if we can laugh at ourselves the audience laughs with us. They love the honesty of vulnerability.
I tell a story about my first high school indoor track meet. I was brand new to the team and terrified. It was a huge meet held in an armory building in downtown Boston. I was amazed that lots of the adults were smoking. I was so nervous I could barely move. I was in the mile race and when it began I was aware that everyone had nice, low, black track shoes except me. I wore my old size thirteen sneakers and felt I was flopping around the track. It was an agonizing experience. But when I tell the story it’s very funny. And I can make fun of the sneakers and that sound itself, flop, flop, flop. I love to tell it anywhere but it’s particularly fun to tell in a high school.
And of course there’s great humor in making things ridiculous. Pete Seger’s story about a farmer who sings
Way down south in the yinkety yank
A bullfrog loved to jump from bank to bank . . .
The farmer starts singing this song and pretty soon everyone’s coming to a barn singing the song. The frogs are coming, the stream is coming, and the land is coming. It’s all wonderfully ridiculous.
Humor is everywhere; in the way we move, imagine and tell, so it’s got to be in stories. John Spelman is a big man and when he becomes a sea creature you can’t help but laugh because somehow he turns his great body into this fluid, odd looking sea creature. Bill Harley’s imagination is so flexible he can make a marvelous story of the “Skunk Police.” I love to tell my story “Frogs, Dodge City” to make fun of the hardboiled cowboys of the old west.
What makes you laugh? If you think something is funny it probably is. You’ll have to test it of course but trust yourself. You may need to sharpen a moment or scene but if you’re tickled then that’s gold.