My conversations are littered with jokes. By littered, I mean most of them are trash.
When I was an awkward kid with ADHD I realized being funny got attention, so I put my disorder to work making jokes. As an adult, I still restlessly play with words, ideas, and concepts until I find a fit or an interesting juxtaposition. Lately, I’ve taken to spinning movie titles: For instance, Zero Dark Whole 30, becomes a movie about fighting carbs; Cloverfield of Dreams, where a giant space monster reconnects with his dad through old-timey baseball. I’m an acquired taste.
In high school and college, whenever some awful thing would pop up in my brain during inappropriate moments, I’d imagine how funny it would be if some tactless jerk would say it out loud. Then I’d blurt it out and get some laughs while alienating people who thought the joke was at their expense or didn’t appreciate its timing. It was my defense mechanism.
I’ve matured, but rapid-fire bursts of comedy remain a defining trait. And so, when my friends first met my wife, they knew she was perfect for me when she shot back at one of my jokes with something fast and hilarious.
My wife found my incessant joke-making charming for about the first three months of our relationship. At month three, the eye-rolling started. She didn’t shame every one of my jokes, but she made it clear the puns and references to pop culture were tired. I figured she knew my bag of tricks and thought I just had to try harder to get the results I wanted. When she laughed, it meant I got off a good one and I felt satisfied in my hilarity.
But I was wrong. Yes, a lot of my jokes are bad. Still, my wife wasn’t responding to quality as much quantity. I was telling too many jokes and it was having a serious effect on my marriage.
One time, my wife and I were talking over the logistics of a day where we had to work but my daughter’s daycare was closed. I thought of something hilarious and chimed in. My wife asked if I was finished with my joke and launched back into practical plans. It was like a pitcher throwing an inside ball at a batter crowding the plate. It wasn’t a beanball by any means, but I took it as a sign I needed to take a step back.
The moment didn’t call for a joke. In fact, joking was getting in the way of the important work of the conversation. It was annoying. I wasn’t using humor to make her or anyone else happy. I was just showing off and hogging attention like a guy with an acoustic guitar at a party who needs everyone to stop talking and focus on his navel-gazing genius.
With their constancy, my jokes had accidentally taken on an unpleasant subtext. Sigmund Freud said that all jokes have either hostile or sexual subtexts. I don’t think that’s completely true — some jokes are just funny, you cigar-chomping, parent-sex obsessed weirdo — but whether I intended or not, my interjections were expressing secondary meanings, like “I’m bored” or “this is stupid.”
Compulsive jokemaking isn’t unique to me. The Onion article “Awful Man Offers Witty, Acerbic Take On Everything He Sees” hits home for a lot of dudes snarking their way through their miserable lives. Men my age (late-30’s) model their humor after comedians like Bill Murray, David Letterman, and Chevy Chase who lean heavily on ironic distance in their work. The constant stream of ironic put-downs is funny on-screen but insufferable in real life.
After a while, it doesn’t seem like humor so much as contempt for humanity. If you spoke to someone the way Peter Venkman talks to the EPA agent in Ghostbusters, it wouldn’t seem charming. It would seem like a justifiable reason for you to be fired or punched in the face. It’s part of why Michael Scott on The Office is a great character. While he sees himself as a charming class clown, he’s actually a tyrant with poor impulse control who irritates everyone around him.
When you’re constantly looking for opportunities for punchlines, you’re not listening to or respecting people. You’re waiting for them to stop talking so you can have your self-indulgent moment of brilliance.
I independently concluded that jokes were harming my relationship and I made an effort to pull them back. I was surprised to find later that there’s three decades of research backing up that idea. A study in the 2018 issue of the journal Personal Relationships pored through 30 years worth of research and data on jokes in a relationships. The results will sure disappoint smart alecs hoping their sparkling wit alone could create a perfect marriage. Telling jokes, it turns out, doesn’t seem to help relationships but sharing jokes with your partner can. The study’s author, University of Kansas professor Jeffrey Hall, said successful humor in a relationship is “not about being a great comedian, but finding what’s funny in the everyday and enjoying it together.”
Hall is a wise man. I still make jokes but I exercise self control about them. I don’t need to put a funny spin on a conversation about home repairs or daycare pickup. Unless I land on something hilarious like Zero Dark Whole 30. There’s no way I’m keeping something that good to myself.