Humor can defuse tensions, build lasting connections, and deliver big ideas, with a spoonful of funny. If you’re not careful, it can also be a weapon that diminishes others for personal gain.
Fatherly’s Letters to Boys project offers boys (and the men raising them) guidance in the form of heartfelt advice given generously by great men who show us how to take that crucial first step in confronting seemingly unsolvable issues — by offering honest words. Read all the letters here, or share your own.
I first learned about the power of being funny in the third grade. We had just moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and I was dealing with bullies. I figured that if I could make the bullies laugh, we could connect, I could keep them close. It worked, and jokes became my survival strategy. A few years later, I moved to a white school, and I led with humor designed to endear me to people, as a sort of cultural assimilation. Again, it worked. It always works. The right punch line can build a lasting connection.
Only a year later, having landed back in a black middle school — I bounced around a lot — I discovered something new about comedy. I could use it to hurt people. I changed. I threw out my power to connect and became the bully.
There was a learning disabled class in our school that was separate from the rest. You’d see the students in the hall all the time, and my friends and I started teasing these kids. The principal caught us and made us join the learning disabled class for two weeks. I can tell you, Principal Gladys McGee made the right move. We went to PE with the class. We studied with them. We ate lunch with them. And we got it. We understood the meanness of what we’d done. That’s the last time I weaponized humor against the disadvantaged.
You’re just barely three, but you’re probably going to be funny. You’re already a little funny. And as you get older, you’ll have to choose if you want to be vicious. You can bully, fat-shame, make fun of ugly people, but you’ll be missing out on the power of humor. Also, people are going to get tired of you. I hope that you take a different path and analyze yourself, learn about the world, and work hard to find something expansive to say.
That’s not an easy thing. That will take time.
Your grandfather taught me this early. My soccer team had a dunk tank at a bake sale and I was the guy in the dunk tank, taking the fall, playing the fool. I was killing it. There was a line around the block and we were raising good money. My father came there, took in the scene, and was pissed. He stopped it right there — yelled at me and demanded I get out of the tank. “Don’t be anybody’s fool,” he told me. “If you have people’s attention, you should have something to say.” That was a lesson I didn’t really put together until I became an adult.
Everyone loves a buffoon but no one remembers what the buffoon said. If you play the buffoon, no one will hear you. That’s what my dad was trying to tell me. He did a lot of black commentary with his radio show, One Black Man’s Opinion. He always spoke with purpose. He had that same expectation for his own child.
This is why I don’t like any of my early jokes. I can’t watch footage from the first 10 years of my stand-up career. I was missing something. I was funny sometimes, but I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say. I’m not embarrassed by that. I’m just saying it’s a process. Humor goes from being a connector to a divider to a distractor to something far more powerful if you let it breathe.
Humor is a common denominator for people and it will help you in life, but to be meaningfully funny you have to read newspapers, watch weird TV shows, and get into culture that challenges you. The more worldly you are, the more relatable you are, the funnier you are. If you listen to other voices, you’ll find your own.
I do stand-up because it is an opportunity to educate people and to prove to people that they’re not alone in thinking the way they think and feeling the way they feel. Sometimes all you need is to feel like you’re not crazy. Sometimes all you need is to feel understood. But understanding takes time. The big laughs come later.
Roy Wood Jr. is a stand-up comedian, a correspondent for The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, and host of Comedy Central’s This Is Not Happening. He lives in New York with his girlfriend and 3-year-old son.
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