Memoir: Joking can be serious (1974)

Why do humans laugh? Why do they make jokes? 

Ask the evolutionary psychologists, and they’ll tell you that people only speak and behave to further the survival of our species. 

Two scientists at S.U.N.Y Binghamton assert that laughter first began among our ancestors two to four million years ago as a sort of social glue. Apes and rats use it, too. 

We know this ancient kind of levity. It happens whenever we spontaneously laugh with others–even strangers–say, at a comedy show. It makes us feel instantly more relaxed and closer with our fellows. This kind of humor helps social species survive–it binds individuals together.  

But a later-evolving form of human joking, they hypothesize, went the opposite way. This newer jocosity is controlled not by the limbic system–rooted in emotions–but by the frontal cortex, the brain area responsible for higher level executive function. This non-spontaneous humor is where word play, riddles, and derision of the other arises. The ableist, racist, and ethnic joking of my school yard as a boy comes from this variety of human jesting.

It is a cold, instrumental humor, employed by in-groups to define themselves against out-groups. By making them into objects of ridicule, it attacks the targets’ confidence and status. 

In 1974, in the damp, ancient locker rooms beneath Oak Park Stadium, I was the butt of this evolved sort of joke.

Before we were freshmen trying out for the Oak Park-River Forest team, Doug and I had been rivals for two years, jockeying for starting quarterback on the Lightweights team. As our bodies and abilities grew, we more or less matched each other in skill. Since neither of us was clearly better, our coaches alternated our starts. This turned out to be a good idea: we grew some mutual respect for each other.

Coming into high school, neither of us was as skillful as the obvious “A team” quarterback. But we were the leading competitors for starting QB on the “B team.”

Stepping naked out of the shower one day after practice, I walked to my locker, opened it, and out came a huge cloud of talc. It had been shot through the slats, entirely covering my bag and clothes. My immediate reaction was confusion and shock. “What the–!” I began, and quickly felt hot anger. Someone had deliberately messed with my stuff! My muscles tensed, cortisone and epinephrine shooting through my veins. I was under attack, and must now fight to defend status!

I looked around and saw Doug, along with his River Forest friends, watching and laughing at my distress–not belly laughing, but giggling with cold, amused rebuke in their eyes. My anger dried up. After all, it wasn’t one opponent now, but Doug’s entourage too, among whom–A teamers, out of my weight class. Who was I, anyway? Their derisory joke had neatly demoted me.

I shook my head at my old rival and looked away, a frustrated sigh my only expression. 

Doug and his buddies’ strategic humor worked. After this powdery humiliation, I began to doubt myself, to see myself–and perform–as a diminished player. 

The rest of that season I started at quarterback for the lowest prestige squad, the “C team.”

One response to “Memoir: Joking can be serious (1974)”

  1. it’s not about other people, it’s about us.
    however mean others are and whatever then happens to us as a result, it is not other people, it is us. When we understand this, we evolve. We get a victory that is not defeat for anyone else at all.


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