The Funny Thing About Love…

Here’s a serious look at the lighter side of life—and how you can use your sense of humor to improve your relationship.

By Mark Amundsen

his couple walks into a restaurant and gets seated, and the headwaiter asks, “Is this your first date?” and the woman says, “Yes, we met online,” and the man says, “Do they call you the headwaiter because you’re in charge of the women’s restroom line?”

Right. Telling jokes can be very difficult, although being stupid can be easy. But the ability to tell jokes, make witty bon mots, relate funny anecdotes, appreciate
“People feel good when they experience humor.”
humor in others, laugh at one’s own self or act goofy when necessary can help ease the tension in dating, especially on the first date. “Dating is a shift in social patterns,” says Loretta LaRoche, founder and president of The Humor Potential. “It’s like [there are] a bunch of little kids on the playground, and a new kid comes in. If you’re not lighthearted, you’re gonna get stuck and obsessed [on fitting in].” The newcomer remains the outsider and can become too focused on breaking into the circle.

“Among many things, humor serves as a social lubricant,” says Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and humor expert at Humor Matters. “People feel good when they experience humor. One of the other things it offers is a sense of perspective. Someone with a good sense of humor doesn’t get bent out of shape or overly serious about things, including the silly things you may do.”

Pat Sandy, senior program director of humorous cards for American Greetings, concurs: “Let’s face it, a sense of humor is an attractive trait that, when used sincerely and authentically, has a disarming affect in the early stages of relationships. Having a sense of humor shows you don’t take yourself too seriously, and shows intelligence.”

The Science of Laughter
LaRoche, who is a humor and stress-management consultant, says, “Humor is the companion to optimism.” Of course, brain scientists have had to take a crack at explaining why. For light reading, check out “Humor Modulates the Mesolimbic Reward Center” in the December 2003 issue of the journal Neuron.

In the study, 16 subjects were shown cartoons while their brains were examined via MRI. Apparently the true funny bone is the skull, since the brains showed responses to the funny cartoons in “several subcortical
Knowing the science behind humor is not much help in learning to wield it.
structures including the amygdala, ventral striatum/NAcc, ventral tegmental area (VTA), anterior thalamus, and the subadjacent hypothalamus,” which are all part of the “subcortical dopaminergic reward network.” Bottom line: dopamine. Laughter feels good. These scientists are probably now filing grant applications for a study about “Pain: Does It Hurt?”

Knowing the science behind humor is not much help in learning to wield it, however. It may be counterproductive, in fact. I’m kind of sorry I got into it.

Forget the Science of Laughter
Biologists are joined by psychologists, linguists, sociologists, and members of the Writers Guild of America in trying to figure out what is funny and why we laugh. As humorist Robert Benchley once noted, “There seems to be no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze Humor. It seems to worry them.” You can dissect a joke; you can dissect a frog. You can’t expect either of them to jump afterward.

The point is, or started out to be, that a sense of humor is appealing, and as LaRoche notes, many personal ads request someone with a sense of humor, even more so than someone who loves long walks on the beach. “You want someone who takes life seriously but not themselves. You know what I say about long walks on the beach? ‘You don’t have a car? Why so long on the beach?’”

That’s Not Funny
Anyone who has ever had a joke fall flat as a dissected frog knows that they don’t always work. Worse, some jokes can be dangerous. Dangerous jokes are easily identified using this simple chart:

Jokes Not to Tell Unless You Want to Prove You’re an Idiot Ethnic jokes, racist jokes, sexist jokes, sexual jokes, religious jokes, ageist jokes, jokes at your date’s expense
Jokes Not to Tell When Your Date Is Prim and/or Proper Jokes involving any biological function whatever
Jokes Not to Tell Unless You Know What Your Date and All Your Date’s Family Do for a Living Doctor jokes, lawyer jokes
Jokes Not to Tell Unless You Want to Make Your Date Self-Conscious In-law jokes, jokes about former dates or spouses, more jokes about what your date looks like
Jokes Not to Tell if Your Date Is a Vegetarian or Otherwise Has a Strong Sense of Compassion Jokes involving cruelty to animals*, children or other people, plants or inanimate objects
Jokes Not to Tell Unless You Met Your Date at a Demonstration or Rally Political jokes
Jokes Not to Tell Unless You Are 100% Sure Your Brunette Date Does Not Dye His or Her Hair Blonde jokes
Jokes Not to Tell Unless You Want to Sit There Grinning While Your Date Looks at You Like You Spat in the Soup Puns

So we can pretty much rule out every single joke you’re likely to think of on a date.

Perhaps there are some guidelines that would come in handy. Dr. Sultanoff advises, “Use humor that targets a situation rather than a person. It’s safest to laugh at something that’s going on.” Making a joke about the racket at the restaurant rather than the weight of the waitress helps keep personalities out of it.

Dr. Sultanoff also notes, “It’s much safer to laugh at yourself than another person.” But don’t overdo it. Too much or too harsh self-deprecating humor may make your date think you have low self-esteem (and possibly wonder if it is deserved).

Sandy agrees, adding, “Humor, as evidenced in developing relationships, is best served via self-deprecating approaches and observational style rather than ‘punch and set-up’ type humor, which can appear stilted and cloying.” Unless you really have a good opening to use the guy-walks-into-a-bar-with-a-duck-on-his-head story, better to just skip it and keep the conversation going.

Another misuse of humor is when it is used antagonistically, as a means of attacking someone. Dr. Sultanoff says, “If it’s followed with ‘Oh, I was just kidding,’ then in all probability it was hostile humor or judgmental. People, especially men, who are close to one another can use some hostile humor, but in a bonded relationship you can do this because it’s known that you’re not serious.”

Avoid hostility on the first date: Sounds like good advice.

What if I’m Gloomy and Morbid?
Hearing about the soothing balm of humor can be irritating to those who believe if it were raining laughs they’d be standing there with a colander. But are there really people with no sense of humor at all?

“Usually someone can find a little bit of a funny bone and expand on it,” says Dr. Sultanoff. “It may be cartoons or jokes or something else that inspires you. And even if you don’t laugh a lot you may still have a great sense of humor. It could be a hallmark of a sophisticated sense of humor.”

The late Steve Allen, in his book How to Be Funny: Discovering the Comic You, said that there was a lot to learn to be funny. “Telling people how to be funny is far more complex than explaining how to play golf, or the piano or bridge. The primary reason is that there is a definiteness to these other activities. There are rules of the game. In the case of the piano, there are precisely 88 keys, and they are the same on practically all pianos. There are rules concerning musical notation, rhythm, harmony, dissonance and so on. There are no such rules about humor or funniness.”

So now you’re not only gloomy and morbid but also depressed. But wait! Pat Sandy finds that there is plenty of humor around for the taking, and he echoes the advice that every kids’ movie for the last thirty years has given: Be yourself. “Real life is humorous, and being funny for funny’s sake can come off desperate or, at worst, annoying,” he says. “In the early stages of a relationship, it’s best to be authentic and conversational in your humor style, rather than develop a ‘comedy club’ approach.”

“Some people are born able to see paradox and irony,” says LaRoche. “Some aren’t. So watch a lot of funny dating movies. You can be inspired by movies. Don’t be contrived. Integrate funny stories in your conversation. Joke-telling is not so great, since not everyone can tell jokes.” If you are telling a funny story, remember the advice of Billy Shakespeare: Brevity is the soul of wit. Short and sweet beats long and lumpy.

While humor may be very useful to make a date enjoyable, Dr. Sultanoff agrees that it is far from crucial — and, in fact, can be a distraction if it doesn’t come naturally. “Some people just don’t have a sense of humor, but that’s OK, too. The more real you are, the better your chance to find someone who likes you as you are. To try to force it, in the long term you’re wasting your time.”

And remember that being yourself also means being honest. Before she met me, my wife once had a date who told a funny story supposedly about himself to her and her parents — a story that all of them had just read in Reader’s Digest.

So What Have We Learned Today?
“Exchanging good news and fun stories, revealing silly things (not things you’re ashamed of), or something crazy about yourself, dressing upbeat, all these things make for a fun, upbeat individual, which creates energy right from the get-go,” says LaRoche. “You don’t have to be hysterical. Someone who’s engaging, with a spirit of joy, is very attractive. It all starts with a smile.”

So, humor is important, except when it isn’t. If you’re funny and can avoid the topics that will send your date screaming into the parking lot, it’s a good thing. But while your date wants to have a good time, what your date mostly wants to do is find out who you really are. Love is just funny that way.

*Especially not the one about the scientist who concludes, “Without legs, the frog becomes deaf.”

Mark Amundsen is frequently thought to be a kind of condiment or an igneous rock, but is in fact a writer and editor from New York.

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