Looking back on my life, it occurs to me that I should have been a comedian. The only common thread linking all my misadventures and ill-advised career decisions is the fact that I cannot take anyone or anything seriously. When asked to brainstorm ideas, or suggest ways to “add value,” the only things that pop into my head are smart-ass comments, sarcastic replies and cynical observations aimed at illuminating illogicality, inconsistency, hypocrisy and ultimately, the truth. Almost always, none of these ideas are appropriate, nor particularly welcome. I was told long ago that I would never succeed in business because I am not a bullshitter. After wasting more than a decade of my life in business, I can say unequivocally that honesty is a liability in the corporate world. It is, indeed, all bullshit.
Despite being utterly uncomfortable in my own skin, as well as someone who hates attention and any kind of group activity, the idea of standing on a stage with a microphone in front of an audience nevertheless strangely appeals to me. I don’t like to compete just to be heard, especially in a group of people who aren’t funny or as observant as I am (not to mention humble). Although I am a misanthrope, I am cursed with a debilitating sense of propriety. I often show respect even when none is shown to me. Unfortunately, I am not sufficiently thick-skinned to handle rejection well or deal with dim-witted hecklers. I have rage issues. I get angry, lose my composure and my train of thought. Like many people, I only seem to come up with a funny line or comeback 10 minutes after it would have been effective. Doing stand-up would force everyone in the room to listen to me, although I assume very few would actually hear what I was trying to say.
Living in Japan for over ten years, immersed in a different culture and language was tough. None of my coworkers in any of the Japanese companies where I worked got my sense of humor, mostly because humor is forbidden in the Japanese workplace. The only time people laughed out loud was over copious amounts of booze after work. Everything seems funnier when you are drunk. I was never able to assert myself in those situations, partly because I was a non-native speaker, a marginalized minority who was only allowed to tag along because I was a member of the group. But mainly, it was because the conversations were simply neither interesting nor funny. It was mostly a rehashing of work-related nonsense or derogatory comments focused on an unlucky colleague who may or may not have been present. Many times when I opened my mouth and attempted to interject a humorous comment, I would get blank stares all around the table. Frequently I was asked, in a very serious way, “is that an American joke?” I never felt disheartened after such exchanges, because I knew I was funny and I knew most of my jokes were good. I would get depressed because no one appreciated the fact that I was making an attempt to be funny in a language other than my own. Deep down I knew it wasn’t me, it was them. I knew this because I had friends and family in Japan that did listen to me, that understood me and knew that I had a sense of humor.
My wife is Japanese, so it took her a while to catch on to my sense of humor. Over the years, her English has improved to the point where she is now able to get most of the jokes I tell. But in the more than 16 years we have been together, the vast majority of my best material has fallen on deaf ears. I always fantasize that a hidden camera is recording me, and that someone, somewhere is laughing, both at my jokes and the fact that the jokes themselves are frequently met with silence.
Among the many challenges of marrying someone who doesn’t share your language or culture is the fact that any joke predicated on a cultural reference typically falls flat on its face. It doesn’t matter how funny or accurate my observations are if the wife doesn’t know who Gopher from the Love Boat was—to begin with, she’s never even heard of the damn Love Boat. By the time I finish explaining the back-story, even I don’t think the joke is funny anymore.
We have a son, who initially spoke only Japanese, but transitioned to English when we lived in the U.S. He gets more of my jokes than my wife, but I have to keep them clean and make sure they aren’t something he will get in trouble for at school if he repeats them, which he usually does. Badly.
Like my wife, my son doesn’t get jokes that rely on references for their efficacy. I was a huge fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I hoped that we could watch it together when he was old enough. I have forced him to sit through a few episodes, but I realize now that the humor in that show not only relies heavily on a deep understanding of American pop culture references, it is also fairly dated. That show hit its peak 20 years ago, but it might as well have been 200 years ago as far as my wife and son are concerned. It also indicates that I am getting old. But that’s still not as depressing as the blaring silence following a joke you know is solid gold.
We also lived in Hawaii. People who are born and raised in Hawaii have a great sense of humor, they always seem to be joking with one another and laughing in the most infectious way. Just like when I was in Japan, I love the local sense of humor and I laugh at most jokes, despite the fact that many of them require some understanding of Hawaiian pidgin, which, like all language, informs the way they see the world. But just like in Japan, my sense of humor didn’t work well in Hawaii, either.
I do, of course, realize that I actually may not be funny at all. Maybe placing the blame on language and cultural context is just a cheap excuse. A quick scan of some of the other articles on this website probably confirms that, although I am not always trying to be funny, especially when ranting about things that make me outraged. For more than 18 years, I have lived in places where I am an outsider, where I am not wanted and where they have a name for people like me (gringo, gaijinn, haole, etc.). My wife and son are my only audience. They are at my every performance, but much of my material goes over their heads. I suppose I should look on the bright side: at least they don’t heckle me…much.