Excerpted from The Healing Power of Humor by Allen Klein (Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002).
Isadora Duncan, the great dancer, once suggested to George Bernard Shaw that they should have a child together: "It could inherit my beauty and your brains," she wrote to him. Shaw demurred and wrote back: "Madam, I am flattered--but suppose it turned out to have my beauty and your brains? "
Life does not always give us what we plan for. In fact, sometimes you get the complete opposite of what you might expect. That is called irony.
You have probably experienced some absurdities in your life that can be classified as ironic-you get a raise, then come home to find your rent has been increased; you find the ideal job, then two weeks later the company closes down unexpectedly; the double-scoop ice cream cone you have been craving all day suddenly slips out of your hand and winds up decorating your brand-new shoes. Comical or horrible? Laughable or ludicrous? Comic irony or a terrible situation? The choice is yours. The world supplies the irony; you supply the adjective that describes it.
Intrinsically, irony is neither sad nor funny. What makes it comic irony is when we wind up somewhere so far from where we thought we would get that it is laughable. The key to turning just plain irony into comic irony is in seeing the absurdity in the relationship between these two elements.
O. Henry's famous short story The Gift of the Magi is a good example of irony. In this classic tale, a man sells his watch to buy his wife a set of fancy combs for Christmas, while she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain. 0. Henry's tale or the firehouse burning down may not be something to laugh about immediately, but seeing a bit of the absurd in these events makes for bittersweet comedy.
The comic in comic irony is not always immediately evident. Sometimes it takes a while to see that there is indeed some humor in discovering that what you wound up with is not exactly what you intended. A cartoon, for example, shows one unhappy man poring over the plans of a canoe looking for a clue as to what could have possibly gone wrong. In the background we see the canoe he just built-the front end pointing up, the back end pointing down.
One woman saw how the best-laid plans can easily turn into an ironic comedy. One Christmas she found just the right gift for everyone on her list. She realized, however, that her busy schedule would not allow her time to wrap them, so she had the department stores do it all for her. She took pride in finishing ahead of schedule, only to discover on Christmas Eve that none of the gifts had name tags. It seemed like a tragedy, until people began opening their tagless gifts. Suddenly everyone was laughing as her eighteen-year-old brother opened the box containing the sexy silk nightgown and her grandmother got the football shoulder pads.
I remember my Aunt Jessie creating some ironic comedy on her way to the doctor's office. She was told to bring in a urine sample for testing. She searched the house for a small bottle to put it in, but all she could locate was a perfume bottle, so she used that. When she got to the doctor's office the nurse wanted the specimen, but my aunt could not find it in her shopping bag. She realized that it had fallen out onto the subway car seat. She was upset with herself for losing the urine sample, but laughter eased her loss as she realized that somewhere in New York City some young man might be giving his sweetie a bottle of what he believed was expensive Chanel No. 5.
One man in the military spoke of the irony he encountered when he was assigned a new duty post. The government would pay for moving his belongings but not his aluminum rowboat. To get around the regulation, the officer filled the boat with dirt and rows of marigolds. When the movers came, he handed them a list of his possessions, which included "one oversized aluminum planter."
The popularization of computers is providing fertile ground for an entire new world of ironic events. When the computer is down you cannot get paid and when you get paid you cannot deposit it because the computer is down. I recently overheard one irate customer complain because the clerk could not sell her an item she desperately wanted. It seems that there were five of them left on the shelf, but the computer repeatedly refused the sale because it said that they were out of stock. Conversely, a publisher told me that according to the computer, they had 1,100 copies of a book remaining but could not find one to sell me.
The news media is constantly reporting ironic incidents that are either tragic or funny, depending on your point of view. Here are some that were chronicled within a twelve-month period:
• A Florida school board distributed fliers to fight illiteracy, urging everyone to "overcome literacy."
• A man in California won $9 million in the lottery because he forgot his wedding anniversary and played the wrong number.
• Some of the biggest sellers in bookstores were cookbooks and diet books; one tells you how to prepare food and the other how not to eat it.
• A plane designed to provide a safe, airborne command post for the president in case of a nuclear war was disabled after it flew into a flock of geese.
• An airline lost a man's luggage; nothing new or funny about that, except that he was the only passenger on the plane.
• The National Planning Association was not sure where their next year's convention will be.
Bo Lozoff, the director of the Human Kindness Foundation, which teaches prisoners meditation, says that "whether life's ironies strike you as funny or not depends on your sense of humor. I didn't laugh much when I was an angry radical in the sixties. And when I was a naive New Age seeker in the early seventies, I was never sure what was okay or not okay to laugh at.... Now that I'm not so angry or frightened, not only do I laugh a lot, but it turns out I have much more political and spiritual influence than I ever did in those joyless years when I was trying so hard. Ain't that a hoot?"
Lozoff points out that:
God's best jokes are all around us.... Look at the great sums of money curly-haired people spend to straighten their hair, while straight-haired people are spending their bucks on perms.... Or the millions of dollars being spent so the Pope can visit the poor ... And how come scientists never discover that soybeans or alfalfa sprouts are bad for us; it's always got to be something like ice cream or chocolate or booze or pot. . . . We're crazy as loons, struggling for illusions we can never get, on a planet that just doesn't support the style of life we try so hard to create. As the great cartoonist Gahan Wilson once said, "Life essentially doesn't work. And that's the basis of endless humor."
Seeing humor in things that do not work is another way of finding the comic irony of life. One down-and-out man realized this when he received a money order for fifty dollars, and the only person who could verify his identity so that he could cash it was someone to whom he owed forty-nine.
Playwright Gore Vidal reports that when his play The Best Man was being cast back in 1959, an actor named Ronald Reagan was suggested to play the leading role of a distinguished front-running presidential candidate. Reagan, however, was not given the part. Those casting the show felt that he lacked the "presidential look."
Several other celebrities have also had their day with comic irony. Fred Astaire's Hollywood screen test, for example, stated, "Can't act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little." And Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest in Monte Carlo. The judges awarded him third place.
What we can learn from these stories, if we do not already know it, is that the world is absurd. There is not much we can do about that fact. What might help and what we can do, however, is to step back and find the comic in the absurd.
The Washington Post, for example, once ran a story about actress Mary Martin. She was walking down the Champs-ElysÃ©es in Paris one day wearing a stunning designer outfit. Suddenly a bird flew overhead, and before she knew it she was covered with droppings. Without batting an eye, Martin turned to her companion and said, "For some people they sing."
To find irony, you need to look at the relationship of how something started out and how it wound up. For example, one woman went to the head of a line of students registering for classes and loudly proclaimed, "I want to ask a question." (No irony here.) The registrar asked her to wait, but the woman persisted, "But I don't want to wait in line for nothing." (Still no irony.) Finally, the registrar stopped for a minute to handle the woman's question. "What time does the course start and who's teaching it?" the woman demanded. "What course?" asked the registrar. "Assertiveness training," replied the woman. (Ah ha!)
As a preliminary step to finding the ironies in your life, look for what I call "nutty news" in today's newspaper. Then, as you go through your day, stop from time to time and see if you can find some incident in which the relationship of what was intended and what resulted created some irony. See if you are able to see any absurdity in that relationship and if you can laugh (or at least chuckle) about it.
Reprinted, by permission, from The Healing Power of Humor by Allen Klein (Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002). The book can be obtained here. Klein is an award-winning professional speaker and best-selling author. For more information about him and his other books go to: www.allenklein.com