Solve That Problem--With Humor
Solve That Problem—With Humor
William D. Ellis
A lot of us lose life’s tougher confrontations by mounting a frontal attack—when a touch of humor might well enable us to chalk up a win. Consider the case of a young friend of mine, who hit a traffic jam en route to work shortly after receiving an ultimatum about being late on the job. Although there was a good reason for Sam’s chronic tardiness—serious illness at home—he decided that this by-now-familiar excuse wouldn’t work any longer. His supervisor was probably already pacing up and down with a dismissal speech rehearsed.
He was. Sam entered the office at 9:35. The place was as quiet as a loser’s locker room; everyone was hard at work. Sam’s supervisor approached him. Suddenly, Sam forced a grin and shoved out his hand. “How do you do!” he said. “I’m Sam Maynard. I’m applying for a job I understand became available just 35 minutes ago. Does the early bird get the worm?”
The room exploded in laughter. The supervisor clamped off a smile and walked back to his office. Sam Maynard had saved his job—with the only tool that could win, a laugh.
Humor is a most effective, yet frequently neglected, means of handling the difficult situations in our lives. It can be used for patching up differences, apologizing, saying “no,” criticizing, getting the other fellow to do what you want without his losing face. For some jobs, it’s the only tool that can succeed. It is a way to discuss subjects so sensitive that serious dialogue may start a riot. For example, many believe that comedians on television are doing more today for racial and religious tolerance than are people in any other forum.
Humor is often the best way to keep a small misunderstanding from escalating into a big deal. Recently a neighbor of mine had a squabble with his wife as she drove him to the airport. Airborne, he felt miserable, and he knew she did, too. Two hours after she returned home, she received a long-distance phone call. “Person-to-person for Mrs. I. A. Pologize,” intoned the operator. “That’s spelled ‘P’ as in…” In a twinkling, the whole day changed from grim to lovely at both ends of the wire.
An English hostess with a quick wit was giving a formal dinner for eight distinguished quests whom she hoped to enlist in a major charity drive. Austerity was de rigueur in England at the time, and she had drafted her children to serve the meal. She knew that anything could happen—and it did, just as her son, with the studied concentration of a tightrope walker, brought in a large roast turkey. He successfully elbowed the swinging dining-room door, but the back-swing de-plattered the bird onto the dining-room floor.
The boy stood rooted: guests stared at their plates. Moving only her head, the hostess smiled at her son, “No harm, Daniel,” she said. “Just pick him up and take him back to the kitchen”—she enunciated clearly so he could think about what she was saying—“and bring in the other one.”
A wink and a one-liner instantly changed the dinner from a red-faced embarrassment to a conspiracy of fun.
The power of humor to dissolve a hostile confrontation often lies in its unspoken promise: “You let me off the hook, my friend, and I’ll let you off.” The trick is to assign friendly motives to your opponent, to smile just a little—but not too much. Canada’s Governor-General Roland Michener, master of the technique, was about to inspect a public school when he was faced with a truculent picket line of striking maintenance personnel. If he backed away from the line, he would seriously diminish his office’s image; if he crossed it, he might put the government smack into a hot labor issue.
While he pondered the matter, more strikers gathered across his path. Suddenly, the graying pencil-line mustache on Michener’s weathered face stretched a little in Cheshirean complicity. “How very nice of you all to turn out to see me!” he boomed. “Thank you. Shall we go in?” The line parted and, by the time the pickets began to chuckle, the governor-general was striding briskly up the school steps.
Next time you find yourself in an ethnically awkward situation, take a lesson from the diplomatic delegates to Europe’s Common Market. In the course of history, nearly every member and nation has been invaded or betrayed by at least one of the others, and the Market’s harmony must be constantly buttressed. One method is the laugh based on national caricatures. Recently, a new arrival at Market headquarters in Brussels introduced himself as a minister for the Swiss navy. Everybody laughed. The Swiss delegate retorted, “Well, why not? Italy has a minister of finance.”
Of course, humor is often more than a laughing matter. In its more potent guises, it has a Trojan-horse nature: no one goes on guard against a gag; we let it in because it looks like a little wooden toy. Once inside, however, it can turn a city to reform, to rebellion, to resistance. Some believe, for instance, that, next to the heroic British RAF, British humor did the most to fend off German takeover in World War II. One sample will suffice: that famous story of the woman who was finally extracted from the rubble of her house during the London blitz. When asked, “Where is your husband?” she brushed brick dust off her head and arms and answered, “Fighting in Libya, the bloody coward!”
Similarly, whenever we Americans start taking ourselves a bit too seriously, a grassroots humor seems to rise and strew banana peels in our path. The movement is usually led by professionals: Mark Twain pen-lancing the boils of pomposity (“Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired”); Will Rogers deflating our lawmakers (“The oldest boy became a Congressman, and the second son turned out no good, too”); Bill Mauldin needling fatuous officers (one second-lieutenant to another, on observing a beautiful sunset: “Is there one for enlisted men, too?”). Such masters of comic deflation restore the balance. They bring us back to ourselves.
When life has us in tight corner, one of the first questions we might ask is, “Can I solve this with a laugh?” Men with giant responsibilities have frequently used this approach to solve giant problems—often with sweeping effect. As Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, labored to prepare this then-unready nation to enter World War II, he met stiff opposition from his commander-in-chief regarding the elements that called for the most bolstering. Marshall felt that what we needed most were highly developed ground forces. President Roosevelt was a Navy man who believed that our principal need was for a powerful navy, plus a large air force. In increasingly tense debates with the President, Marshall pushed his argument so hard that he began to foster even stronger resistance. Finally, during a particularly hot session, the usually stone-faced Marshall forced a grin. “At least, Mr. President,” he said, “you might stop referring to the Navy as ‘us’ and the Army as ‘them.’”
Roosevelt studied Marshall over his glasses, and then unlipped a great show of teeth and laughter. Shortly thereafter, he made a more objective study of Marshall’s recommendations and eventually bought the ground-force concept.
Occasionally, humor goes beyond saving arguments, saving face or saving jobs; it can save life itself. Viktor E. Frankl was a psychiatrist imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War II. As the shrinking number of surviving prisoners descended to new depths of hell, Frankl and his closest prisoner friend sought desperately for ways to keep from dying. Piled on top of malnutrition, exhaustion and disease, suicidal despair was the big killer in these citadels of degradation.
As a psychiatrist, Frankl knew that humor was one of the soul’s best survival weapons, since it can create, if only for moments, aloofness from horror. Therefore, Frankl made a rule that once each day he and his friend must invent and tell an amusing anecdote, specifically about something which could happen after their liberation.
Others were caught up in the contagion of defiant laughter. One starving prisoner forecast that in the future he might be at a prestigious formal dinner, and when the soup was being served, he would shatter protocol by imploring the hostess, “Ladle it from the bottom!”
Frankl tells of another prisoner, who nodded toward one of the most despised capos—favored prisoners who acted as guards and became as arrogant as the SS men. “Imagine!” he quipped. “I knew him when he was only the president of a bank!”
If humor can be used successfully against such odds, what can’t you and I do with it in daily life?
NOTE: William D. Ellis (1918-) fought in World War II. He has published books of fiction (e.g., The Bounty Land, 1952), and nonfiction (e.g., More: The Rediscovery of American Common Sense, 1986). He has also contributed to several major American magazines. “Solve That Problem—With Humor” first appeared in Reader’s Digest in May 1973.
QUESTIONS for DISCUSSION
- What is Ellis’s topic?
- What is Ellis’s thesis? Where is it given in the essay?
- What can humor do? How many main functions does Ellis give? What are they?
- Does Ellis use a direct statement to announce a main point? If yes, where in the paragraph? Can you give two examples?
- How does Ellis develop each main function of humor? What does he use to make each main point clear? List two supporting details that you find effective and memorable.
- Does this essay make you think? Explain.
TOPICS for THINKING & WRITING
- Choose three of Ellis’s main points, and supply different, more recent, and even personal examples for support in an essay on “How to improve one’s life with humor.” Make your essay clear and informative.
- What are the characteristics of a humorous person? What are the characteristics of a critical thinker? In what ways can a sense of humor contribute to critical thinking? Explain.
- In what ways can humor help you succeed in college?
- In what ways can humor help you get a job or a promotion you want?
- In what ways can humor help you maintain harmonious relationships?
- What is the humor climate on campus? How do most students feel about humor? Do they use humor in their daily lives? Survey to find out. Report your findings to class.