Funny 101

June 3rd, 2010 by Gary Rudoren

One dad vows to teach his kids the importance of laughter.

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The Responsibility Project

In the middle of the day there were naps. And naps were good.

I am not one of those parents with a million rules, but there is one thing I insist on: The first thing my kids should see when they wake up is a smile. For good measure after naps, I usually jump up and down when I walk into their room to show how excited I am to see them; this is clearly one of those things you can do as a stay-at-home dad that you can’t do as a stay-at-work dad in the office. When the twins were babies, I’m fairly certain they thought they were about to be attacked by a crazed giant. Since the age of 18 months or so, they stand up in their cribs and jump up and down with me as I exclaim, “Naps are over! Naps are over!” — like a victory dance in an undeclared war against sleep.

Early on in this rollercoaster ride of raising kids, it struck me that among the many, many, responsibilities of being a parent — turns out there’s more to it than napping — was my need to make sure that my children learned what’s funny. Especially how to be funny. I’m a comedy writer and a Dad (not in that order) and I guess, like any Dr. Dad or Dad, Esq., I not-so-secretly hoped that my children might want to get into the family business. Even if it turns out that they just have to be a doctor or must be a lawyer, I want them to be the funniest ones they can be. Seriously: learning what’s funny — not just how to make people laugh, but how to view oneself with humor — I felt would help them grow into the wonderfully engaged human beings we hope they’ll become. Also, appreciating comedy seemed like a tangible skill I could teach them myself, between the lessons about not eating rocks or sticking things in electrical outlets. Fatherhood gave me a mission. My twins are my little lab experiments — my own really, really young Frankensteins.

I started thinking more seriously about the funny. How could I assemble the “rules” of comedy for them? How could I teach them to explore beyond the traditional “What did one inanimate thing say to another inanimate thing?” joke structure? How soon before they could do a cute “Who’s On First” routine at parties? Early on I told people that I was teaching one of them to understand satire and the other all about parody.

I started simply, with laughing lessons.

From the time my son, Lev, and my daughter, Shayna, were little, maybe three months old, I would place them on our bed after naps. Unable to roll over, they were just where I wanted them. I’d look down into their tiny little faces and begin chanting:

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha…

Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee…

Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi…

Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho…

Huuu, huuu, huuu, huuu, huuu.”

It is not enough to just say this series of rhythmic syllables; you have to believe it, sell it. I would rub my hands around my Santa-sized stomach and continue the chant. “Ha, ha… Hee, hee… Hi, hi… Ho, ho… Huu, huuu.” It took a while, but eventually I earned some big smiles, sometimes even some spit-up.

I added my bits in my routine. I’d rub my tummy, do a bit of a jig, bop my big head around, and mix in a few loud and loving raspberries on their bellies. I have no scientific facts to back this up, but I firmly believe my twins discovered laughing earlier than most because of our daily lessons. Or, maybe it’s because the sessions were often conducted in my underwear.

Then we moved on to facial comedy. The bug-eyes. The cross-eyes. The double-take. Even a little spit-take just to show them that grown-ups do it too, and with the right comic timing, it isn’t just disgusting. After every bit, I’d laugh, to reinforce the lessons and show the munchkins that I was a friendly giant.

On those oh-so-rare days when the twins were a little off their game and the chanting and facial comedy weren’t working, I’d pull out my absolute killer, can’t-lose Rockettes bit. This is where I start singing something rockin’ — like a Springsteen song — and put their tiny little legs in my hands and dance them back and forth, building a rhythm I imagine even the Boss would admire. The key, besides not pulling the babys’ legs out of their sockets, is to start slow and build up to a joyful frenzy:“Baby, we were booorrrnnn tooo ruuunnnn!” This technique, which I humbly declare to have invented, has proven to be foolproof: I always get the laughs. I walk off the baby-stage confident that I’ve killed.

I admit that I like looking silly and stupid in front of my kids (and in front of your kids too, if they’re around). I only hope that by embracing fatherhood the way I have, and by assuming the heavy responsibility of being their comedy mentor, I’ve started Lev & Shayna on the road to a more joyful life. I’m trying to cover all the bases. Shortly after they were born, I decorated the walls of their hospital room with inspirational comedy quotes:

“I am thankful for laughter except when milk comes out of my nose.”
- Woody Allen,

As long as the world is turning and spinning we’re going to get dizzy and make mistakes.”
- Mel Brooks’ 2013-year-old man.

And right in the middle of the wall, in a larger-than-necessary font, are the sage words from one of the most influential dads in modern American history:

“I’ll teach you to laugh at what’s funny!”
- Homer Simpson

The notion of comedy is evolving; my lesson plans as they learn to talk (and talk back) will need to keep up. Should I play alt-comedy records from David Cross? Let them watch Sarah Silverman’s Comedy Central show? Maybe I should get them to recite the seven dirty ones that George Carlin championed. (Fun at Grandma’s house, right?) The key is being open to improvisation. It’s not a full-time funfest at our house, but I try to focus on the laughter rather than the tears and howls.

What comes next, I’m not sure, but I feel confident that at least my children will know that the proper response to “I don’t know” is “Third base.”

Gary Rudoren is the author, with Eric Hoffman, of Comedy by the Numbers: The 169 Secrets of Humor and Popularity. He has written for various publications including Esquire, McSweeney’s, and Chicago Magazine. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.