Is Humor A Rubber Sword?

charlie-brownAbout 15 or 20 years ago I was writing a description for a humor writing class I was going to be teaching at The Loft. I wrote for the opening line “Humor is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” I wasn’t trying to be deep or pithy – I was just writing an opening line.

A woman in Minneapolis was gathering quotes for a book that would feature a collection of quotes by women. She read the description and called to ask me if it was okay to use the quote in the book. I said fine and really hadn’t thought much of it until one day Reader’s Digest contacted me to ask if they could use the quote in their humor issue. I was flattered and said by all means use it.

It was at that point that the quote took on a life of it’s own. I just Googled “Humor is a rubber sword” and got 16,100 hits. It has been in tons of newspapers and magazines, an artist out east did a show based on the quote, and Barbara Bush even used it in her memoir. A few times it has been attributed to Mark Twain which I take as a great honor.

But today, thinking about the tragedy in Paris; about how these people lost their lives because of humor – and their determination to continue with their work despite being fire-bombed and threatened – well today I wonder if this quote is still true or is the quotee just naïve?

When I began being published in the local Twin Cities papers I often took jabs on politicians and public figures. One of my favorite was Sid Hartman, a sports columnist at the Star Tribune, and a radio commentator on WCCO. I really didn’t know that much about Mr. Hartman because I never read the sports page and the only time I listened to ‘CCO was when I was growing up and it was always playing in the kitchen. I knew my mother had a love-hate relationship with him so I was surprised when she called me after reading one of my columns and told me I should probably not write about him because he could get mad.

Now I really don’t think Sid Hartman gave a rat’s ass about me or my writings in local publications. It was just more PR for him. I certainly couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine what he would do about it. Would I wake-up some morning with the head of a Twins’ bobble doll in my bed, or be beaten with a rolled up newspaper (which is being beaten to a pulp with pulp) by a paper boy named Vinnie, or worst of all, be forced to listen to Hartman on the radio. Yet, for a moment, I thought about it; I thought perhaps I shouldn’t keep ragging on him. Just for a moment but it did cross my mind that he had some power in the journalist arena and maybe I should stop.

In my writing I do get some negative feedback. My favorite was when I wrote an article about the vet who took care of Gabby (my white rat) and said in the opening that she specialized in rodents (and in this case that wasn’t lawyers). I had spent most of my working life in law firms so I knew what I was talking about. My editor showed me a letter he received from a girl who was probably 9 or 10. It said “My dad is a lawyer and he is not a rodent. I object.” Objection overruled.

I have been fired for being too happy (from a law firm) and have been talked to more times than I can count by the HR people at law firms about my “attitude” which I realized was my sarcastic, snarky, and scintillating remarks. In other words I was a bit of a smart ass. Still am. It gets me in trouble now and then but sometimes I open my mouth and things just fall out of it before I can think about it – which I believe is a good thing.

But this week in Paris people died for their sarcastic, snarky and scintillating cartoons and writings. Terrorists are trying to make people afraid of making jokes, of saying anything that doesn’t conform with their ideology. They don’t believe in free speech, only in their own words, and any other words are blasphemous. Should I be afraid? Should we all be afraid?

About a year ago I took a seminar called “Getting Things Done.” It is one of the latest and greatest ways to indoctrinate people into being organized with, I believe is, a cult-like fervor of not resting until everyone’s life is controlled by Outlook. Truly you can look them up. I kind of expected everyone to walk out of the room at the end of the day with their eyes glazed over and their arms out straight in a zombie-like state, everyone chanting “Get things done; get things done.”

As part of this seminar we had to write a mission statement. At first mine was going to be “To never attend a seminar like this again” (sarcastic, snarky, and scintillating ride again). It was actually the first half hour of the ALL DAY event so I wasn’t quite as cynical and I tried to think of what was my mission statement in life. I worked on it and came up with something I actually like:

I will immerse myself in, and embrace, my creative talents to make people smile and laugh and will leave a creative footprint in the world.

pencil-bloodOkay I’m no Gandhi or Mother Teresa but I’m no Baby Doc or Hitler either. I know I’m not going to cure a dreaded disease or bring about world peace but I can make people smile and laugh – unless they work in HR.

That is why I have spent a big chunk of my weekend reviving my blog and website – it is, in my small way, a salute to the journalists who died. I am going to take on the world with my rubber sword and spend more time on this “mission” of mine. But please, don’t tell Sid Hartman.