Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ten Years of Fake Laughter

Alanna was a charming woman who graced me with her presence for ten years. I say it was nine, but she claims it was eleven, so we settled on ten, though some people say it was probably only nine, but because she endured my irregular flirtations with lucidity for so long a time, it felt like eleven to her. When we parted, she said that she never quite understood my sense of humor, and that, for the entire ten, nine, or eleven years, she laughed at my comments just to be polite.

I asked her why she didn't say something sooner, and she claimed she was being kind and didn't want to hurt my feelings. She had this peculiar laugh, like a barking seal, that could only be heard when she was inhaling air at the end of a long protracted silent bout of laughter. So I asked her if that quirky laughter was real, and she said that she often faked it, the way some women fake orgasms to keep the relationship on an even keel.

This was many years ago, and to tell you the truth, I've never completely recovered from this revelation. I used to think I knew what was funny, but for quite a long time, I've often been left wondering whether something was funny or not and whether people are laughing at me or with me. Sometimes, when I'm telling a story, people start laughing, and I wonder what they are laughing about, but I keep on telling the story because I think it's a good story but not necessarily a funny one.

I'm not a joke teller. I can't remember jokes. Some people have a Rolodex of jokes in their heads, but as my friend, Eva Gleckler, the comedy critic who has honed her expertise from many years of unfulfilled dating, says those people are not funny, they just have good memories. And I think she's right. There's a surly guy across the alley, Earl Swonk, who only bothers to shave when the V.F.W. holds their monthly fish fry. He's built like a fire plug and has a heavy-footed, deliberate walk, like a robot ready to stomp out miniature villages of tiny people. He's more than a little rough around the edges, and I think some people would say he's downright scary. He's definitely not funny, but he has more jokes logged in his head than fifty comedians. Give him a topic and he'll break into a series of the most off-color, politically incorrect jokes you ever heard. He remembers them all. That's not me; I get everything twisted around in the retelling so that, not only is the joke no longer funny, but I have to backtrack and explain the part about the Norwegian guy that I forgot to include in the first part of the joke.

Many times, when I watch movies labeled "comedies," they don't seem funny at all. Some are quite good, but they often seem tragic and sad, and I have honest empathy for the characters and their troublesome situations and am reminded of either myself or friends in similar circumstances.

And now, when I'm with a group of people and they suddenly break into a fit of laughter, I wonder who among them is fake-laughing and whose laughter is genuine. There should be a laughter-detector kit for these circumstances; it would be a big help for people like me. I just don't know anymore; since Alanna's departure, my comedic sense has been disheveled, and I'm thinking the joke has been on me. Ten, nine, or eleven years is a long time to live, unknowingly, with fake laughter.

I recently saw the lovely Alanna at the annual gathering of the Midwest Gourd Society, the colorful, handicraft-horticultural club where we first met. She barely acknowledged my existence, but when we spoke for a moment, I tried to work one of Earl's jokes into the conversation. She just stared at me with a blank expression on her face and said, "The cake is really good this year," and turned and walked away.
I shouted after her, "I forgot about the Norwegian guy in the beginning!"
But there was nothing, not even a polite, sympathetic, quirky bit of laughter, only a disapproving, "Oh brother," as she disappeared into a crowd of friends gathered at the gourd accessory table.

I wonder if Alanna has been fake-laughing at her present husband's jokes or if he even suspects any disingenuous behavior. Perhaps he's the serious type like Perry Mason, and there's no need for the faux-laughter. Or maybe he's just so darned hysterical that she can hardly contain that quirky laugh. Or maybe he's one of those genius inventor-types and, in his spare time, concocted a fake-laughter-detector that not only monitors the integrity of Alanna's laughter, but alleviates the burdensome chore of remembering the placement of the Norwegian guy.
I just wonder.