When my wife tells me, “You’re not as funny as you think,” I freely own up to my failings and admit, “That’s my dad’s fault.” Yes, the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree, so if I’m not funny, it’s because for over thirty years I drank from the fountain of my father’s sense of humor.
He loved puns. He used to send me headlines he clipped from newspapers: “Bill’s Chances Getting Slimmer by the Minute” (meaning me); “Hooker Seeks Help on Island Project” (“Hooker,” here, a man’s name); and from the newspaper’s TV guide section “The Houston Knights: Good Ol’ Boy, Chicago Detective Born to Butt Heads” (which my father knew I’d read as “Born to Buttheads”). I once gave him a Humor in the Headlines book filled with such double entendres, and he read them out loud to me and got so tickled he started laughing uncontrollably to the point of giggling in tears. He couldn’t stop, and I began to fear for his health. After two days of nonstop laughter, I hid the book where he couldn’t find it.
My father also admired irony, understatement, and exaggeration, and sometimes employed these techniques in uncomfortable ways. Once after he sent me into a McDonald’s for a take-out order, the service was slow, and he came in after five minutes and announced for everyone to hear, “I just came in to see if you’d decided to camp out here tonight.” Hearkening back to his military service, he called day-long odious work projects “GI parties,” and he “invited” me and my brothers to them.
Dad also enjoyed insult humor and plagiarized examples of it from literature. When he thought I was slow completing an errand, he’d ask, “How did you travel? By ox cart?” (from the play The Man Who Came to Dinner). And when he was invited to attend some event of dubious desirability, he’d say, “I’ll go—if a lunch is provided” (from Dickens, regarding Scrooge’s funeral).
My father’s sense of humor also embraced the dark. His favorite New Yorker cartoon was of a woman running along the beach, the shadow of an overhead pterodactyl with a man dangling in its talons just ahead of her, with the caption “The keys, George. Drop the keys!” This caption was his refrain whenever he was struck by gallows humor. He celebrated my mother’s frequent mid-year firings of incompetent teachers at her private school each time with another refrain: “Merry Christmas and goodbye.” He intimated that the “Merry Christmas” would be a nice, softening touch to the firing. And once when he was in the courthouse as city attorney in charge of acquiring land for a new road right of way and a street evangelist accosted him in the hallway with “Brother, are you headed to heaven?” my father shot back, “No, in fact, Brother, I’m headed to a condemnation.”
The morning after my father died, the whole family had gathered at the kitchen table when the phone rang. My sister-in-law answered it and began a tangle with a persistent solicitor. We could see in her face and hear in her voice her increasing discomfort as we listened to her side of the exchange:
He’s not here right now. . . .
No, that wouldn’t be a good time to call back. . . .
No, that wouldn’t be a good time either. . . .
There’s not really any good time. . . .
I’m sorry. The truth is he just died.
At the table we began snickering with the first “He’s not here right now” and laughed harder and louder the deeper my sister-in-law dug into her grave predicament. I feel sure my father would have forgiven us. In fact, I think he actually would’ve liked it that we celebrated his life, celebrated his sense of humor—by inappropriately, unreservedly laughing our heads off.
After all, we learned it from him.