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The Rules of Engagement
By Kent Lewis

Making people laugh has always been a personal mission, dating as far back as infancy, when I first inserted fake rubber poo into my diapers. I've been blessed to come from a distinctive lineage of large-funny-boned people, and surround myself with friends and coworkers who have, on occasion, succeeded in making me laugh so hard that I've involuntarily released a variety of personal fluids.

While the mission of laughter is a bold and positive one, I developed my sense of humor at an early age primarily as a defense mechanism. Like most kids (and stand-up comedians), I had a variety of insecurities. Rather than take on the "introvert" or "bully" persona, I opted for the "class clown." I found the moniker fit me well and I enjoyed the recognition and modicum of status.

As I grew up and matured, I followed in my father's footsteps and developed a dry wit. Self-deprecating humor, observations and light barbs were my signature M.O. in middle school.  After a field trip to the Oberto meat factory, I took my two free pepperoni sticks to my band teacher in the guise of a "fundraiser" for chess club, of which I was not a member.  There was a dark side to my humor, however, which only came out in dire situations. I found that my quick wit was a powerful tool when reacting to dangerous or stressful situations.

On one occasion in middle school, the school bully came after me during a game of pickup basketball. He started making fun of me and pushing me around, so I launched into a mean-spirited tirade about how I'd overheard him crying in the counselor's office like a little baby because his mother wouldn't let him visit his deadbeat dad.

The rush I felt crushing his ego and forcing him to cry in front of everyone was immediately followed by disgust with myself for airing someone else's personal information in such an inappropriate manner. Still, the physical abuse he'd put me through over the years paled in comparison to the instantaneous emotional smack-down I'd put on him.

The middle school incident enlightened me to the power of words, and I realized that making people laugh was much more productive than making them cry. Since then, I've developed "10 Humor Rules of Engagement" that I've lived by with reasonable success (in terms of the laughter-to-physical-assault ratio):

  1. Don't laugh at your own jokes. It makes you look amateurish and narcissistic. I can't stand comics that do this.
  2. Put yourself down right along with everyone else. But keep a balance as it builds credibility. Being mean-spirited towards others may be a turnoff, but so is self-deprecating humor 100 percent of the time.
  3. Don't make fun of people who can't change their situation (e.g. because of a mental or physical handicap, skin color, genetics, morbid obesity). On the other hand, I don't cut slack for those who make bad choices in life when it comes to clothes, hairstyle, material possessions, life partners or presidents.
  4. Never explain a joke. If your audience (no matter how large or small) doesn't get the joke, leave it be. For every person that doesn't get it, there is another person who does (with the exception of Arkansas natives, of course).
  5. Don't perpetuate stereotypes, perpetuate the joke. While stereotypes have some basis in reality and help us deal with a complex world, racial humor is generally founded on ignorance and fear. Like many of the masters, once you find something funny, run with it. Just know when to say when. Letterman is a pro at taking something mildly amusing and beating it to death, well beyond its half-life.
  6. Show, don't tell. I love it when people tell me that they are a "very funny person." Really? That's funny, because I'm not laughing. You must be from Arkansas.
  7. Don't recycle (too much).  There's nothing worse than hearing the same joke over and over.  Rotate your jokes and retire the old standards.
  8. Stay in bounds. Like skiing or swimming outside of the ropes can get you killed, taking on topics like the Holocaust or September 11th (a la Anne Coulter) can be equally dangerous. She must be from Arkansas.
  9. Don't dish it out if you can't take it. Nothing bugs me more than the prankster who can't take a practical joke or the comedian who can't handle a heckler. I measure someone's character based on the quality of their comeback and the size of their punchline.
  10. Be yourself. While I've plagiarized many good one-liners from family, friends and comedic icons alike, flat out stealing someone else's shtick is just plain lame. The cheap and easy way out is to tell the same old jokes over and over. Try developing your own style, and don't be disheartened because nobody laughs. Somewhere out there, you have a humor soul mate, even if you're from Arkansas.

Those of you who understand and appreciate my rules of engagement, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject. If you think these rules are way off base and I'm possibly the unfunniest guy you've ever read, I invite you to stop by my office, in downtown Little Rock.

 

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