In his mailbag yesterday, ESPN’s Bill Simmons offers up a taxonomy of the different ways athletes can be–or, painfully, not be–funny. For example:
5.0 — Learned Funny
Humorless people who learn how to be adequately sports-funny in the right situations by mimicking the behavior of others, whether it’s by developing an overboard fake laugh, yelling “Daaaaaaammmmmn!” after someone else makes a joke, repeating funny jokes that other people said first, or making virtual videos of ideas that other people wrote. They can fool you on the right day. Example: Kobe Bryant (for every non-Lakers fan).
This reminds me of a distinction I’ve often talked about with various people–the difference between a professor who’s funny, and one who’s professor-funny. (I know I’ve written about this before, but I can’t find it.) Unfortunately, the former are wildly outnumbered by the latter.
People who are professor-funny are typically only good at two kinds of jokes: wordplay, and mercilessly unpacking the stupidity of others. Their humor always has the same message: “Look at how smart I am.” (A subcategory of ‘professor-funny’ is the panderer–the person who trots out broad comedy simply because “that’s what the kids these days understand.” That’s just the inverse of the professor who mocks the stupidity of others.) And, look, who doesn’t love a pun? And sometimes, well, sometimes people really do stupid stuff, and it’s fun to take it apart. Colleagues who are professor-funny can almost always make laugh. But I find an exclusive diet of this humor sickening. It’s like Drake’s apple pie. I love ’em–but, if I had ’em every meal?
I think students recognize this humor for what it is, and generally aren’t particularly fond it. To put it slightly differently, while they might laugh at a particular joke, it’s always tempered by the possibility that the prof’ll turn on them next.
Professors who are genuinely funny are harder to sum up–after all, many of them also enjoy puns, or occasionally mocking the ignorant. But the most salient characteristic of this group is a willingness to tolerate self-mockery, or having the class occasionally laugh *at* them, rather than just *with* them. It signals humanity, because, as Scott Adams once said, “everybody is an idiot.” I actually believe that at least *some* heirarchy in the classroom is important, but owning your own idiocy shows the truth: that such heirarchy is temporary and local, rather than, like, ontological. You’re not claiming to be a better person, just to know more about topic X.
Lord knows there’s no need to be funny. And if you’re not funny, you shouldn’t try. (There are lots of ways to signal humanity.) And this is, obviously, a touchy subject. But if humor is part of your pedagogical toolkit, I do think that there’s something to be said for occasionally letting the students have a laugh at you. Not all the time, and sometimes the rapport with a particular class just isn’t right–but every now and again.