I told a joke the other day.
I was waiting for an event to start, trying to mingle, succeeding only in an awkward mix of hovering and milling around. The group around me was talking about football, and my only contribution to the conversation thus far had been: “That team—they played yesterday, didn’t they?”
They had, in fact, played yesterday.
After a few minutes, I sensed another opening.
“You know when Honduras plays, ninety-eight percent of the country is watching,” I said, trying to be cool, casual, and comfortable conversing with near strangers. I paused for effect. “And the other two percent is blind!”
Yeah, I know. Low-hanging fruit. I didn’t say it was a particularly good joke. But the group chuckled politely, and the conversation continued while I stood paralyzed by instant regret.
Gee, I mean, not everyone gets to watch the game. Like the homeless kids who stand outside of the stadium, trying to hear the announcer and imagining the game in their head. And why’d I say that thing about blind people? Blind people like football too. When Honduras made it to the World Cup, didn’t I watch that game at the blind school? All the students were in chairs facing the television, even though most of them couldn’t see more than the green blur of the field. They kept asking me to describe the action, but I didn’t even know how to say “goalie” so…
Someone else had said something and everyone was laughing again. I joined in, a little too loud and a little too late.
I think it was an ex-boyfriend who told me, “You don’t have to think so hard about everything.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve thought about those words.
Sometimes I dream of being the life of the party, the gravitational center of those circles that form around whoever makes people laugh the hardest. Instead, I’ve always been a distant orbiting body, barely able to blurt out “I read this Atlantic article that said…” before my brief moment in the sun has passed.
It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor—with close friends and family I joke, laugh, and make others laugh. But there’s an unshakeable earnestness to it. I defer the spotlight to others. No matter how many jokes I tell, I’m never “the funny one.”
“Why are you so serious?” a coworker asks me teasingly. I pull headphones out of my ear and look up from the tiny print on my screen. I smile awkwardly.
“Because… I’m… working?” I attempt, which is supposed to be lighthearted but it comes out accusatory. I wish I was ready with a quip. I wish it was easier to join in the office banter. But it’s not a switch I can easily flip.
Does this put me at a disadvantage? It’s about more than parties. In surveys about relationships, “a good sense of humor” is consistently ranked equal or above qualities like stable employment or strong moral ethics (I read this Atlantic article that said as much!). What’s more, in a world where we get our news filtered through Saturday Night Live and our moral conscience stoked by late-night television comics, humor seems like a crucial skill, the spoonful of sugar that makes the pill go down.
I guess that makes me the pill.
This weekend my roommates hosted a going-away party for a colleague. Our house was filled with educated, sophisticated professionals from at least three different continents eating new potatoes and roast beef and chatting breezily in Spanish.
I waited hesitantly for an opening where I could demonstrate my humorous side to these beautiful strangers.
“That’s odd,” a Spanish woman said, her long, manicured nails clicking on her phone as she checked the time. Her friend had called saying she was on her way, but an hour had now passed since the phone call.
My chance! “Well, you know ‘on my way’ means ‘still in bed’,” I said. It’s a common joke in Honduras, where event start times are generally just suggestions.
The Honduran woman next to me laughed, “And when they’re putting on their makeup it’s ‘almost there!’,” she added. More people chuckled. (This was working!)
“Well, what do people say when they’re actually on their way?” the Spanish woman asked.
“Then it’s ‘I’m right outside!’” I said, and the entire group burst into uproarious laughter, then applause. They wiped tears from their eyes, swarmed me, lifted me up on their shoulders, placed medals around my neck.
Except of course they didn’t. The conversation kept going. People kept bantering, tossing witticisms like confetti. The work showed no sign of letting up. I went inside for a drink.
Inside, people clustered around a handful of charismatic individuals. The grinning, good-natured German dancing with exaggerated gracelessness. The quieter short-haired Honduran woman with the acerbic wit.
Exhausted, I found a seat beside a bearded Colombian man, and before I’d asked his name we were discussing the peace process unfolding between the government and guerrilla groups.
“It’s really a question of whether we want revenge or whether we want justice,” he said, shouting a little to be heard over Luis Fonsi.
“I think we face similar questions in the U.S. criminal justice system,” I shouted back.
I could hear laughter in the background.
For a moment, I felt the pull of the orbit, but I resisted it.
If I’m not the funny one, I’m free to be someone else.