A while ago, Como Park resident Sara J. Ford took a sabbatical from her teaching post at Inver Hills Community College in order to do a scholarly examination of the varieties of American humor.
As she pursued her sober study of funnymen from Howard Stern to Jon Stewart, with stopovers at many lesser-known comics, she was struck by a couple of revelations.
First, a large percent-age of professional humor “either flatters the audience by putting someone down or it makes us laugh by shocking us by its audacity and self-revelation.”
The cheap shots come from political wits on both the right and the left, she realized, and for those who don’t follow the issues, there’s always Howard Stern going after “dumb blondes.”
And when we’re not being invited to laugh at the expense of others, there are the humorists who offer themselves as sacrificial lambs on the Altar of Laughs.
It’s this second group that deals in shameless self-revelation, finding so-called humor in “their cocaine addiction, their mother’s sexual proclivities.”
Which led Ford to her second insight. After absorbing super-sized helpings of other people’s wit, she realized, “I could write funnier stuff myself.”
At the end of her sabbatical, she returned with an impressive annotated bibliography of contemporary comics, but her academic colleagues were probably surprised by the second half of her work.
“Apparently I Know Who Satan Is: My Fight Against Maturity and Other Irritating Social Norms,” a collection of humorous essays based on her bemused and mostly fond backwards look at her childhood and youth, was published earlier this year by Seaboard Press.
She’ll be reading from her book at True Colors Bookstore on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis on July 30, at 6:30 p.m., and at the Coffee Grounds Café at 1579 Hamline Ave. on Aug. 17, at 7 p.m.
Ford says her preoccupation with humor grew out of her “despair in politics” during the recently concluded administration of George W. Bush. “I was feeling less and less room for joy,” she says. “I wanted to explore the sense of old-fashioned delight in storytelling at the back of the classroom.”
A resolute tomboy who grew up to be a devoted lesbian partner and the mother of two young boys, Ford might be excused if she emphasized the pain and alienation of finding herself a quick-witted comedian in her “somber, cerebral, scholarly” (and straight) family of origin. Instead, she chose to see the funny side.
For Ford, the essence of humor is shared appreciation of youthful absurdity refracted through a lens constructed from the sheer quirkiness of daily life. “There has to be a place in life for humor that isn’t divisive,” she says. “I wanted to make people laugh at ourselves together as we try to make sense of the world.”
Making sense of the world is a project that has engaged all of Ford’s energies since she was Big Wheel-loving toddler growing up with parents that regarded plastic toys as an affront to their earth-toned, leftist sensibilities.
She writes, “Somehow — I remain a bit murky on the exact connections here — the slayings of Kennedy and King and the Vietnam War convinced my parents that obnoxiously big, brightly colored plastic toys led to the wrong kind of childhood.”
Years later, when Ford began her teaching career at the University of Tennessee, she discovered another problem with her strenuously open-minded, resolutely Unitarian upbringing. It left her seriously under-equipped in the arena of competitive biblical quotation.
In the title essay of the book, she recalls the first time class discussion came to a dead halt when a hitherto silent student rose abruptly, fixed his unseeing gaze on the middle distance and rapped out a marginally relevant verse from what he identified as “First Timothy chapter five.”
She writes, “My mind came up with no possible explanations and was left a blank space filled with only whiteness and wind.”
Eventually, she became accustomed to similar outbursts on the part of the more evangelically oriented among her students, and she even began to depend on their superior knowledge of the Bible to tease out the Christian symbolism of assigned readings.
It all worked well until she returned to Minnesota with a newly-minted Ph.D. and a teaching job at a local college. Here she learned immediately of the cultural divide that separates the Bible Belt from the secularized Upper Midwest.
In her first class in the Twin Cities, her literary references to “Satan’s fall from grace” drew blank stares and a prolonged silence that was finally broken by an exceptionally brave student who grappled with the essence of the Prince of Darkness by asking a well-placed question. “Didn’t he, like, piss off God or something?”
With material like that to draw on, no wonder Ford felt no need to include in her memoir an obligatory essay on Coming Out. When asked to explain the omission, she responds, “The flip answer was, it wasn’t funny.”
Ford says she originally wrote twice as many essays as are included in the book. Those that didn’t make the cut tended to be perhaps more reflective, but less funny. “I had to walk myself through the narrative,” she explains, “before I could develop a position from which to look back.”
Her goal was humor, but that doesn’t mean she’s unaware of the link between laughter and tragedy.
“Comedy and humor come from the ‘outsider’ perspective,” she notes, “but that’s also where human suffering comes from. From the things that disconnect us.”
Ford, who describes herself as the “class clown of the Quest program” at St. Paul’s Central High in the 1980s, has never had difficulty connecting through humor. She recalls over-the-top childhood stunts like juggling produce at the grocery store to get a rise out of her parents, and adds, “To get my quiet, cerebral father to open up and laugh was always a joy.”
And the family comedy continues. As the mother of two boys, 6 and 7, Ford is well aware of the funny side of parenthood.
“Another wellspring of the absurd is parenting two crazy kids,” she says. She acknowledges that any future book may well turn the focus on the next generation.
Maybe that future work will even earn her own ultimate comic accolade.
“A great comedian opens herself up to be foolish in order to let us laugh at ourselves,” Ford says. “What a gift that is to all of us. Any way you can pull that off is worth it.”
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