1) The word “poopie.”
2) Calling me by the name of some kind of food; i.e., “Hey there, cucumber!”
3) The word “booty.”
4) Being tickled.
5) The word “doodie.”
6) When she unexpectedly makes us laugh at something cute or strange she says or does.
7) The word “pootie.”
8) Singing a familiar song but substituting words for silly noises; i.e., “The wheels on the bus go pthhh-pthhh-pthhh.”
9) Telling imaginary stories that involve people pooping on things.
10) The word “tootie.”
There are plenty of theories in the world about what makes something funny. The unexpected defiance of expectations, expressions of superiority over others seen as less, relief for expressions of anxiety and fear, and one new theory called the “benign violation theory.” Like any complex human experience, I doubt there is one single unified explanation for what makes something funny. I do, however, contend that you don’t have to be very old to understand something as funny. Our sense of humor grows and changes as we grow and change, but the basic concept stays the same and it starts early.
For instance, take my daughter’s immense entertainment around words that rhyme with “duty.” I can’t say I find these words quite as hilarious as she does (and she does find them HI-larious), but they do sound a little silly. She will just string them together and giggle endlessly: “Doodie pootie tootie!” To really drive this joke home, she’ll insert it into an otherwise normal sentence: “Today at school we booty tootied!” It’s so funny because you never saw it coming! Unless, of course, it’s the fifth time she’s said it in the past three minutes.
I tend to believe in the theory of incongruity. Humor occurs when something does not fit our expectations. This, for me, covers nearly all other theories. It explains why my child loves those “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzles in her Highlights magazines. A kangaroo at the grocery store? What? That’s silly. It explains why it’s hilarious to call me a cucumber. It also explains why we most often laugh at her: she’ll say or do something simultaneously adult and child-like at the same time, repeating things out of context or mispronouncing words. This week, while showing me a scrape she’d acquired on the playground, she blurted out, “Bless my heart!” Which, of course, made me laugh. It was unexpected to hear my child repeat a lovely Southern phrase (already loaded with dense implications of humor) reflexively. But of course, she laughed when I laughed. She had no idea why I was laughing, which is what made it so funny to her: she didn’t know she’d said anything funny, except that she must have because I was laughing.
Humor goes beyond just seeing something out of the ordinary. Plenty of humor is based upon a subversion or violation of social norms. I could name plenty of comedians who traffic heavily in this sort of humor, but the most obvious example in my life is my child’s fascination with poop stories.
For example, I will ask her what she did at school today. She will tell me the name of a friend she played with. I will ask what they did together. She will say, “He pooped in my eye.” Then she will erupt with raucous laughter. Another favorite story she loves to tell is about a cowboy who poops on his horse and then eats the horse. She can tell this story with improvised embellishments worthy of “The Aristocrats.” It never fails to bring the house down (if by “the house” we mean “her”).
Now, this phenomenon is a bit disturbing to me. I suppose that, within the proper comedic context, I could laugh at a story involving someone pooping on something. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog made this exact joke funny over and over again. So why is it not so funny when it’s my daughter? Well, because it’s my daughter. Who is three. And is my daughter. A cheap puppet dog saying this to unsuspecting bystanders? Hysterical. My three-year-old telling this to me while I’m tucking her into bed? Hmm.
Of course, that’s what makes it so funny to her. She can see my discomfort. Hell, she’s not even allowed to say the word “poopie” at her school. Her teacher tells her it’s a “potty word.” Which it totally is. Which is why it’s so entertaining. What child doesn’t delight in making adults squirm? I suppose she’d stop finding it so funny if we started genuinely punishing her for it. But we don’t because, well, that would just be harsh. (So it’s a benign violation.)
I deeply believe in humor as a beautiful gift from God. And I mean all humor; I love dirty, subversive, offensive humor more than most people. I also subscribe to the belief that humor is a release valve for our fears and anxieties (which was Freud’s theory), and given the kind of work I do and the kind of suffering I see, I rely on dark, black humor to help me face the world. I may not find my daughter’s repetition of potty words terribly funny, but I completely appreciate what my daughter is doing when she makes them. She, too, needs some dark humor to cope with the powerlessness and confusion of being three.
What impresses me more than her subversive little poopie humor is that she understands the world she’s subverting. Young people get their news from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart not just because it’s so funny, but because that show has such an insightful understanding of the political landscape (which is what makes it so funny). Children everywhere make poopie jokes because they understand the social expectations that make them slightly taboo.
The next time I hear about the cowboy who poops on his horse and then eats it, I will be smiling a little to myself. Not so much because I’m super amused, but because my child is only three and she already understands the sophisticated mechanism of humor. My child is fully living the human experience and it makes me feel doodie tootie.