Among readers, humor is in the eye of the beholder

CODA

GREG BEAN

I ’ve been writing a newspaper column for over 30 years, and I’ve never gotten in more trouble than when I penned something I thought was pretty funny that either fell flat, because some readers didn’t get the humor, or found what I’d said outright offensive. Two cases in point:

Back in the days when I was a father with a young family, I dreaded road trips because there was no good way to keep the kids in the back seat entertained and distracted so they wouldn’t fight. I outlined a stratagem that had proved especially effective in our family — giving each child an empty soda can with the instruction that the first one who could fill it up with spit would win a wonderful prize. I said the benefits of the tactic were impressive. Not only would it keep them busy for hours, their mouths would also be too dry to argue.

I thought readers might get a laugh out of that, and some did. But I was surprised by the reaction of others who wrote letters to the editor accusing me of child abuse, complaining that such gross material had no business in a family newspaper, and suggesting that instead of subjecting my children to humiliation, I ought to seek psychological counseling. One reader went so far as to write the owner of our newspaper chain, who was in California, and demand that he ship me out immediately. Another reader said the column proved what nearly everyone in town believed — that I was an “unsophisticated hillbilly.”

I was not shipped out, but I never wrote another humorous column about spit.

At another point, I was a political reporter covering the statewide races, and I spent a lot of time driving to one function or another in various far-flung locales. One week. I made what I thought was the humorous comment that as far as I could tell, the only difference between Republicans and Democrats was that the Democrats fed reporters at their political dinners, and Republicans didn’t. At Republican events, I noted, reporters were relegated to a corner table with nothing but water, and had to sit quietly with drooling mouths and rumbling stomachs while everyone else was served their choice of beef or chicken.

Man, did that throwaway comment have some unintended consequences. The Republicans fired off press releases showing my column as proof that Democrats were bribing the media. The Democrats fired off press releases showing my column as proof that Republicans were tight-fisted skinflints who wouldn’t even let ’em eat cake. Readers wrote letters to the editor asking how they could trust any reporter who could be bribed by a plate of rubber chicken. The Libertarians, hoping to cash in, sent off a press release saying they’d organized a “Greg Bean Steak Barbecue,” and asked me to be the guest of honor, which I declined. My boss got fed up with the whole thing and sent a memo to the staff, reminding them of the policy that reporters could not accept free food from anyone, ever — which drew me stink-eye glares from most of my colleagues on the reporting staff.

I survived that whirlwind as well, but there have been lots of other times over three decades where something I thought was clearly a joke either set readers’ teeth on edge, or went over their heads entirely.

For example, last week’s column wherein I posed as a financial advice expert. In that column, I crafted what I thought was a clearly fictitious letter from a made-up reader asking for advice on a situation I assumed everyone would understand was a metaphor for the debt-ceiling debacle in Washington. I thought it was amusing, but I was not prepared for some of the

reader reaction.

For example, there was Christine, who wrote: “Hi. This is the first time I have read your column. I’m not getting it! The man John asked for advice on how to deal with his wife’s spending of their money. She spends it on whales and radio stations. Your advice was to seek a marriage counselor. Am I understanding your response to this man? Do you have some further advice to give, or do you just throw it out to other resources for help? Just wondering. Thought your response was a little lame.” It was signed, “From a future reader. Maybe?”

So she not only didn’t get the humor, she thought I was writing real financial advice. Duane got the metaphor, but didn’t think I went far enough: “How about some additional (the devil’s in the) details on your couple? She says, ‘Let’s send some money to save the whales and support NPR, and he says, ‘Sure, absolutely, these are good causes. And, we both put our paychecks into our joint checking account which, unfortunately, is depleted from paying our … and we have already borrowed so much money that it would take seven or eight years of 100 percent of our after-tax income to pay off…. To keep the peace and harmony, we can just send the whale donation from the new credit card we just received, and we can fund the NPR contribution by confiscating money from our wealthy neighbors up the street. After all, they don’t deserve it, and besides, they can afford it and won’t really miss it … And a contribution to the G.W. Bush library would be good. I know you disliked the ‘Shrub,’ but the library should be interesting.” As the old saying goes, it is easy to be generous with other people’s money.”

Thank you, kind sir. But I notice you didn’t mention whether the column made you smile. I guess we all miss the target now and again. That’s why I won’t be writing the column I promised for this week, with John Boehner and Harry Reid writing in for expert financial advice on the division of community property. As my friend Dave Simpson used to ask, “Where funny?”

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.