The Guy in the Self-help Section

There once was a handsome man, with a big jaw and strong hands, a great job and many good years ahead of him. But, despite these blessings, there was one thing about him not so great, something odd and embarrassing. The minute he opened his mouth, he became aware of it again, and again. It was as embarrassing to him as it was to his family during dinner, to his friends at the bar, or to his coworkers at the office, even to strangers on the street. Everybody agreed: sure he was handsome, had money. Yet he suffered from being remarkably, fantastically, irredeemably unfunny.


Not to be confused with fun. He was awesome to be around, so he didn’t lack in companionship. At heart, he made you feel more attractive about yourself. For example, women would allow you to approach them more easily, if he tagged along. Or they might even ask to be invited to your table, if he was seated there. His face and clothes spoke loud and clear. Moreover, as soon as he actually started speaking, you thought you were the coolest man in the world, compared to him.


His grandparents, uncles and cousins used to almost forget he was sitting at the table with them, while they shared stories. As soon as he raised his voice, however – usually the second or third time, because no one paid attention to him the first — the whole table would go classroom-quiet. Not because they were lending him an ear, but because as he commented, never for a short interval of time, they would think about something else, play with their food, or look at their phone.


Emboldened by the high cheer of his coworkers at the office, he used to go out of his way to prepare jokes to say at meetings. More than once he had asked if they could open the hour with a minute of trivia, or storytelling, or one-liners. The more lively ones would tell a recent incident on the subway, thus unleashing a relatable uproar, a peal of tear-wiping chuckle. It wasn’t rare for someone to attempt a long-form joke with success at these icebreaker sessions. His colleagues were so funny, they could hold your attention, and make you happy to be at work. Nevertheless, after he had just used them as openers before his rehearsed joke, when it was his turn to deliver, everyone cringed. And moved on with the meeting.


Why those he spent the longest time with didn’t pay him mind, he could not figure out. Mostly, it made him feel left out, like everyone else had attended comedy classes, or were all in on some prank against him. This wasn’t true, though, so he just tried harder the next day, wondering where he had gone wrong in his past.


During high school, he had been too busy to notice his mounting debility in getting the “lols,” instead he was too busy trying to do everything else right, be nice, be mean, get good grades, skip class, listen to the right music, stop talking to losers, read advice forums, comment. Around the time he started college, with a mild yet unmediated case of depression reminding him daily that he was in a new place, surrounded by new people, was the first time he realized he could make others laugh. And what a joy that was. Handsome, well off, and good grades made him hot in the eyes of his peers in discussion sections. Organizing beer runs, scheduling lunch with people, and going out on Thursday nights, all taught him the value of connection and the importance of inclusion.


But together with inclusion, he learned shame. The only laughs he could squeeze from his circle were those won by making fun of those around him. It was almost too easy, calling others names, pointing out their flaws, or being ironic when someone asked an obvious question. Seeing the reaction of his friends, their downcast faces, or their hyena cackles, depending on who was receiving the prank, was enough to teach him to back off a bit, and cool it with the cruelty.


Nowadays, unaided by his sharp tongue, or his ironic insights, where did he stand among his friends? He became the quiet guy, the type to never say a funny word. Was it too late to go back? He had developed a taste for making people laugh. Still, he didn’t want to hurt anybody, so now what? In or out, zero sum gain, be funny or die. That was Javier, and his problem of being, almost on purpose, completely unfunny.


. . .

Simply, not funny. But why, Javier would wonder. Although, really, what he wanted to know was how, how could he improve himself?


He thought about all the funny people in his life, and remembered his uncle. At every holiday, on any vacation, or simply during a calm Sunday in the backyard, various factions of family would keep the fire of a good time burning. Through storytelling, they revived scenes from decades past, recycled lines of phrases heard earlier in the conversation, or injected comebacks with a glorious turn of phrase that could both insult you and praise you in one breath. There was one uncle, though, in particular, who was so fast with his words that you wouldn’t even realize you had gotten made fun of, until everyone had sprayed their wine laughing at you, then moved on to another story. This particular uncle, having lived in Europe, before coming back to the States, also told the wildest stories, with twists, upsets, and always a dear life lesson at the end, or otherwise a lesson on how life made no sense at all. So, knowing this, Javier asked this uncle, around the fire one Sunday at his parent’s backyard, how the uncle came to be so funny. Instead of a life lesson, here, the uncle gave one of his stories with no meaning, ranting for twenty minutes, making everyone else laugh. Yet giving Javier no straight-forward advice to hang on to, thus leaving him despondent with the odd sense that maybe he was on the spectrum, or something. How else did everyone get it, but him?


Well into adulthood, one night, going out with a very pretty girl who would soon become his ex, they were at a comedy show, enjoying the humor of a famous comedian. From his first word, “Pickle,” to the very end of the show, when he closed on a reference to an earlier poop joke, the comedian was laugh out loud, curl into a ball, slap yourself silly kind of funny. The set, perfectly delivered, well crafted, with sprinkles of social commentary, all made Javier want to meet the man who he considered a king, for advice. Thus his then-girlfriend patiently played with her hands in her lap, while Javier ran off to meet the comedian, off stage.


After a tedious and nervous introduction, Javier unearthed the question that had been plaguing him since bygone days: “How,” he asked, “can I be funny?”


It was a sincere and softly spoken question, one that came from the heart, and deserved an honest reply. Especially from a master, standing before a ticket-paying fan. Yet, unfortunately, our comedian would neither answer in kind, nor answer right away. First off, he had a tendency of giving the opposite answer to an obvious question. “No” for yes, “yes” for no, just to be funny. Second, being caught off guard, still high from the show, it was one of those instances where your brain thinks for thirty minutes but in ten seconds, remembering a moment in the past: basically Javier had asked the comedian the exact same question that the comedian himself had asked his childhood idol decades earlier, at a show, just like this. Struck by déjà vu, deciding what to say next, rather than continuing to stand there awkwardly, the comedian told Javier what his idol had once told him, believing this would help Javier like it had helped him become a master. To the original question, the comedian replied coldly, venomously, and with no room for debate: “You can’t. You either got it or you don’t.” Then walked away, feeling warm and fuzzy inside, thinking life is a trip, because now a new generation of comedians would soon rise to become as famous as him one day.


Regrettably, since becoming a famous comedian was not in the cards for Javier, those words did not help him in any way. In fact, the episode only dismayed him.


(As a parenthesis, because Javier never found out why, it’s important to note the reason he got dumped by his ex, the girl left twiddling her fingers, after the show. When asked by her best friends why she left this handsome, rich, well-endowed fellow, she merely replied, sad about it too, that she could never be with a man who made her feel like she was the funnier one in a relationship.)


Making others feel like they are funnier than you might be a bad strategy when finding a mate, but it’s great for making friends. Javier didn’t know this, though he had other things on his mind. Soon after the comedy show, he came up with another idea, a bold one, something he had always wanted to do, but never found the courage to do before. He would humble himself to admit he had a problem, and ask his friends what they thought about his being unfunny. Maybe they would help.


He convoked the homies, from his current meme group, to meet downtown for drinks. They were all together four, sometimes five friends – the number varied because an inside joke was to kick out this one guy who always posted gay porn memes, of the hard-core variety. After a while they would miss this rebel, he would return, and then the cycle would begin anew, as he reposted pictures of foreign objects in abject places.


This circle of friends would include Javier, who only ever commented “hah” in the chat, for no other reason than they had hung out in college. Also, because he was a good wing man. But not for anything else. In any case, he was thrilled to organize the latest outing, mostly because it made him the host of the night, even if he paid the bill, but also because it guaranteed two hours of laughter. Sometimes the friends couldn’t even finish their third pitcher beer because they were cracking so many jokes. Sometimes they even made fun of one another, of Javier most often, though he laughed along. Most times, it did hurt. He could never start a sentence without them cutting him off. Or if they listened, it was only to comment on what he said, and not on what he was saying.


By the end of the night, more than a little tipsy, full on cheap beer and dizzy, as the group dispersed, Javier pulled aside one of the funnier yet kinder friends from the group and asked him bluntly at the edge of a street corner: “Why am I not funny?” The friend told him to quit dragging him down, literally, because Javier was hanging on to the friend as they trudged through the streets. Javier insisted, with that tenacity you only find in those who are blacked out. The friend, instead of answering Javier’s genuine question bathed in whiskey breath right away, ordered him to come over to a nearby bush, and piss with him there.


When they were done unloading, the friend stumbled over to tell Javier something heartfelt, to answer Javier’s question, which had been on his mind during the entire 2 minutes of urination. Something like “Dude, you’re a good guy and all, and we shouldn’t josh you so much. It’s just that you’ve turned into a corporate dork,” again, all while peeing, “why don’t you talk back to us like you used to in the old days?” But then, before he could speak any of these words, he looked down at his friend and realized that Javier, still standing in front of a bush, had not dropped his jeans to pee. The guy had simply stood straight as a tree, and relieved himself, pants on.


“God damn it, Javier,” said the friend, weighed down by unsolicited responsibility, as he walked the drunk friend to his apartment, broke the bedroom window, because of course Javier had forgotten his keys at the bar, and so threw his ass to bed. Before stepping out the same broken window, to walk the mile and a half back to his place, the friend stepped into the kitchen, took a beer for the road, and felt very sorry for Javier.


. . .


When Javier woke up in the morning, he decided he would set aside this idea of being funny, at least until he got his life back together. A few weeks rolled by, of not really going out, of not really talking to his family, of barely dating – just enough to not lose his mind – and of course working at the office, helping to build the perfect system for other people, nine, sometimes ten hours a day. In this time, he finally got around to replacing his window one Sunday, with professionals.


An old man and a young apprentice. At first, Javier, who was holding a cup of tea that morning, watching the two removing the broken window frame and replacing it with a newer but exact replica, had thought the two workers were related. Father and son, perhaps. All men in uniform share that quality, especially when they are laughing and joking together. Maybe that’s what Javier wanted, he pondered, that deep bond with people. Although, it was a little annoying to see the two men so jovial, so exuberant. Suddenly, naturally, the topic of sleeping with women came up. That’s when Javier realized the pair were not related.


“So, Friday night with Cheryl . . .” inquired the old man, applying a thick, white line of caulk to the groove of the windowsill. “D’you sleep with her or not?”


The young man didn’t answer right away. By the casualness of the conversation, Javier figured the woman must have been a mutual acquaintance, perhaps even a coworker, the person who distributes their incoming assignments. Before Javier could figure it out on his own, the old man spoke up.


“I’ seen how you two flirt at HQ,” he said, with a wrinkled smile. “If I was you I’d a’ asked her out weeks ago.”


“What makes you think I didn’t?” said the young man, muscles bulging as he lifted the old frame from its corners.


“Cheryl . . .” said the old man, with a sigh that wished for better days. “After all dat, you finally aks her out, you go to da hookah bar, issa Friday night, you take her home, and then . . .” The old man grinned. “You give it to her, don’t you?”


The young man raised an eyebrow, as he lowered one side of his lips into a smile. “No,” he said. “I didn’t give it to her. I just laid her on her back and massaged her feet for twenty minutes with my mouth. Next I put my fingers into the warmest parts of her body, though it took me a while to figure out where those were. Then, slowly, tenderly, with every square inch of our bodies, we made sweet, passionate love.”


“You beast! How long d’you go for?”


The two were done putting up the window, and free to continue. Yet the young man didn’t want to answer right away. Javier could tell from the look on his face that he did, and would, but for now, the young man was having fun dismissing the question with a tisk, tisk, shaking his head at the question, thereby delaying the satisfaction, and increasing the necessity to find it out. All the while, the old man, having invested so much of his time and energy into the scene, insisted, and insisted. “C’mon, boy, how long d’you go for?”


“Not that long,” said the young man, finally, after handing Javier the invoice, not even looking at him as he did, too carried away by the old man walking towards the truck with his hands in the air, wanting an answer.




“Not that long.”


In the faint distance, from his doorway, trying hard to listen to the men now in the parking lot, Javier caught wind of hysterical laughter, preceded by the answer to the question.


“Just the whole weekend! She’s waiting for me back at the house!”


They were gone. And Javier thought a lot about that episode, thinking, “Damn, that guy is funny.” Thus rekindling his desire.


. . .

It isn’t often that we know a guy’s life story when we see him at the book store. Most of the time we see someone like Javier, a round-headed, buzz cut, strong-jawed, big handed, medium height, incredibly handsome, well dressed dude, flipping through pages of a new release in the self-help section, with a stack of possible buys on the floor, and we simply think he’s a douche, and walk passed him.


But we knew why Javier was there, standing with a new release in his hand and a pile of books on the floor with punny titles, as Javier decided which one to purchase. He wanted to buy at least one, although he might end up coming back the following week, if he saw results.


The book in his hand, which was his top choice so far, was titled “Please, Laugh: the Art and Science of Convincing Others You are Funny.” It was written by someone with a PhD, so it must have been pretty good, although the beginning had a boring thirty page introduction about serotonin and endorphins.


The second choice, giving him pause, was titled “Awkward: my Personal Journey from Stage Fright to Lime Light.” It was written by a blogger who became semi-famous for a comedy sketch two years ago, and which had four star reviews from major publications. Also, it was a best seller, so it must have helped millions of others just like Javier since its release. And yet Javier couldn’t imagine that many people becoming funny just by reading a memoir.


The third choice, which Javier didn’t want anymore, yet was the first book he had picked up, was called “The P-Word: How Male Genitalia Makes Men Funny.” When Javier opened to a random page in the middle, he had seen a hand drawn sketch of a penis, like something you would see in a restroom stall, with tiny arrows pointing to which parts were funny and which ones were not. It was cute. Turning the page, he saw a column of pie charts explaining what percentage of jokes by famous comedians featured their own genitals. Women, by the way, had the highest. Turning more pages, he saw another graph full of lines, then another full of bars, and then another full of whatever. The whole book was riddled in colors and numbers, and this discouraged Javier, because, surely the author had done his research, and had cited his work, and yet were facts really going to help? Javier put the book down on his pile of maybes.


Why couldn’t he have it all? Looks, a nice apartment, good manners, a decent family, a steady job . . . but no humor. Nothing. Javier thought about how just last Friday, the night the young repairman was in Act One of his weekend full of sex with his coworker, Javier had texted the funniest person at his office, and had told her a joke, which he had read online, as a pretext to ask her out. But they didn’t go out, she didn’t laugh, and instead replying that she had already heard that one, she proceeded to give an alternate ending on the old punch line.


Javier felt like an old punch line trying too hard. He thought about how he had sent his meme group a picture he had thought was funny, one that took an extremely long bathroom break to find, only to receive the wrong kind of laughter from his friends. They made fun of him for reposting an oldie, which had in fact been shared two days earlier. It was Javier’s fault for not paying attention when it was first shared, and no one blamed him for tuning out the chat group these days.


The weekend coming to a close, sitting on an arm chair in the corner of the book store, washed by light entering from a big glass window, somewhere in the philosophy section, Javier thought about the true meaning of shame, of being a social outcast, of the silent reply from his friends and family to his ideas and words. Maybe Javier didn’t want to be funny. Or else he would have continued being mean and pranking on those he loved. Maybe what Javier really wanted was to connect, to make others feel good, to be the damn center of attention once in a while, not necessarily always, but sometimes. He wanted to make people laugh because that way he could share the positive feelings he had inside, which he yearned to express.


Just then, a spider crawled from a nearby book shelf, somewhere in the A section. Javier saw it, watched it crawl, and looked at it for a while for no other reason than it was something unusual. With its eight eyes, the spider pondered the young, troubled man for a minute. Then crawled back between the books. Curious, Javier stood up to discover that behind the books there was a cobweb in there, full of flies. Javier, empathizing, wished he could shrink to be smaller than a penny, and catch flies all day, just observe the world from the edges.


Anyway, in the end, he decided to buy an old book of folk fables in the humor section. And walked to the cashier.


In line, soon to check out, he smiled, he relaxed. He was going to be ok. The world didn’t need another joke. Meanwhile, the store was buzzing. It was crowded. Products were flying, the best sellers were selling, and life would be ok too. Javier stepped forward in line, ready to check out.


And then, not sure if it had been the breakfast burrito, or his midday pretzel dipped in garlic sauce, Javier unexpectedly, unwittingly, released an audible rumble of flatulence.


It felt like the music in the store had paused. Everyone in line leaned over to look up front. Had someone stepped on a duck?


Paralyzed with fear, shame, embarrassment, able to smell his own, which meant it was three times as bad to anybody else, Javier didn’t even look over his shoulder, didn’t even move or twitch, thinking he might just play it off as innocent.


Just before people started coughing, though, Javier was struck by inspiration. He thought of the spider, of his friends, of everyone who had ever made him laugh, as if he were dying socially and now his life were flashing before his eyes. He knew what he had to do. He had to own it. To see how loud he could make the next one, to see how far he could go, so he did it again, shamelessly, with vengeance, louder and wetter this time, just to show people what he was made of, to start his humor game from the very bottom of the totem pole, and work his way up.


Literally, the music had stopped in that book store. Javier’s face was as white as a clown’s, holding in his own laughter.


When behind him, a little girl busted out laughing.

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