My younger son (now 11) is working on telling jokes. He’s working on being funny overall, but specifically, he’s creating his own jokes. I’d like to report they are hilarious, appropriate works of humor art, but they aren’t. Yes, he says some hilarious stuff. Some of that is even intended to be funny. He has an odd sense of humor based on obscure historical references, plays on words, politics, and body humor, sometimes all in the same joke.
After a few months of watching his joke telling in horror and fascination, I decided it was time to take action and help the boy along with this budding desire to be intentionally funny. Together, we created a screening tool for jokes, which, with a bit of creativity, lent itself to a memorable acronym: SOFT. Each humor intent is screened for SOFT criteria, with input from any impartial observers who are in on the system welcome.
S: Does the joke make sense? So many jokes fail this first test. Like most of us, my younger’s mind wanders to odd places that make sense to him but not to others. Like a few less of us, he fails to see that what makes sense to him might not make sense to someone else. That’s a hard skill to teach, and while he is growing in his understanding that different people think different thoughts, his sense of humor has yet to reflect that new knowledge. Now, I’m okay with not fully understanding the sense of humor of an eleven year old boy. I also understand that sometimes I’m missing something, so I ask my older son, 15, if the joke makes sense to him. If it fails both of us, no dice.
O: Is the joke offensive? Oh, this is a minefield. There are two questions here: Is the joke potentially offensive in content to anyone anywhere? If so, the second question is asked. Is the joke potentially offensive to anyone in listening range? When you assume everyone around you shares your political views and it’s election season, one can make frequent mistakes with the second question. I’ve leaned toward giving very specific feedback on this point, such as, “This is a joke you can tell around your brother and I at home when no one else is in the house.” Before we have house guests, we’ll often review what passes and what doesn’t by genre: body humor (not with Grandma), politics (yes, I give names), religion (similar list, but with additions) and current events (generally the same set of names as politics). He’s made strides in this area but tends to err on the side that everyone he knows shares his opinion on the above issues unless he’s been expressly told they don’t. Let me just apologize now.
F: Is the joke funny? Sometimes they just aren’t. Often the ones that aren’t funny also don’t make sense, but there are many that meet one criteria but not the other. This is definitely subjective and not a terribly big deal, as long as the lack of funniness isn’t because someone found the joke offensive. This is a minor criteria, given getting a blank look from his audience doesn’t really faze him. Score one for underdeveloped facial expression reading. Unless he’s told, he’s pretty sure he was funny, no matter how people respond.
T: Does the joke have good timing? A joke told about a conversation that ended five minutes earlier (or even two minutes earlier) falls flat, and given his rather reflective thinking style, this happens quite a bit. That timing faux pas isn’t a big deal but is worth gentle guidance. (Late jokes are an interruption in the conversation at hand. We’re working on interrupting, too.) Timing matters in other ways. A joke told in the middle of class may be funny, make sense, and not be offensive, but it doesn’t belong in the middle of class. Along a similar vein, some (okay, most) body humor jokes just don’t have a place at the dinner table.
These four easy-to-remember criteria aren’t a miracle cure for all humor errors, but they are providing guidance. When he’s on the verge of a joke, I’ll sometimes interrupt and ask, “Is it SOFT?” That can sometimes be enough to avoid serious social discomfort for the mother of the teller and the recipient. Is this a selfish system, designed to protect me from embarrassment? A bit, perhaps. But it also informs him of the very social norms that elude him so often. It’s another reminder that all of our minds work differently as well as a gentle nudge to a more gentle, considerate way of being in the world. Asperger’s or not, it’s likely helpful for plenty of kids and some adults who might want to make sure a joke is appropriate before launching it. Try it with your own kids or someone else in your life in need of guidance, and let me know how it goes.