John Levine: It's No Joke

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School masking requirements are no laughing matter, especially if you’re trying to teach humor. John Levine has this Perspective.

Going back to school is no laughing matter...except when it is. The theme of the college freshman writing class I teach is “What’s So Funny,” and we devote the semester to reading about, writing about, and researching humor.

At the beginning of the term, I ask everyone to stand up and tell a joke or funny story. I assure the class that it’s not a competition, and an unfunny joke is as valuable to our research as a funny one, as we analyze the characteristics of each person’s contribution.

“Who wants to go second?” I ask, because I’m ready to kick off the joke-fest with what I think is a very funny story called “The Talking Dog.” I launch into the joke, paying careful attention to my audience’s reaction. Under normal circumstances, I’d be able to gauge how the joke was landing based on people’s facial expressions: a smile told me I was doing fine, a yawn was a signal to speed things up.

But this semester, our first time back in the classroom in 17 months, is different. Everyone is wearing masks, and, therefore, it’s impossible to read the reaction of the class. And it works the other way around: I can’t use my facial expressions to convey the anticipation, surprise, and disappointment built into the narrative of the joke. While it’s great to be in the same room with my students, things are definitely not the same.

Last year, when I taught the class remotely on Zoom, I could see my students’ unmasked faces. And while telling a joke on Zoom has its drawbacks, so does telling a joke wearing a mask.

Studies have been conducted recently about the effect of videoconferencing on human interaction, and how “Zoom fatigue” has affected the way we communicate with one another. Now we need studies on “mask interfacing.”

As we head back to school and work — vaccinated, tested, and masked — we have to look for ways to find joy wherever we can. Telling someone a funny story is a surefire way to connect. But don’t expect a rousing chorus of laughter or even a simper, though we might as well assume that behind those masks are ear-to-ear grins.

With a Perspective, I’m John Levine.

John Levine is a teacher, writer, and occasional actor who lives and works in Berkeley.

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