This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

The strange and wonderful world of Midwestern humor

Although I've spent all of my adult life in Arizona and California, I've never lost that strange sense of humor that I grew up with in Minnesota. But I have learned to try to watch myself, because it can cause some serious confusion with many of my friends here.

The Midwestern sense of humor is sometimes described as "dry", or "dead pan". If you're old enough to remember Johnny Carson, his humor was classic Midwestern. He often referred to his childhood in Nebraska, so it's obviously not limited to Minnesota. His comic delivery was done by saying something outrageous, and silly, without smiling. At all. That's a "dry" delivery. A "dead pan" means a face with no expression. It's the kind of thing that makes you wonder, "Is he kidding?" Yes, he is. And when he cracked up, it was wonderful. Because it's at that moment that even people who didn't get the joke understand that he was joking.

An example of a strange midwestern sense of humor would be if I texted someone that I was visiting my grandmother, and got texted back that I should tell her that she owed my friend 50 bucks, and never returned his Corvette. What? Is he kidding? Well, yes. And sometimes the kidding can be so "close to the vest" (another midwestern term meaning being subtle and kinda secretive) that it can be a bit worrisome. Fifty bucks? My grandmother? When did she borrow fifty bucks from my friend? And when did he lend anyone his Corvette? I thought he drove a Camry?

I've had a tendency towards this type of humor so much that sometimes people can't tell if I'm kidding. And for people who don't understand Midwestern humor, this can be disconcerting. If I tell someone that my dog is bad and sick, they may think that I'm trying to use goofy language from the '80s, or maybe my dog has been bad and is genuinely sick. It's important for me to clarify.

Taken to an extreme, cheerful midwestern humor can be cruel and hurtful sarcasm. I have a Black Belt in sarcasm, but I don't ever attack. If you hang around me, you should be able to tell that I have a quick wit, but I'm not cruel. Sarcasm used against innocent people is bullying. And I would never fight an unarmed opponent. So no. No.

For me, I prefer to be facetious (I had to look up how to spell that). I had a coach in High School describe me as that, which is kinda silly and sarcastic but in a cheerful and good-natured way. And being facetious is a wonderful way to look at some of the absurdities of life, so I will continue to be that way. If I'm in a group of people who are genuinely wondering if I'm kidding, and are concerned, I'll stop it.

There are a lot of Midwestern people in California and Arizona, and those people understand the Midwestern sense of humor right away. For those who don't, I smile and say "just kidding!"

Image at the top of this post: Me in Minne-snowta after a light dusting of snow in 1982. - Smile - no, just kidding, it was a record snowfall. You can Google the Minneapolis blizzard of '82 if you think I'm kidding. I'm serious here. No, really... come on... seriously...

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