Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Frenchman Walks Into A Bar...

...with a parrot on his shoulder. The bartender says "Hey, where did you get that?" and the parrot says "France - there's millions of them!"

Maybe it depends on the delivery, but I think that's funny as hell. The misdirection aspect - the lull of apparent bar joke sameness coupled with an uncannily loquacious parrot - introduce an element of surprise. That's key to comedy, at least according to writer Rob Petrie (played by Dick Van Dyke, of course). The appearance of the nonsequitor is also imperative when it comes to cop humor.

This week I attended, along with a number of my supervisory peers, a class about emotional survival. We learned about trauma and it's long term implications, taught by a well-known psychologist who specializes in police-related areas. Among the topics he covered was an examination of humor, and how law enforcement professionals use it to defuse emotionally-charged situations. He cautioned us, however, to be...mindful.

He illustrated his point thusly - two police officers respond to a violent traffic accident, and discover that one of the drivers has suffered a serious injury. His eye has come out of its socket. One of the officers reaches into the car to turn off the ignition and the driver begins fighting with him. The other officer grasps the eyeball, turns it toward the driver and says "Look at yourself. Stop fighting so we can help you."

Did you laugh? Was it in spite of yourself?

Of course, in a room full of cops, this was...well received. But the funniest part was that he had told this story during a presentation to a group of psychologists. His description of their jaw-dropped silence brought the house down. The moral of the story? The things we think are funny are, at times, grossly out of place.

Most of the people I've run into are astonished that police officers even have a sense of humor. When I was in my teens, a schoolyard tree became involved in a minor fire. The investigating sheriff's deputy peered into the crowd as he filled out a form and said "Anybody know the address of this tree?" Not especially a knee slapper, but certainly enough to elicit a chuckle from the throng of onlookers because he actually said something beside "Just the facts."

Certain crimes scenes, especially public ones, are highly inappropriate places to cut up. Death investigations in public places are excellent times to pull the old stone face out of the posse bag. Nothing looks worse than "Film at Five" of a bunch of cops yucking it up while the recently departed lays under a sheet on a sidewalk. There are a number of techniques available that help. One of them is to remember that the victim's family will not find anything funny for a long time.

Still.... We had surrounded a house where a man had threatened his family with a handgun. They had, quite prudently, run like hell and called 911. SWAT members, including those of us who were negotiators, surrounded the house. Two of us, lugging a heavy shield and dressed in Kevlar helmets and tac vests, nestled in the neighbor's bushes and began yacking into a bullhorn.

Talking to the side of a building and getting no response takes a certain kind of single-mindedness. We have progressed beyond the days of "Exit the residence immediately" to a gentle, reassuring patter. Canned phrases help ("I can guarantee your safety") but that list was soon exhausted and I struggled not to lapse into a repeating chorus of "pick up the phone," which always drives the tactical operators nuts. My helpful backup, a woman sergeant, fed me lines as best she could but I was running out of gas. Finally, she said "Tell him, 'I'm an introvert. You're killing me.'"

I started to laugh. Turning to ask her to please say something more helpful, I saw the neighbor in the picture window above us, taking our picture.Now both of us were in stitches, hiding behind a shield, a man with a gun no more than twenty feet away.

Perhaps out of sympathy for our team members, the suspect surrendered.

We really do take the situations seriously, it's our reactions to the scenes - and ourselves - that mostly amuse us. Okay.... Eight fire trucks surrounded a still-smoldering building, thirty or so firefighters milling about wielding all manner of exotic-looking paraphernalia. A woman walked up and said, of course, "Was there a fire?" The only thing funnier was my six-four teammate, unable to answer, head turned like a confused puppy, fighting back a giggle. We just had to make fun of him, later.

Now you know. It isn't especially that we laugh to keep from crying. It's that... A lot of this stuff is just plain funny.

At least to me.

1 comment:

  1. So true! And the eyeball joke is hilarious. Clearly people in medicine learn the same coping mechanisms as people in law enforcement. Perhaps this is why Will and I work so well together