Is There Anything Funny About Divorce?

By Attorney Gregg Herman
September 1, 1999

Is there anything funny about divorce? The answer is clearly “no”. Divorce involves loss: Loss of a spouse, loss of income, loss of property. But, use of humor is different that “being funny.”

The best part of being a family law attorney is not the money (not that there is anything wrong with being paid!). It is the gratitude shown by a client for a case well done, after you have been there to steer a client through a most difficult time in his or her life. More than one client has made a point of telling me that, included with their gratitude, was the knowledge that whenever we met, I would find a way to get him or her to laugh at least once during our meeting. In the words of one client, divorce is a bitter pill, but sugar coating it made it easier to swallow.

It is of critical importance how humor is used. If it is used to demean a person, or to belittle the circumstances, it is inappropriate and even cruel. But, where it is used to make someone feel more relaxed, it can defuse tension and make an intolerable situation, tolerable.

The following story was told to me by a fine divorce lawyer in western Wisconsin who happens to be a rather large person. He was representing a wife against a pro se husband – rarely an amusing circumstance. The husband was becoming more and more agitated as he realized that the outcome of the hearing was likely to be contrary to his idealized version of justice. The hearing had all the potential to explode. As the husband went from frustration to anger, he sputtered at the lawyer: “You son-of-a-bitch…….you’re…you’re FAT!!!” The lawyer paused, let the words sit in the air for a minute, then looked at his client and said in wonderment: “Why didn’t you tell me?” After a moment, everyone, husband included, broke out in laughter. Tension defused, a potentially ugly situation was avoided.

This use of humor is instructive: It was self-deprecatory as opposed to being directed at someone else. In fact, it was just about the only appropriate response to an inappropriate comment.

Sometimes the humor is totally spontaneous. I was called into a case once on a last minute basis as a guardian ad litem. The allegation was that a teenage boy was traumatized by being exposed to a lesbian mother’s relationship with her partner. I mediated an adjournment for 30 days to allow for an investigation, with the placement schedule to remain as it was, except, that I asked the mother not to exhibit any physical manifestations with her partner until I could meet with the child and his therapist. The mother grew hostile and upset. “You’re biased because I’m a lesbian!,” she said with anger. No, I explained, I would make the same recommendation if her partner was male if the same allegations were made.

“Does this mean” she asked tensely, “that I can’t even kiss my partner goodbye in the morning?” Not if the child was present, I responded.

Even more angry, she again accused me of bias. “I don’t see why I’m being discriminated against. Don’t you men”, meaning me, her lawyer and her ex-husband’s lawyer, “kiss your wives goodbye in the morning?” Simultaneously, the three of us looked at each other and shook our heads in the negative. There was a pause, and even the woman had to laugh. “OK,” she said, “Please do your investigation quickly.”

Humor can also be used effectively in court, although one has to be very careful to pick the right place. During a trial, where, as usual, the rules of evidence were only casually, at best, observed, the lawyer on the other side suddenly had the nerve to object to a question which I asked. Worse, his objection was absolutely correct and he even cited the appropriate section of the evidence code, with the statute book open in front of him. The judge looked at me and asked for a response. “Your Honor,” I replied, “If counsel is going to use one of them evidence books in a divorce case, I want an adjournment so I can buy me one of them books.” By the time the judge stopped laughing, I had figured out a way to get around the objection to properly get the evidence in.

N.B.: This was a judge who had a sense of humor and with whom I had a good personal relationship. Using humor with a judge with whom one of those is not true is not, repeat, not, recommended.

Jokes can be used appropriately to make a point. For example, clients frequently trash the other parent of their children. I tell them the joke of the woman who comes to a party with a huge diamond pendant. “What a gorgeous pendant” everyone says. “Thank you,” says the woman, “It’s called the Krupnik Diamond. But, I must tell you that it comes with the Krupnik Curse.” Everyone wanted to know what was the “Krupnik Curse.” The woman pointed at her husband and said “Krupnik”.

Like all good jokes, there is an element of truth to this one. I use this joke to tell people that their children are diamonds, but they may come with a curse. They need to keep in mind that without the curse, they wouldn’t have the children.

Of course, nothing is worse than saying something which is meant in humor, only to be taken seriously. And, humor in the wrong place or at the wrong time can be quite embarrassing. But, where used appropriately, humor can defuse tension and even make an important point as long as it does not overwhelm the message. After all, it does no good to suck off the sugar and spit out the pill.

This article originally appeared in Fairshare.

Attorney Gregg Herman is a founding partner of Loeb & Herman, LLC in Milwaukee, WI. He practices family law exclusively, and can be reached via e-mail or by calling (414) 272-5632.