By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
An alien visitor to America, one not understanding English very well, might well be amazed at the howling laughter in an auditorium full of Americans listening to their favorite stand-up comedian just talking on the stage. How does that ordinary looking person make so many people to reel with mirth just standing there and saying a few words? The key to the mystery: the comedian is known and loved by the audience; and what is going on is a playful game, simulated aggression, between the comedian and the audience or such aggression directed by the comic at another target for the audience to laugh at. Humor is a mock fight which releases tension and hostility, normally in a harmless way, between participants; and that is the sense of humor, because the laughter it brings out makes our lives bearable when they tend not to be so.
Unfortunately, the world is also full of vicious, hurtful, and disgusting humor; we may have witnessed cruel wit or diabolical laughter. We are all familiar with the merciless teasing that kids often inflict on their timid or handicapped classmates.
I tend to be serious, rather than playful. I am more likely to become the butt of a joke rather than its perpetrator. In high school sometimes I was kidded to the point where I would pick up not a pillow but a chair and throw it at the joker. A pillow fight is a cause for laughing; a chair fight is not. As I got older I began to see the final futility of living, and how ridiculous it is from its start, doing the double-backed beast, to its end often with a tangle of tubes and wires stuck here and there all over the body to extend the patient’s breathing and the hospital’s budgeting. I gradually began to lighten up and even crack an occasional impromptu joke, usually with myself as a target.
Is humor a harmless sport when the bad guy in a Western starts shooting near the legs of the hero’s innocent sidekick, laughing “Dance, boy; dance!” Well, yes. It’s not your sense of humor or mine, but this action is funny because the ruffian does not really hurt the sidekick; he is having fun harmlessly targeting someone he dislikes, releasing tension, and hostility. Things get serious when the hero appears on the scene and takes offence.
I am not here to teach you how to sling jokes as an amateur or professional comedian; I am not a specialist in creating humorous prose. I am looking at the sense of humor from a psychological and philosophical viewpoint. Psychologically, the building up of tension is essential for a joke to result in laughter, because laughter comes about as a release from tension.
After tension built up, the jab at the target cannot be too obvious for the audience if the joke is to work; it cannot be too difficult to perceive either, because the audience will miss the point of it and you will not get any laughter. A logical gap exists between the punch line and the understanding of its meaning, which the audience bridges, because in humor the audience participates in the game the joker sets up.
The joker always sets up a punch line, which analysts have been said results from an incongruity, when things don’t go together logically; that is so, but incongruity is not enough, because though incongruity results in something ridiculous, without tension, a target, and a mental gap for the audience to bridge, no laughter follows.
Psychologists also theorize that laughter results when feelings of superiority are aroused in the audience over the person being ridiculed; certainly, we find funny characters ridiculous in their odd behaviors, but feelings of superiority don’t result in laughter; we laugh at the mistakes, stupidities, and eccentricities the characters commit, because we know they behave thus to amuse us, being professional or amateur actors and mimics.
Another psychological theory is that laughter is due to relief we feel from pent up tension going away and strong emotions subsiding. That’s true enough, for example when we are able to avoid a serious accident, mishap, or disaster; perhaps even when we settle a bitter confrontation with someone. We heave a sigh of relief and laugh. But that’s a description of the phenomenon of humor, not an explanation of it.
Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, a psychologist specializing in laughter, explains: “The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress.” Indeed, humor can do this. Any hurt, any unpleasantness, any horror, even terminal illness and death itself, can be worked playfully into a laughing matter, when wrapped in tension, mock aggression with a target, a logical gap to be bridged, and a release of tension, also known as resolution of the conflict.
Whatever theory you may want to believe about humor, clearly it is a communication where the higher centers of the brain, the intellect, is producing an emotional response, laughter. Such a reaction is another example of how intellect affects the emotions, because intellect and emotions are coupled in the mind, as the right and left brain are connected by the corpus callosum, and as the mind affects the body, and vice versa. (Such connections explain also the benefits from cognitive therapy in treating obsessive compulsions, depression, and anxiety. The therapist trains the patient in positive or constructive self- talk in facing problems and positive thoughts produce pleasant emotions and more adaptive behaviors.) Still, what specific mental mechanism makes us laugh with humor is a mystery.
We laugh when little Charlie Chaplin kicks a big cop on the shin like a little boy, and skips out of the place as the cop turns on him furiously with his night stick. We laugh in the classic comedy hit when Buster Keaton sinks slowly, so very slowly with his boat, standing straight shouldered on the bridge with the captain’s cap on, in a commanding posture.
High humor or low humor, it is not humor really until the audience laughs; if the audience laughs in the show, all grossness and baseness is forgiven, such as the coarse jokes in the comedies of Aristophanes.
Standard jokes such as the pratfall or the cream pie in the face make us laugh because we know nobody is getting hurt; these acts are for fun. We know that right away because the actor is a comedian. Mock aggression is clear here, the pie does not hurt except the target’s dignity; knocking down dignity and arrogance is a good place to start when making fun.
I am giving you the principles of humor here as a philosopher. Studying such principles and applying them will be helpful to you if you want to make jokes or tell witty stories; but knowledge of principles will not make you into a comedian. That takes practice and talent as in every other discipline. You may know musical notes and forms, but you are not going to be a composer because of this knowledge alone. You may sing in your shower quite well, without qualifying for the Met. You have to work at humor for a long time and produce many jokes which are duds before you hit upon one that works. But the effort is worth it when you get that laugh from your audience. Nothing equals in satisfaction that obviously successful response to entertain, unless it is your ability to make people cry with sweet sadness when you are telling a fine melancholy story.
Shedding tears over a sad story has therapeutic value: we inure ourselves to tragedy and purge our negative emotions. Similarly, the sense of humor is that it may be essential to human sanity and survival in the certain knowledge of loss, tragedy and death we must suffer and foresee coming to us, unlike other animals of lesser intelligence. So essential also is our appreciation of beauty, discussed in my essay, “What is the Sense of Beauty?” Beauty, laughter, and prayer make it possible for us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil.
Naturally, evil sometimes walks in with a stranger at our doorstep. Kids especially, but most of us, are shy of strangers. When we meet a stranger, our natural reaction is to be cautious, hostile, or curious, unless we feel safe enough to make friends with the stranger; then we smile, something which is the beginning of laughter. If we have some sense of humor, we may crack a joke to break the ice, getting familiar with the stranger.
Some people smile all the time at strangers or at no one in particular; they are idiots. Others laugh a lot at no one; they are bananas. It is normal for us to laugh when we play with friends and throw jokes back and forth to break the tension of competing in games. But, I acknowledge again that we sometimes see that aberration of humor, known as the diabolical or sadistic laughter, shown in horror movies.
Animals do not appear to act sadistically; that’s another distinctly human trait. Cats and dogs have some tendencies at humor when they fool around with each other—that is, cats with cats, and dogs with dogs, not a dog with a cat, normally. Mammals give little bites to each other without hurting: their way of telling a joke, since they have not as yet mastered how to talk very well. Cats and dogs behave that way towards their masters also, if the masters will play along.
Clearly, an effect of play acting aggression, laughter is like a reflex action of the body, in the rapid and uncontrollable way it occurs once it is triggered, with rhythmic and involuntary inspirations and expirations, but clearly the brain’s higher mental functions are involved also, so it is not a true reflex. According to gelotologists, experts in the science of laughter to you barbarians, at least 15 facial muscles are involved, known in anatomy as the zygomatic muscles. The diaphragm also receives quite a workout as muscles for rapidly breathing in and out are activated. We bear our teeth to threaten or bite our playful opponent, yet we cannot bite very hard, because we are paralyzed with pleasant convulsions. Since laughter is nearly a reflex, practically an automatic pattern of behavior, we can expect that we can elicit it by stimulating those spots in the nervous system responsible for the reflex, as one taps just below the knee to obtain the knee jerk reflex.
Physiologically, the laughter reflex greatly increases the amount of oxygen in the blood, reduces stress hormones, such as the dreadful cortisol, useful in a real fight but damaging to health. Adrenaline, a powerful hormone energizing the body and depleting all its reserves, also stays in check in playful fighting. Laughter also bolsters T-cells, those cells in our body’s immune system responsible for fighting germs and other harmful invaders.
It follows that if you want to be funny, it will help you a lot to feel playful, jocular, and humorous. You can prompt yourself to feel that way by starting with a smile, then a little laugh at something you know as funny, perhaps in your repertoire of jokes, and finally search for a target and a way to attack it harmlessly and with a punch line with a logical gap for your audience to bridge. It is no different that wanting to make love; you do it better if you feel loving. Or, if you want to enjoy food, it goes better the hungrier you become; or, if you must fight, it helps to get a little hot under the collar.
So, when we find ourselves in an uncomfortable, painful, embarrassing, shameful, distressing and depressing position, we can playfully exaggerate, make the matter unreal subjectively, and thus release the tension coming from the pain; we relax in the enjoyment of laughter. In effect, we elicit the relaxation response, also available from meditation, with the production of nitric oxide in the body, and pain killing dopamine in the brain. Laughter helps in healing by reducing stress and tension, which are in excess when we suffer serious trauma to our body or mind. Dr. Hans Selye of McGill University showed that excessive stress can maim and even kill, in “The Stress of Life.” Therefore, any reduction in undue stress is beneficial, such as we can bring about with humor causing laughter.
A baby or little boy laughs with delight when his daddy bounces him up and down, or when a favorite uncle picks him and turns him up-side-down, but he cries if someone less known and trustworthy attempts these stunts. Baby knows he is safe with dad or uncle, that this rough handling of his body is a game to be enjoyed, a joke and fun, not violence.
At a higher mental level than that of a child, humor often results from playfully stating a truth too bitter to admit; a truth too embarrassing, private, or painful for an ordinary person to deal with openly. For the comedian such a truth is fair game and a basic tool of the trade, but for the philosopher the truth underlying humorous stories is vital to apprehending reality.
We can approach an apprehension of reality, but never know it; we know, however, that exaggeration, gross distortion, and overplayed emotion leads to the release of laughter. When once Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) was on a lecture tour abroad in his last years, newspapers reported he had died. Upon his return to the U.S., Twain declared to the waiting journalists at the docks: “Reports of my death have been highly exaggerated.” Gross exaggeration turns a bad situation into something surrealistic, and playful, thereby turning what is unpleasant and painful into something laughable.
When we encounter something laughable, our lips open wide and the mouth too, our eyes shine with delight, with tears sometimes, our face flushes red, we keel over with relaxation, and out comes a peculiar explosion of sound, “Ha, ha, ha,” or “Ho, ho, ho,” or “Hi, hi, hi,” with giggles or guffaws in as endless a variety as we come.
Laughing matters come in a great variety also; we tend to find odd behavior amusing, even laughable, in others, but not in ourselves. Why? A comedian of old, Jack Benny, made good use of his extreme thriftiness; he displayed himself as ridiculously miserly. He was funny. We find the lame, the cross-eyed, the bald, the fat, the big eared, the dwarf, the very tall (hey beanstalk, how’s the weather up there), the stuttering, the hoarse, the squeaky voiced, the very thin (hey, reed pole), the idiot, and the crazy. A crazy person who is a nut case is funny. Someone who is insane and violent to boot is scary as hell, not funny at all, like the ax killer in Stephen King’s “The Shining.” Stephen King entertains because we enjoy the suspense of terror in a novel or movie, which we know is safe. The killers in “Friday, the 13th” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” are not funny, but they entertain because we know we are watching a show, and this way we exorcise the evil we see. Mel Brooks in “Young Frankenstein” exorcises the monster and makes us laugh with the crazy doctor Frankenstein and his weird hunchbacked assistant Igor. We get the maximum potential for fun in plays with idiots or nuts, because nothing for humans could be more frightening than having our brains scrambled at birth or later in life. Certainly these last two afflictions come to us all, if we live long enough.
Afflictions, which make some persons odd, strike us as funny, turning these people into suitable targets for laughter under certain circumstances, such as when we pretend to have the quirkiness ourselves or when we exaggerate it in others and make it unreal, removing it from the pain of existence. Case in point: the Jerry Lewis of old made us laugh by acting like a spastic with muscular dystrophy; we laughed because we knew he was mimicking; he was not spastic, but was making light of an affliction to reduce it to acceptance and tolerance: a kind gesture, not a vicious one. Mr. Lewis devoted many years of his life raising money for muscular dystrophy and other diseases with his telethons. Granted, maliciousness can enter this picture and it often does with people who have an aberrant sense of humor.
The top-rated “Seinfeld” series on television was never malicious, although the characters were very odd indeed. Jerry, playing Seinfeld, himself in exaggerated style, is obsessed with finding a perfect girlfriend, and gives up numerous beautiful women in his pursuit. The Elaine character with pretty, rubber-faced, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is flighty and easy in her loves, enjoying the moment without regard to her future, outside of keeping her job. Michael Richards, as Kramer, Jerry’s neighbor, is tall, busting in the door, with hair like a skyscraper, and no obvious means of support; he mooches from Jerry constantly, messes up everything he touches, and is a passionate but inconstant lover. Little, fat, bald, nearsighted, despicably cowardly and lazy, but very charming George, played by Jason Alexander, is the main character of the show and the butt of most of the funny scenes. I loved the humor in Seinfeld, because it made me laugh often, never mind any serious message.
Physiologically, humor prompts laughter, which is an explosive eruption of nervous energy similar to sexual orgasm, and almost as pleasurable. Just as sexual orgasm is better and stronger with the suitable preparation of the nervous system which builds up nervous charge, a preparation not necessary in our teenage years. As teens we laugh just as easily over nothing much, having superabundant energy. When laugher is triggered, neurons in our pleasure center are strongly stimulated, and there follows a nervous discharge and a marked reduction in tension, ending in deep relaxation.
On the negative side, can laughter become addictive? Yes, like anything else that we do to excess, looking for laughter too often can cause problems. For one thing, too much time may be spent on playful pursuits, and less on gainful work. Also, much time and expense can be wasted in comedy clubs and theaters with smoke and drinks, or watching comedic shows on TV, neglecting other more uplifting offerings. It is especially pitiful to watch depressed people desperately trying to keep titillating themselves with poor jokes on the Internet, with friends, and relatives, when they should be doing something more constructive with their time. These people have read in articles on health that laughter is good for you and they are determined to have some laughter if it kills them.
Getting out there and killing the audience, actors like to say, is not to be desired by us philosophers. Instead, with our sense of humor few keep things in manageable proportions when tragedy strikes; when life’s reverses becomes too much to bear, we can turn to comedy and get relief. Tragedy will strike us with almost complete certainty and we prepare for it with a fine humor, making light of it; otherwise, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune may cause us to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. Hamlet had no sense of humor; otherwise, he would have seen how ridiculous it was for his uncle to murder his father, the king, and marry the queen, his mother, leaving the king’s ghost to roam around causing mischief.
I don’t know about the Danish sense of humor; such things vary from culture to culture. The Jews do not display much of it in their scriptures, some of which Christians chose to call The Old Testament. After the Diaspora and many persecutions they seem to have acquired loads of humor as a survival tool, and produced many comedians of star magnitude, such as Jerry Lewis, mentioned earlier, Jack Benny, Milton Burl, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld.
Humor can be something other than the verbal banderillas of Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David of “Seinfeld”. You can express something funny in musical sounds, or better, with certain noises; also with pictures; and movements, funny dances or pantomime. I don’t know of any funny skits with smells, perhaps you do (Coco Channel certainly does), but everybody knows about tickling, using the sense of touch. Red Skelton got lots of laughs with his silent sketches in pantomime. Certain noises are inherently funny, because they remind us of rude sounds, and rudeness in a playful way is an acceptable trigger for laughter.
Laughter therapy is accepted and commonplace today. Norman Cousins popularized it when he became very ill, beyond the power of physicians to heal him, and he followed a course of treatment watching the Marx Brothers and other comedy shows almost constantly until he became well again. Such a routine would drive me insane, but it worked for Cousins and it may work for you if you become deathly ill.
According to neurological studies, laughter involves the higher centers of the brain, such as the frontal lobe, but also our primitive limbic system, which we share with reptiles, which evolved before mammals like humans and rats. The limbic system is basic to survival in hunting and fighting. But our higher centers reduce the survival business and the fighting to a game of fun. I remember the wonderful scene at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in a concentration camp with Benigni, playing an Italian Jew. He marches with high steps and swinging arms in front of a German soldier to be shot, all for the benefit of his young son, hidden in a cabinet and watching.
The boy needed to learn how to face tragedy before being thrust into it. Laughter is our human gift for coping with an impossible and intolerable situation; that is, most of life, since we have the foreknowledge that disease, accident, old age, and death are surely going to come to us and those we love. Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Danish prince, has no sense of humor, because his story was meant to be tragic. After the dastardly uncle, the one who murdered his father the old king and married his mother, tempts Hamlet to engage in a duel for sport with Laertes, who is cahoots with the evil king, Hamlet is stung by his opponent’s poisoned sword; that is, after driving poor Ophelia crazy for loving him. Before dying, Hamlet learns from Laertes, who is scratched by the same deadly sword, that the king planned everything, and Hamlet sticks the poisoned sword into his stepfather’s body. That happens after the queen drinks by mistake from a cup of poisoned wine meant for her son. Those with no sense of humor to face life’s dirty tricks, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them. I say, laugh at your misfortunes and at the injustices done to you (what do you expect?) and live. If I have discouraged you now from going further into Shakespeare’s works, remember he also wrote hilarious comedies and some lovely sonnets, if you can stomach the archaic English.
Hilarity reduces hostility in us and in our perceived enemies. We cannot hit someone when we are laughing; we are too weak from the release of tension. Our enemy is less inclined to hit us when we are smiling or laughing in a friendly way. That way we approach strangers to make friends with them. A natural human reaction is to look upon strangers, or people who are different from us with suspicion; these humans are potential hazards for us and interlopers. We are much like dogs barking at any stray canine approaching our territory. We are able to overcome these tendencies and make friends of strangers by smiling, saying a joke, and breaking the ice with small talk.
Smile then often, and if you find the opportunity, crack a joke, be playfully aggressive and release tension with laughter in yourself and others. Make life bearable all around. Laughter produces endorphins which work like morphine to subdue pain and suffering. It is better for your health to find solace and comfort in laughter rather than pain killing drugs. Today we even have yoga centers for laughter with over 5,000 clubs worldwide, directed by Dr. Madan Kataria, because it has been said that laughter is the best medicine. If you are suffering physically or mentally, even if you are feeling well and want to feel better, you could go to one of these clubs; go to comedy shops; get into whatever makes you laugh outside of the cackle house, and go there more often; meet with people who also like to fool around and enjoy jokes; take classes and workshops in making laugh tracks. Laughter is contagious; hence, TV comedy shows play laugh tracks with each effort at a joke, in the hope they will cause a contagion. Good comedy shows, like Seinfeld, are performed and recorded in front of a live audience, avoiding phony laugh tracks, which are for me a definite turn off, meaning I turn off the television.