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Why We Need More Humor in Our Lives

“The true purpose of humor (is) to help people cope with the fears and horrors of the world.”

– Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele


I have been lucky enough to have had a very special person in my life, my Uncle Joe. Every time I saw him he would put his arms around me and whisper in my ear: “Did you hear the one about…?” And then he would tell me a joke. Until the week of his death, Uncle Joe never failed to greet me in this way, and only rarely did he ever repeat himself. On one occasion, in my teens, when I was feeling somewhat rebellious and somehow embarrassed by this tradition, I abruptly pulled away from him and asked why he was always telling me jokes? Uncle Joe took a step back, smiled at me and said: “Because I love you stupido! If I didn’t love you why would I want to make you happy? Why would I want to make you laugh? Listen to me, a joke is a gift and sometimes a weapon that we can use against reality. Jokes aren’t always enough, but they can help, capice?”

Like my uncle, Mel Brooks believes that we need humor, we need jokes in our lives because otherwise our “collective lamentations” about the trials and tribulations of the world would be unbearable. That’s why, says Brooks, for every ten people God creates, he designs one to be a comic to entertain and distract the others. We need jokes, says Brooks, as “a defense against the inverse.” We need humor to fight off our fear of living, our fear of the unknown, the unanswerable, and the unacceptable. For Brooks and my Uncle Joe, humor makes life endurable and worthwhile.

No matter what one’s political predilections, recent events have precipitated a growing sense of confusion and uncertainty across our socio-political landscape. Just check the headlines: “Russian Election Tampering”; “Houston Underwater”; “Hurricane Hits Florida”; “The Rise of Racial And Inner City Violence; “The Emergence of Jingoistic Nationalism”; and, “Deadly Confrontations Regarding Civil War Monuments/Statues;” and “North Korea Detonates an H-bomb.” Given all of this, I think we should play close attention to my Uncle’s and Mel Brooks’ sage-like advice.

Comedy, humor, and more specifically joke telling are a means of dealing with the everyday problems of life as well as many of the more elusive and mysterious questions of existence. Humor can, at times, illuminate if not completely explain away some of the irresoluble problems and mysterious that all of us face. And, if all else fails, humor at the least can hold off our fear of the unanswerable and the unacceptable.

The simple fact of the matter is that life is harsh and fraught with trials and tribulations. Although humor/joke telling is neither a permanent cure nor a direct answer to all of life’s challenges, jokes can serve as a temporary reprieve and antidote to the tribulations of life. To paraphrase the satirist Christopher Buckley, humor like alcohol, at least makes our problems and other people momentarily less troublesome.

Memoirist, Andrew Hudgins suggests that, as a species we love to joke, “need to laugh” because there is a “punctuating power to humor”. Jokes are weapons made of words. They allow us to take on taboos, poke fun at life, and mock human frailty. Humor, jokes, and laughter can act both as a sword and a shield to defend ourselves against life. At least for a while, humor can detox the mysteries and make the unknown, the intolerable, and the utterly unavoidable more bearable.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who, believe me, wasn’t a particularly funny type of guy, suggested that to gaze too long into the “gapping abyss” of the unanswerable and unfathomable issues/questions of life leads to despair and futility. Humor, laughter, and joke telling are a way to gaze into the abyss, confront the unknowable, and perhaps find comfort and perspective even if no absolute answers are to be found. Humor can offer alternative insights and perspective, some relief from our existential crises and fears, and it can also help us bear the unbearable and deal with the insoluble. Humor allows us to gaze into the abyss and not be defeated. Humor allows us to defang and domesticate our collective fear of the “booming, buzzing, confusion of reality.”

It has also been argued that humor is a triumph over narcissism. Humor prevents us from perceiving reality as a personal attack or a personal affront. Humor is about the ability to transcend self. It’s the ability to celebrate our collective experiences and essential sameness. Humor allows to laugh at our personal and collective vulnerability. Humor is a celebration of how the frailties of others are also our own. The humorless person is often too self-absorbed, too aggressively self-centered, and too myopic to see beyond the needs, wants, and desires of self. Humor has to do with transcending the ambivalence, absurdity, fragility, and nonsense of life. The essence of humor is the ability to laugh both with and at life. It is the ability to appreciate the whimsical, the silly, as well as the absolutely ludicrous and absurdly incongruous aspect of life. It is the ability to step back and be amused, delighted or surprised by life.

I believe that humor is a kind of mourning and mocking of the human condition. Humor accepts the human condition as sad-scary, and then talks about it, pokes fun at it, and laughs at our feeble response to it. In so doing, it frees us from dread. It softens the blow of reality. At bottom, humor is a form of joyful disillusionment; that is, humor allows us to endure without false illusion or fear the paradoxes and perils of life.

To joke about politics, illness, death, God, sex, or age is my way of defanging or domesticating something that essentially cannot be tamed. It is a way of being in charge of something that we really cannot control or completely understand. Joking about a “deep topic” or “dangerous topic” is a way of talking about it, examining it in a way that doesn’t scare us, numb us, and rob us of our joy for life.

Jokes allows us to dwell on the incomprehensible without dying from fear or going mad. Laughter and joke telling are a way to speak of the unspeakable. Humor gives us the courage to endure that which we cannot understand or avoid. As the late, great American “philosopher” Joan Rivers succinctly put it: “If you can laugh at it, you can live with it.”

Jokes are an attempt to illuminate and disarm the irresoluble contradictions our lives are built on. Humor is an assault on the perplexity and the incomprehensibility of life. Developing a sense of humor, telling jokes need not be just a flippant attitude we take in regard to life, but rather a profoundly philosophical way of looking at the world.

The reality is that all too often we cannot change or control the facts of life or the course of our fate, but we can control our attitude in regard to the particular facts of our fate. For me, humor laughter, and joke telling is the attitude one choses to face the irrelevant, the tragic, the absurd, and the overwhelming matters of life that are beyond our control and comprehension. Of course, there is a caveat: Humor is not a cure for life, but it can be a helpful temporary anesthesia!

I am convinced that laughter demonstrates and reinforces our humanity, encourages hope, and allows us to endure with dignity. Both seriousness and silliness are critical parts of a meaningful life. I am also deeply convinced that the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was absolutely correct when he said: “People of humor are always in some degree people of genius.”

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