Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Healing Power of Laughter?

Humor is powerful. It can heal or it can cut like a razor. One of the best episodes of Seinfeld has Jerry’s dentist, Tim Watley, convert to Judaism and then tell Jewish jokes. This offends Jerry, not as a Jew, but as a comedian. Consider these three jokes (borrowed from Richard Beck’s experimental theology blog):

1. Why was Helen Keller such a bad driver? Answer: Because she was a woman.

2. What is great about having Alzheimer's on Easter? Answer: You can hide the eggs and look for them.

3. What does an Ethiopian chicken look like? Answer: Ethiopian chicken? What’s that?

Good jokes are highly compressed, which demands that the listener fill in a lot of background assumptions, values, and beliefs that make the joke work. If the listener cannot fill in this background he doesn’t “get it” and the joke fails to produce laughter. Last month I was on a flight from Nairobi to London when a woman sitting next to me sneezed. I turned to her and said, “You’re soooo good-lookin.” She laughed, but others sitting near us did not. If you don’t “get” a joke, no amount of explaining makes the joke suddenly funny to you. You can’t explain a joke into being funny. You either get it, or you don’t. This feature of a joke - its demand for you to supply the background information - makes jokes a form of community building. When someone likes our jokes we’ve found a soul mate, a kindred spirit, someone who sees the world the same way we do. People are attracted to people who make them laugh. This is the joy of laughter and humor. But there is a dark side. This feature of jokes also makes them forms of exclusion.

Take the three jokes above. All three are compressed and require you to fill in backgrounds and stereotypes. The Helen Keller joke works only if you share a stereotype about women drivers and know that she was a blind and deaf mute. The Ethiopian chicken joke only works if you know that country has a long history of famine and if you understand certain livestock and agrarian patterns of east African cultures. Those shared stereotypes and knowledge make the jokes work. But what if you didn’t know any of that? Does my explaining this to you make you laugh? No. If you have to have a joke explained to you it only intensifies your feeling of exclusion. Getting it or not getting it immediately marks insiders and outsiders. No amount of explanation will offset the realization that you were “too stupid” to be an “insider.” Also, if a joke is a stereotype then the joke adds salt to the wound. Some of you (women) might have found the Helen Keller joke offensive. Why? Because as a woman, you are excluded by the joke and offended by the negative stereotype that functions as the mechanism of exclusion.

How about the Alzheimer's joke? Is it funny? It all depends on who makes the joke. If a person suffering from Alzheimer's tells the joke then we see the joke as funny, because it is a form of dark humor. An Alzheimer's patient has a right to tell this joke because he is an insider to the world of the joke. If told by an outsider (me), the joke is mean. This is why black comedians can use the “n” word and white comedians cannot. It's a matter of insiders versus outsiders. Jokes are boundaries. Jokes mark off a space of shared attitudes and experiences. A joke is compressed because it functions as a kind of test. Do you share my view of the world? Are you with me? Are you an insider or an outsider? This is why jokes are both wonderful and wounding. They are wonderful when they are shared, but jokes wound when they exclude people and use stereotypes. Jokes become contested when outsiders attempt to enter the space before gaining the consent of the insiders. This is why the ethnicity of a person telling an ethnic joke is vital to understanding the nature and function of the joke. Jokes are complex and morally treacherous (eg: All in the Family). They bring us together and force us apart. Jokes are serious business!

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