The Power Of Humor By Gerry Maguire Thompson
It’s my belief that humor is one of the greatest agents we have for good in this world. Humor is vital to human life, and probably always has been.
It is timeless, and occurs in all cultures. Everyone loves someone who is genuinely funny. Yet there is always something about it that remains mysterious and elusive. I’d like to look into it a little, with particular regard to its positive and constructive potential.
As a purely physiological phenomenon, science has pinpointed many of the benefits of laughter. It “generates powerful alternating cycles of arousal and relaxation”. (Sounds uncannily like sex, doesn’t it? Actually, the two really are alike, in more ways than one.)
Laughter benefits many of the body’s vital systems: the respiratory, cardio-vascular, hormonal and even immune system. The general muscular involvement of other parts of the body is beneficial too. Even smiling releases beneficial endorphins and hormones.
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At a more subtle level, scientific studies have shown that laughing a lot, and having a ‘sense of humor’, correlates with possessing good levels of energy, vigor and vitality.
Good mental health is the key factor in retarding midlife health deterioration, and this in turn has been shown to be characterized by “mature coping strategies, including humor”.
People who are asked to list life-affirming qualities most often name humor. Humor is a key factor in human bonding, relationships and social cohesion.
Nowadays, you can actually go out and get it for the benefit of your health; there is an increasing recognition of the potential for laughter and humor as tools for healing.
Of course, people have intuitively known of their benefits from ancient times. These have been included, for instance, in ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine’, one of the oldest health books in the world. Buddhist monks have long had the practice of going into villages where conflict was taking place, and just sitting there systematically laughing until everyone felt better disposed towards each other.
More recently, in the USA, Norman Cousins re-started the trend by recovering from ‘incurable’ illness by watching Marx Brothers movies. Following in his footsteps, prominent doctors such as Bernie Seigal and Patch Adams have become best-selling authors and made this an acknowledged branch of health work.
You may not yet be able to get a government Enterprise Allowance to start up in business as a Humor Therapist, but some possibilities do exist, even in this country.
Quite apart from comedians, clowns and so on, there are a number of individuals who earn their living from working with humor and health. Robert Holden is one of the better-known examples in the UK; he runs a NHS Laughter Clinic in Birmingham.
Many hospitals and health authorities around the country are beginning to bring in this kind of project. Holden and others also run workshops and seminars which you and I can attend without prescription.
But humor also functions in our lives in wider, deeper and more subtle ways. Humor can even be one of the best vehicles for serious ideas and ideals. Most of us can remember important teachers who have impressed us with their wit, while conveying great truths.
Ram Dass and the Dalai Lama are two of my favourites. Bagwan Shri Rajneesh (alias Osho) was also famous for laughing, all the way to the bank. Philosophers, orators and politicians, too, harness the power of humor, as can anyone who wants to put a message across, or to communicate on the subject of what life, is and how we might go about living it.
I’d like to look a little closer at some of the peculiarities of this powerful tool. First of all, there is a truism that many great humorists are also inclined to intense seriousness, or even depression – such as Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Tony Hancock.
To be able to scale the heights of hilarity, seemingly, it can be helpful to be familiar with plumbing the depths of gloom. To bring about that joyous feeling of togetherness with an audience in laughter, inspiration can come from the experience of isolation, loneliness and despair.
And another thing. Why is timing such a crucial matter in making people laugh – more so, it seems, than in other forms of communication? I suspect that this is a clue to some of the mystery of the subject.
Great comics can catch the perfect moment for delivery, while you or I may ruin a perfectly good joke by a badly timed punch line. Another peculiarity of humor is its individuality of appeal. Some people will love a particular gag, while others will hate it – the ‘groan” phenomenon. Humor seems to provoke extreme reactions, to bring out an all-or-nothing quality in our make-up. Why should this be so?
It seems to me, too, that there are distinctly different modes of humor. One could define two ‘poles’ of usage. At one end, there is the method that joins comic and audience in derision of a third party – exploiting their weakness, making them ridiculous – creating a sense of ‘we’re all together in this group over here, and they’re different and excluded and over there, and that makes us feel even more together, and much less insecure of our own identity etc’ – that kind of thing.
This pole forms the main fare of much stand-up comedy, as well as in much conversational humor, and is a close relative of the ‘use-the-F-word-as-much-as-you-can-’cos-that’s-really-funny’ school.
The alternative is another kettle of fish altogether – it doesn’t require third party suffering. The material might refer to a comedian’s experience that is embarrassing, or even ridiculous – showing up something which most of us would normally keep quiet about.
When the audience laughs, each individual is making a safe and tacit admission that they recognize this experience – that they have had some kind of experience of it – otherwise they wouldn’t get the joke. Issues that are highly delicate or touchy can be dealt with in this way – Woody Allen has been a good example (until recently, anyway).
Much joke making today is pure category one. The English laugh at the Irish. The Irish mock the Kerry men. New Yorkers deride the Poles. I can’t remember whom the Poles pour scorn on, but it must be someone. It all makes me wonder if perhaps the highest form of humor is indeed laughing at oneself.
Humor, in fact, is riddled with this sort of paradox. Laughter and humor involve building up tension, simply in order for it to be released. Just like sex – another occasion when we suddenly release tension and abandon control. Laughter and orgasm have much in common.
For humor, too, deals in creating intimacy with another party – that moment-to-moment in-touchiness with the receiver; being in contact with that mysterious fluctuating energy; having a finger on an audience’s collective pulse. (So that’s why timing is so important!)
Then, as comedy develops this relationship with the audience, there eventually comes some form of departure from expectation, some kind of surprise, some element of stepping into the unknown, some departure from the familiar and the accepted.
It’s a dance between security and insecurity, a “transport to the ridiculous” it has been called. One never quite knows what is going to come next. There is some familiar story, and then departure from it. It’s all about the rearrangement or disturbance of things, the hidden twist or bizarre development, the punch line.
This does more than just make us laugh; it has a radical subversive, even political effect, however subtle or obscured. Whether we realize or not, it nudges us into questioning how we look at things, how things are and how they could be, how we would like them to be.
Remember the Monty Python series that had false endings and false news items afterwards? Didn’t you see the ‘real” news in a somewhat different light, wondering if this was really it this time? For me, the news has never quite been the same since.
Perhaps this radical potential also explains why humor can produce such strong or opposite reactions. So it’s not only satire that gets us to question the accepted; all humor in a way plays tricks with our perception of how things are. And in bringing about change, altering perception is the hard part; once effected, outward change soon follows.
Then again, radical humor (like any radical movement) has a way of becoming conventional and staid before long, and then being ousted by a newer brand of inventiveness. So humor has its own cycles of fashion, cycles of anarchy, order and more anarchy.
But the landmarks stand out in an overview – the outstanding developments that draw us all into strange new terrain. The Goons and the Pythons have influenced world culture. Phenomena like these are not part of a gradual evolutionary process – they all make a radical departure from current trends, and produce something ‘completely different’.
As time passes, they become classics, with something of a timeless quality; as each comes and goes, humor is never quite the same again. Nor, as a result, is the world-view of those who are exposed to their messages. You could call it creative anarchy.
Great humor always involves that quality of a trip. The humorist is inviting us to go along somewhere, and we really don’t know where we’re going to end up. So it’s all really about being in the present moment.
The artist’s sensitivity to whether we’re still with him is crucial, so that we can trust him as he leads us into new perceptual territories. These experiences of the unfamiliar encourage us to let go, to cling less to what we know. We can step back from our habitual patterns – and laugh at them. Of course, we can get off the vehicle at any time – and the trip doesn’t involve any drugs.
Bernie Siegal says: “Humor’s most important psychological function is to jolt us out of our habitual frame of mind and promote new perspectives. People continue to see humor if they retain a childlike spirit – a sense of innocence and play”. Perhaps that really says the most important thing on the subject.
Children do all those things naturally. But we adults and more ‘conscious’ beings may sometimes need to do something special to get back into that mode.
Even if some sense of ‘what humor actually is’ begins to emerge, there must always remain the inexplicable in it, for humor is inherently run through with contradiction and enigma. There is the alternation of depression and merriment, those opposite reactions that can be produced, the potential for either ruthless exploitation or compassionate beneficence.
Exploring paradox and opposites is at humor’s core, part of its basic method. Hence the possibilities for revealing the deeper nature of the familiar by investigating the unfamiliar; creating new order through anarchy and chaos; plucking sophisticated insights out of silliness; developing maturity through being childish; and clarifying purpose via pointlessness.
Laughter itself embodies this nature. When we’re really doing it, we don’t know whether we’re laughing or crying. We don’t know whether we’re loving it or hurting. These poles become more like different points on a circle, rather than opposite ends of a piece of string.
Looked at this way, manic depression and euphoric hilarity are not such strange companions after all; humor is merely reflecting constantly the inherently enigmatic quality of life itself.
Humor offers a helpful habit of connecting the circle, of bringing together that which has been overly divided from itself. It creates at-one-ness, whether within a group of people or between an individual and all else that is.
In keeping us totally in the present moment, humor puts us in touch with the very truths that are timeless and unchanging. But giving ourselves over to it can take some courage – to abandon the security of the familiar, leave dry land and step into uncharted waters, jump off the earth and float free.
Humor sparks us out of our tendency to existential uncreativity and lack of imagination. Humor is profoundly creative, both in the giving and in the receiving. Laughter naturally reaches into parts of us that more expensive therapy may not be able to. It really is about how we are choosing to be.
Hardly surprising, then, that it occupies such a special place in our civilization. Nor that, in the end, it still cannot be fully pinned down and understood – as soon as you think you’re beginning to do that, it’s gone off somewhere, doing something else – something completely different. Understanding it fully would be the death of it.
So the fabric of funniness, like the emperor’s clothes, remains ultimately invisible. Probably in the end it’s better to not even think about it, but just be like the children and make room in our lives for laughter, play, adventure and togetherness.
The planet would really like that. Gerry Maguire Thompson is an author, comedian and training facilitator. . Connect with Gerry at www.gerrythompson.co.uk
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