“The true purpose of humor (is) to help people cope with the fears and horrors of the world.”
– Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele
No matter what one’s political preferences or party affiliation, recent events have generated a growing sense of anxiety.
Just check the headlines: “DACA Kids To Be Deported;” “Hurricane Harvey Drowns Houston;” “Irma Batters Florida;” “Growing International Terrorism;” “Deadly Confrontations Regarding Civil War Monuments” and, “North Korea Detonates H-Bomb.”
Given all of this, I’m beginning to believe that the only way to deal with the daily assault of real news, bad news, and fake news in our lives is to laugh at it and with it.
Humor and joke-telling are more than just foolish fun. Humor and joke-telling can also serve as a safety valve or a coping mechanism for dealing with reality. Telling jokes can, at times, detox if not completely explain away some of the unsolvable mysteries of existence as well as some of the nagging problems we wrestle with day to day.
Joking about a “domestic topic,” a “deep topic” or a “dangerous topic” is a way of examining it in a manner that doesn’t scare us, numb us or rob us of our joy in life. Laughter and joke-telling are a way to speak the unspeakable. Humor gives us the courage to endure that which we cannot understand or avoid.
On the last week of his politically significant and culturally altering comedy program, The Daily Show, Jon Stewart elegantly encapsulated the time-honored role and purpose of jesters, fools, comedy, comics and joke-telling by telling his audience: “Jokes are a narrative that help us negotiate reality.” Joke-telling is an assault on the absurdity, perplexity and the incomprehensibility of life. Humor allows us to deal with the unavoidable, the irresolvable and the unanswerable.
Humor is not a cure for life but it can be a helpful temporary anesthesia.
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 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.
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. 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.
Jokes allow 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.”
Both seriousness and silliness are critical parts of a meaningful life.
Al Gini is a professor of business ethics in the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago. He is the co-founder and longtime associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly, the journal of the Society for Business Ethics. For over 27 years he was the resident philosopher on WBEZ-FM, and can currently be heard on WGN Radio.