It’s my belief that humour is one of the greatest agents we have for good in this world. Humour is vital to human life, and probably always has been. It is timeless, and occurs in all cultures. Yet there is always something about it that remains mysterious and elusive. Please join me in taking a look into humour’s positive and constructive potential – and its mystery.
People who are asked to list humanity’s most life-affirming qualities usually include humour. Humour is a key factor in human bonding, relationships and social cohesion. But humour also functions in our lives in wider, deeper and more subtle ways, and can be one of the best vehicles for very serious ideas and ideals.
There are distinctly different modes of humour – one could define two broad ‘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.
The other end of the spectrum doesn’t depend on third party suffering. The material might refer to a humorist’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 recognise this experience – that they experienced 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 always been a great example.
Much joke-making today is pure ‘category one’. The English laugh at the Irish. New Yorkers deride the Poles. I can’t remember who the Poles pour scorn on, but it must be someone. But I believe that the highest form of humour is indeed laughing at oneself.
Humour, in fact, is riddled with this sort of paradox. Laughter and humour involve building up tension, in order for it to be suddenly released: just like sex – another occasion when we suddenly release tension and abandon control. Laughter and orgasm have much in common. For humour, too, deals in creating intimacy with another party – that moment-to-moment in-touch-ness with the receiver; being in contact with that mysterious fluctuating energy; having a finger on an audience’s collective pulse. Maybe that’s why comic timing is so important!
Then, as performed 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 a familiar story, 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 realise 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 begin to see the ‘real” news in a somewhat different light? Perhaps this radical potential also explains why humour can produce such strong or opposite personal reactions. So it’s not only satire that gets us to question the accepted; all humour 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.
Great humour always involves that quality of a ‘trip’ – the humorist is inviting us on a journey and we don’t know where we’re going to end up. So it’s really all 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. And this trip doesn’t involve any drugs.
A sense of ‘what humour actually is’ is beginning to emerge, yet there must always remain something of the inexplicable, for humour 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 humour’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. At its extreme, 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; humour is merely reflecting constantly the inherently enigmatic quality of life itself. Humour 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, humour 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. Humour sparks us out of our tendency to existential un-creativity and lack of imagination. Humour 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 contact. It really is about how we are choosing to be.
Hardly surprising, then, that humour occupies such a special place in our civilisation. Nor that, in the end, it still cannot be fully pinned down and understood. Understanding fully might be the death of it.
So the fabric of funniness, like the emperor’s clothes, remain 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.