Laughter’s the best medicine. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. But is it true?
Like most of you, I suppose, I tend to subscribe to the idea of a good laugh being a panacea. Science seems to back this assumption. Laughter, it’s said, helps decrease stress, support the immune system, improve blood pressure, even to reduce pain.
In Britain, my homeland, you can’t survive without a sense of humour. The playwright Alan Bennett described it as being the amniotic fluid of the English. He’s right. We swim in it.
It was strange for me when I first came over to the States to find how much more literal Americans are. There are English who are also very literal. But they tend to be those dull, let-me-tell-you-about-the-intricacies-of-my-route-to-work types, whose conversation is best avoided.
Most English infuse their chat with mockery, irony, satire: a full arsenal of comedic devices that is so part of the way the English communicate that no one even stops to question it.
But perhaps we should.
The only other culture I’ve been around in which humour serves such an integral role is Jewish culture.
Why is that, I wonder?
When I think about those cultures and what they share in common the thing that comes to mind first is an abiding respect, bordering on obsession, with knowing things. It’s been said that when Jews turned secular they replaced faith with a veneration of knowledge. I’d argue that something similar has gone on in England. You can see this through the widespread popularity of the quiz. English TV is filled with them and if you go to an English town on any given day you’re certain to find a general knowledge quiz going on in a pub somewhere.
It makes sense to me that these twin obsessions of being smart and being funny run hand-in-hand. It’s a connection we already implicitly make when we call someone quick-witted. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who values a great comic as much for their insight as for their ability to make me laugh.
The Jews and the English are comic cultures, but my favourite ever comedian hailed from neither of those worlds.
Bill Hicks was from Austin, Texas, from a family of God-fearing Republicans. He wasn’t a God-fearing Republican himself but, luckily for us, he did have a sense of humour about it.
When I came to the US I assumed everyone would know him but, aside from a small devoted following, he’s mostly overlooked.
This piece was originally going to be just about Hicks. He died 20 years ago this year and I was going to start off saying how even though it’s two decades since he’s gone he pops into my head nearly every day. That’s a crazy thing to say isn’t it! I mean, I don’t think about my family that much and I lived with them half my life. The closest I got to Hicks were his videos, a collection of diaries and many many repeat viewings of his standup on Youtube.
There are many things I love about him. His passion, his integrity and the way that, in common with all great artists, his work transcended his art. He created standup that was not only funny, but also artful and poetic, meaningful and confronting.
He challenged his audiences to free themselves from the straight jacket of modern consumer culture, and to think for themselves. In one trademark routine, with reference to the movie Basic Instinct, which had just come out, he talks about how our critical faculties are being assaulted by manufactured hype.
He warns the audience not to get caught up in the controversy surrounding the movie’s lesbian sex scenes (which were perhaps more scandalous then than they would be now). Instead he countenances you to take a deep breath, step back and have another look.
“Ahhh…It’s a piece of shit!”
His point being that we already possess the skills to judge. We just need to shut out the white noise of the culture and get back in touch with our own instincts. Our basic instincts, if you like.
A lot of his act is like this. Him critiquing culture and then offering you new ways to think about things. His mum once told him that his act was very near preaching, a point he apparently acknowledged.
In another part of his act he tells the people who work in marketing in the audience that they should kill themselves because “you’re fucked and your fucking us”. He tells them that this is their world, and imagines them sleeping untroubled after they’ve just decided to market cyanide as a baby food.
It’s an aggressive broadside and not altogether fair and when he keeps repeating the idea that they should kill themselves you can almost sense the discomfort among the audience as they ask themselves, ‘Is he being serious? Or is he joking?’
Hicks’ marketing rant is a good example of the ambiguity of humour. On the one hand, he’s telling you in fairly bald language his hatred for a segment of the population he feels are poisoning our collective psyche. But because everything he says is in the context of a comic performance, ultimately we can walk away knowing it was all just meant as a joke.
And that’s the problem with laughter. While it might be a good way to lighten your worries, it can also be convenient avenue to avoid dealing with them.
Comics and their defenders (of which I’ll admit I’m usually one) often use the self-justifying argument that comedy is a good vehicle to talk about serious issues in a way that is more accessible. But by telling us it’s okay to laugh about things maybe comics are actually making it easier for us to get off the hook from worrying about them.
I know in my own life I’ve frequently been in the habit of turning my problems into a joke. And while that might provide half an hour’s entertainment for your friends in the bar, I can’t help feeling in retrospect I’d have been far better served soliciting my friend’s advice rather than their laughter.
There are times these days I’ll find myself surrounded by laughter at the movies during scenes that I am certain are not even meant to be funny. I get the impression there are people so afraid of not getting the joke, they’ll laugh at anything. I used to be more that way. And I don’t think it’s a good thing. To me it suggests an emotional disconnect. A nervousness.
Maybe an appreciation of humour should be more like an appreciation of sex. If you spend all your time shagging then the act becomes bloated. But when you have sex when you really feel like it and with the person you really feel like doing it with then the act can be intoxicating and charged with meaning.
It could be that comedy doesn’t always have to be funny (in Shakespeare’s time comedy referred to a relationship drama that ended in marriage). So maybe we’re missing out on something when we regard shows like The Office only as comedies. Maybe the seriousness of Michael Scott (David Brent in the original British version) is just as important as his ridiculousness.