By Jumana Hassouneh
Humor is the human capacity to perceive what is funny, is a form of entertainment and often is a way to cope with difficult situations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, comedy has been effectively used to cope with this dark reality.
There is no doubt and there is nothing new in saying that laughter and humor are key elements that improve an individual’s mood and relieve stress. Similar to past experiences, humor during the current worldwide crisis is being used to alleviate stress relating to such issues as authority, economy and politics. This article will discuss how humor has been used as a tranquilizer, to calm people’s nerves during the corona pandemic by analyzing and reviewing two articles: Tom Mctague ‘s “Yes, Make Coronavirus Jokes,” published in The Atlantic and Alex Williams’ the New York Times piece, “It’s OK to Find Humor in Some of This.”
According to Mctague (2020), humor is recommended at times of hardship, the COVID-19 pandemic being the case in point. The author shares his personal experience during the pandemic: The flow of jokes that he received on his mobile phone and the determination to keep on laughing despite the crisis. In his piece, William relays coronavirus-centered joke memes, Twitter wisecracks, and self-produced comedy sketches that became common from the very beginning of quarantine. However, a bewildering question remains: How can an individual mentally reconcile the tragic news about death caused by the virus, and still see and enjoy the comedy that people share on the Internet? More generally, why do people laugh during a crisis? What is it about tragedy that is so funny?
Laughing Throughout History
Why we use humor has been a mystery throughout history. Mctague explains that employing humor to mock those who hold power is long, starting from the time of Plato and Aristotle until today.
He claims that humor was discovered to have the power to undermine authority and defeat political opponents: it is a strategy that can channel and wipe out sadness. For example, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was mocked for his missteps in handling the corona crisis and his authority undermined in a manner far more deadly than any his political opponents could inflict using regular means. “On Sunday, after Boris Johnson—recently diagnosed with COVID-19—announced that he would send every household in Britain a letter urging people to follow social distancing guidelines, I received a doctored picture of the prime minister, red-nosed with watery eyes, licking an envelope, captioned: “Whatever you do, don’t open the letter from Boris,” Mctague writes.
He cites the late Professor Robert Provine, a professor at the University of Maryland who became one of the world’s leading scholars on laughter, who writes that aside from undermining authority we laugh with others to show that we, as individuals, are nonetheless similar, which gives us the pleasure of acceptance”: We laugh because it is a form of social bonding.
Social Solidarity and Empowerment
Provine, in his documentary “ Why We Laugh,” asks people in public places about their reasons for laughing. He came to the conclusion that “Social laughter is 30 times more frequent than solitary laughter and the discovery here was basically the relationship between individuals was causing the laughter not the jokes “(Why We Laugh, 3:47).
Tim Minchin, the British Australian comedian, actor, and composer agreed that people laugh at times of crisis because reverting to humor and laughter gives them a sense of security and a sense of power. As people have to face the challenge of isolation due to the implemented restrictions on social gatherings, and as one usually leans on others to cope with fears, comedy often works best in this shared experience, because it brings relief. In fact, it is not only the isolation but also the feeling of powerlessness in preventing the spread of this virus, which causes distress and necessitates a break. Humor, as a result, can be used as a shield, to overcome this feeling of isolation and powerlessness.
Relief, but as the Expense of Others?
David Baddiel, the British comedian and writer, in an interview with McTeague , said that people want and need jokes because they are a relief. They relieve, and they “take the edge off danger”; because they are a way of processing and sharing experiences; “If we’re all finding this experience of being forced to stay at home funny, it’s reassuring, a form of collective therapy. We can’t really do much about these things, but we can laugh in the face of them. In a godless society, it’s the one eternal victory we have.”
Tim Minch considers jokes as: “a way to give power to the person who is facing the threat and rejects the idea that making jokes is inappropriate at this critical time.” However, there is a negative side to humor: Jokes that are at the expense of others. Humor takes on a negative side when jokes happen to target the vulnerable, the sick, or the oppressed minorities.” Jokes can be mean and derisive, picking on those who are different, establishing who is inside the group and who is not.
Humor in its Place
McTague makes an important distinction: “We laugh with people to belong, and at others to exclude.” During this pandemic, jokes would be considered off-color if they were about people’s deaths due to the lack of respirators, or about the domestic violence and child abuse during quarantine. There is also differences between types of jokes. Williams stresses that humor in times of isolation leads to healthy states of mind and it might be a way to hold on to one’s sanity, as it is the only thread of hope. A clear example of this is what Mary Ber, who is a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust wrote in her diary that laughter at that time was actually a weapon.
In his Atlantic article, Williams cites The Last Laugh, a documentary film about the Holocaust as an example of how it is appropriate to use humor during a crisis. The Jews in the documentary, survivors, described jokes as “revenge through ridicule.” Ferne Pearlstein, the director of the film, “Found that humor was not uncommon — and was used as a coping mechanism in situations of the almost unimaginable horror, as a means of self-defense, a counterattack for people who had few, if any, other ways of fighting back, and even as just a simple diversion.”
In quarantine humor, people generate so many jokes about shared experiences such as self-isolation, overeating and Facebook groups. Those who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are thankful for virus jokes which draw a smile and a fleeting distraction. Although humor is usually about a variety of topic — baby boomers, political leaders, Generation Z, Tik Tok, any topic other than the coronavirus now seems meaningless and comedy professionals are challenged to stay relevant in the material they address.
Humor, then, is a double-edged sword. At this time of the COVID -19 crisis, humor helps us relieve tension, keep our spirits up and boost our resilience. However, we should be careful when using jokes, particularly among people who may not appreciate them, as well as unhealthy humor that is to cope with painful emotions.
We will get through the current crisis. Till then, we will try to find its lighter side.
Mctague,T, (2020, April 3 ), Yes, Make Coronavirus Jokes. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/04/humor-laughter-coronavirus-covid19/609184/
Why we laugh, directed by Robert Province. The Atlantic, 2014.
Williams, A, (2020, April 22 ), It’s ok to find humor in some of this. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/style/coronavirus-humor.html