I believe in the necessity of humor and the healing power of comedy.
For one brief moment in our history, it seemed that there was no humor in the land–September 11, 2001. For the next few days, no jokes were passed among friends on the internet, comedy clubs closed down, and humorous columnists took the week off. Permission to laugh finally came when New York Mayor Rudolph Guilliani appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” Director Lorne Michaels asked the Mayor, “Can we be funny?” Guilliani quipped, “Why start now?”
This was a defining moment in our history, because Americans have always placed a high value on our ability to laugh. Comedy is encouraged by the democratic system, because we have posited higher ideals than we can reach–life, liberty, AND the pursuit of happiness, for heaven’s sake. Rather than berate ourselves, however, we engage in self-ridicule as a safety valve. It is the incongruity between the ideal and the real, between the dream and our failure to achieve it, to which most American humor is addressed. Has there ever been a time when we would not laugh at Mark Twain’s comment, “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress”?
Americans hold nothing above ridicule in the exercise of free speech–the law, the government, the President, religion, of the Pope. Few nations so willingly celebrate their failures and foolishness through hilarity than we do, and that is one reason we remain resilient and survive. A gauge of the success of our system has been our willingness to abide and absorb ridicule and comic criticism. Thus humor is essential because it gives us perspective and works as a corrective to adjust our hopes and expectations to reality and the possible.
As cartoonist Charles Schulz once said, reflecting on his heroic little man Charlie Brown, “I am convinced that one of the things which has helped man survive has been his sense of humor.” As if to prove him right, medical researchers have recently claimed specific health benefits in laughter. Some say it may optimize the immune system, which helps fight infection. Others say it may stimulate a mild cardiovascular workout or even produce endorphins, which attack stress hormones tied to depression, fatigue, and anger. The scientific jury is still out on such claims, but everyone agrees that even if it doesn’t cure you, it can’t hurt to laugh.
Isn’t it odd that intellectuals and academics have always valued the tragic and the serious over comedy and the light-hearted? Without the latter, how could we bear up under the former? Tragedy is the human condition we are powerless to change. Comedy is the only available remedy bedcause it posits freedom of choice and the possibility of regeneration. Tragedy is the harbinger of defeat, but comedy is the instinct for survival.
He who laughs today may survive to laugh another day. May the saving grace of comedy be with us always.
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