When funny isn't funny...

Psychology of humour
Last Updated 09 June 2012, 14:12 IST

Despite numerous theories that establish the link between laughter and health, we fail to look at the funny side of life. We get so caught up in the have-to’s and should-do’s that we forget to lighten up.  Have we chosen to cry, or not to laugh, wonders Tejaswi Uthappa.

Among a hundred other things that keep me upbeat after reading Dr A P J Abdul Kalam’s Ignited Minds, the one observation that has left me thinking is the amount of gloom the paper boy throws over our gates every morning.

You would be right in saying that our newspapers are really not to blame here — they are duty-bound to inform and make aware. From frivolous government policy and fickle polity to derailed wheels and separatist atrocities, not to mention exaggerated coup tales and related arms travails, there are a good 18-20 pages of distress articles to choose from every day, as company to the morning cuppa.

And, yes, all these can have a direct bearing on our lives. But, just to ease the pain, what harm could one come to, if all front pages started carrying stories that are more positive and encouraging?

Call me naïve, but we are a nation of achievers and a billion hopes — and what we get to see and read as first impact every morning, is that we are all in the wrong place!

The local laughter club seems to have the right response to thoughts like the above. There is ample scientific proof that happier people are healthier. Endorphins released as a result of hearty laughter induce a state of natural happiness that is infinitely more beneficial to health than any prescribed antidepressant.

With increasing stress levels and decreasing opportunities to, well, just be happy, it is ironic that even laughter has to be made a planned activity!

Let me make things clear here. My battle is not the one between optimism and pessimism — that’s passé. I am a realist. And even there, it is a slim line that parts practical realism from fatalism.

Very few appreciate this. Naturally, there are those that contemplate my daily dose of harmless banter and guffaw at my dreamy-eyed wish to, one day, live in a house on the top of a quiet hill, surrounded by the sea, a million stars shining over my night sky, a bunch of red-berried coffee bushes to complete the serene picture and soft saxophone notes wafting in with the breeze from the other side of the crackling bonfire! This mockery, usually, is their only shot at what they make out to be humour.

It is no different in the world of books. If the increasing number of exceptional fantasy writers of our time and their popularity was beginning to spur my interest thither way, the timelessness of a good romantic read or the connectedness of the day-in-the-life type paperback has kept the hopes of many a new writer alive.

But then, to completely extinguish the tiny hope rising in my laughter-hungry appetite comes a list of 101 most popular themes for books commissioned by a leading publishing house. Outside the realm of Self-help and Success markets, Darkness, Death, Destruction, Disillusionment, Displacement, Doubt and Downfall emerge as top takers with Quest and Escape closer to the lower rung in the order.

Humour, does not even figure as a regular listed.

Daily dose

But I have always been one that looks forward to my steady intake of ‘joke’. The smilie is my most favoured key on the cell phone keypad and Amul’s “utterly butterly delicious” line of the day is my first stop on Facebook. Thankfully, I am not alone. In fact, at a college seminar many years back, one of the students asked me if ‘humour’ had any sensible place in advertising (I was a young copywriter then, excited and full of dreams).

I personally believed that the best way to communicate in a memorable manner was to see, and show, wherever possible, the funny side of life. I was also fortunate to have mentors who believed in the effectiveness of calculated humour. It was a fact in the industry then and remains true to most writing in and outside it even now, that humour works, it is a niche category, it is best left to the experts, it is too dangerous to be attempted by the lesser able and it is a la ‘grapes are sour’, to most.

And so, it remains. Dread is a notoriously lucrative career. Open any acclaimed literary anthology, the tales will most usually be sensationalised around depravity of thought or futility of body.

The spirit, the free spirit within, remains imprisoned not only in real life but also in those masterful webs of words that win awards upon awards, inspiring more in that line, winding its way across media, slithering, hissing and spitting its juices incessantly iterating the same things variously. And we call this leisurely recreation.

Spare a thought!

What is it about despair, doom and disillusionment that they always find abundant audience? They manage even the smallest part in the drama we live out every day, and yet they enthuse insatiable appetites for more! After the daily news in print and more on television and the internet, are people not tired of their own share of realities that they will go out and spend money to delve into the same of someone else — even when it is a mere product of imagination, expertly crafted?

After some personal trials of sleepless nights and dazed days in between and other sniffles filling out the rest of unending time, when I seek to uplift my mood slightly so as to be ready for the next bout of discomfort, I see a familiar jacket in tantalising print, beckoning from the shelf at my bedside. Eager, I turn page upon page, and get drawn deeper and deeper into the grinds of another hassled being.

In another bid of desperation, I run a web search for the most recommended reads. Make no mistake, I strive to achieve the heights of storytelling and craftsmanship that the listed titles are revered for, but the top spots are still retained by the greats and their awe-inspiring works on existentialism, war and futility. Great names, greater words and hooked, though I am, I want out!

How can it be possible that absolutely nothing produced since — especially “light writing” as P G Woodehouse called it — fits the coveted mantels of excellence?! In this boundless sea of published authors, is it really the paucity of true talent that is to blame? Or is it sheer self-important affectation on the part of “certain critics” who cannot digest the “superior intelligence” that is the onus of the likes of Woodehouse himself and those that follow his trend?

Sadly, this is a cross-media disorder. I turn on the television and my favourite advertisement again tries to seduce me into buying the high-end car, now at an even better price.

I dream of the colour that would best suit my tastes and suddenly, a well-toned youngster walks out of a wall exposing the most sinister manipulation yet! Stranger psychosis follows a lame attempt at slapstick and I am all but renouncing hope. Click click click... what can go wrong here? It is the fabulously produced singing reality show with my pet singer delivering a faultless rendition. Faultless, to a fault, that is.

Disaster strikes and inexplicable audience votes boot out the week’s most worthy contender. Life!

Hunt for humour

Switch channel again! Respite, whither art thou?! Ha! Frasier Crane ... has left the building ... next ... it is not always Glee ... Gayle storms out of IPL after tabling 733 runs with 128 off a single match — wow! ... Adam Sandler simply won’t grow up and Steve Martin’s dozen will never let him. It is now down to Ek Mein Hoon Aur Ek Tu! when Golmaal Returns and we have choices! Finally! Happy choices. Time to relax, I put my feet up and lean back. After an eternity. This is what it is all about.

This is why enthusiasts invest in the meanest 3D technology and the coolest La-Z-Boy. Or, the handy little Kindle that will scour the Amazon of hundreds of thousands of titles to bring you fresh sparks like Winnie Buxani and Yash R Isaiah, co-authors of The Business of Con, a newly released laugh riot.

“After being conned several times in one month, we realised (over a cup of coffee) that we are not in this alone as the business of con is one sophisticated organisation we are all a part of,” explains Buxani. When they first thank the many that have conned them over the years and then, equally unashamedly, thank ‘themselves’ for the “bright idea” of turning these experiences into a book, you know right away that the following pages will crack you up.

And when they put in writing the “guarantee” of “non-stop entertainment in a bag of laughter with a pinch of salt” as their “disclaimer”, they define the very purpose of entertainment. In describing their effort as, “laughter therapy for the conned and the ones in the process of being conned”, Buxani, most kindly, grants an extended warranty to my fledgling hope of keeping a bothered mind off the humdrum, even if for the shortest while.

Now, tell me, why not? My mother gives the strangest reaction to any misery on telly or even any dreariness that dares expression in print. She looks to mass media for an escape. When she takes a break from the day, she looks to be truly entertained; to be able to leave then, in a more pleasant state of mind. Any other offering attracts scorn. I now tend to agree with her. Not so with the world’s various agencies of commemoration and awards, though. Or those after their glamorous recognition.

Nevertheless, there are more among those who are ‘entertainment’ personified. We are not talking of the likes of Ms Vidya Balan here, but of cleaner pictures, here in Bangalore.

I am referring to someone like ‘Ramsam’ (Rajesh Ramaswamy), Branch Creative Director at Lowe. A comedy magnet, when he begins to tell you a story, the most improbable and the most unthinkable will be the fact.

The plausible and expected may or may not hold truth. Like when, among other side splitting stories, he, quite matter-of-factly, describes the “art and science” behind advertising as, “all about guessing and gassing. The guess was the Art. And the gas was the Science,” few will disagree with the said; few more will end up with a hernia. His unrestrained narratives at ‘Dinchak Disco’ are the instant fix for the forlorn. May his ilk grow.

Reality check

But like for all things uplifting, including Russel Peters and his brotherhood, that can laugh at themselves, here is the catch: Funny has a shelf life. Funny is funny because it is not the norm, it comes as respite. That is why we enjoy it and might even crave it in its absence. But like any overstaying guest, too much funny, beyond a point, is not funny anymore. Worse, it can also become offensive and border on insensitive. And many among us are guilty of it. Indeed, funny is no funny business.

Presenting, the third reality — the one that sustains us. This reality that we are so rarely aware of lies between fleeting phantasmagoria and melancholia. It is this part of reality that keeps us rooted in the dips and dales of emotion, the truth and deceits of virtue and the paradox of relationship. It ‘is’ the pivot of existence.

Yet, it is this reality that is most difficult to relate. Too close to see clearly. Too ‘us’ to want to tell. Too uninteresting to want to know.

So again, in my bid to look for a change, when I tear my sides laughing to the wisecrack in an auditorium or skim the paperbacks lining my shelf, I see stories from my own reality and those close to me, retold over and over, differently, so that when I do partake of them, I see another’s tale, taking shape in another’s world, in another’s time. And while I might get tired of laughing or crying, it is the intensity of plot, the conflict of intention, the disappointment with perception, and the resonance of each of these aspects to my own experiences, strung in those artistic words and projected from those reels and discs, that reach deep within and stay in longer than the numerous humorous tales retold numerously. Until, of course, I laugh even that off.

Is it just human nature, then, to cherish something like laughter that will come and go and holds its value because it needs that little nudge? Is it our lot to ponder and dwell upon despondency and uncertainty that we identify with most — that, which will not leave anyway? Despite few new releases that promise to rouse a giggle and look at life in a lighter vein, the larger evidence seems to suggest so.

(Published 09 June 2012, 14:12 IST)

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