Let's laugh, seriously!

Last Updated 30 March 2013, 16:52 IST

A good sense of humour is god’s greatest gift to mankind. Looking at the humorous side of every situation can definitely make life a lot more easier. After all, nothing can equal the pleasure of a good belly laugh, writes Lakshmi Palecanda.

Where is your funny bone? Okay, the humerus is in the upper arm. But the term ‘funny bone’ also refers to your sense of humour. This is generally an individual’s ability to understand and appreciate when something is funny. Of course, the next question is naturally, what is meant by funny. For instance, there is this joke: Customer: Waiter, this soup tastes funny. Waiter: Then why aren’t you laughing?

Funny can mean either the ‘laugh out loud-funny’ or just strange, but the laughter itself is important. Gelotology is the study of laughter and its effects on us from both physiological and psychological perspectives. There is even a World Laughter Day, celebrated on the first Sunday of May. Humour is the quality that makes something laughable or amusing, and simply put, humour is serious business.

While humour is all about finding things funny, there is nothing funny about explaining humour. There are three times when you laugh at a joke: one, when it is told, two, when it is explained, and three, when you finally understand it. But, as we all know from bitter experience, there is nothing worse than having to explain a joke. For example, why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 8 9. Try explaining this joke, and you’ll feel the pain.

Humour itself is a strange beast. While we all enjoy a good joke, finding out why exactly we found it funny would kill us. As author E B White remarked, “Humour can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” I found this out at my own expense. Do you know that there are 11 theories of humour, three of them being the most popular? Now, that is not even funny, any way you take it.

Will you live longer if you have a good sense of humour, and laugh a lot? Yes, say a lot of researchers. A sense of humour aids good health and longevity through decreasing stress and depression. Even more startling, laughter has been shown to boost the immune system and increase tolerance to pain. One of the most important findings on laughter is that blood levels of key inflammatory compounds in patients with rheumatoid arthritis dropped considerably after they watched a humorous film.

As far as mental health goes, however, humour and laughter are two very important factors in encouraging happiness and a positive attitude about life. Laughter provides instant relief from stress, and leaves you feeling better and more refreshed, even if we can’t explain exactly in which way. “A good belly laugh is worth two cups of coffee and one trip to your therapist,” says Paul McGhee, president of the Laughter Remedy. Abraham Lincoln once commented to his aides during the Civil War: “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh, I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”

The funny side

So, where do we go for a laugh? There is an incongruity or absurdity that exists in life which can tickle your funny bone if only you see it. Babies that do funny things, boys who try to catch a pretty girl’s eye while acting unconscious of her presence, older men and women who try to conceal their ageing, the fights that old married couples have... the list is endless. Then you can read signs that you see on roadsides for example, and you’re sure to get a laugh out of it. I once saw a ‘Hotel Pyaridays’: I wonder if it promises heaven or lovable days. Then there is a PG (Paying Guest accommodation) that promises you a ‘career’ everyday for lunch. There is another wonderful place somewhere, where you can get a ‘Child Beer’. And there used to be a room in the Chennai International Airport which was called the Men’s Refusal Room.

Every situation has a ridiculous side to it. Seeing the humour in them takes our thinking out of the box. Take these for example: ‘Homicide victims rarely talk to police.’ ‘Man accused of killing Lawyer receives a New Attorney.’ ‘One-armed man applauds the kindness of strangers’. There is an absurdity in all these statements that is funny.
Then, there are always gaffes made even by smart people. Bill Clinton, former president of the USA, once said, “If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.” The anti-smoking spokesperson Brooke Shield has said, “Smoking kills, and if you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.” Of course, no one can come close to Lawrence Peter ‘Yogi’ Berra, a famous American baseball player, who is equally known for his ‘Yogi-isms’. Some of them are inspired: ‘I never said most of the things I said’, ‘If you come to a fork in the road, take it’, and ‘The future ain’t what it used to be.’

Wit always wins

Witty people, on the other hand, are able to take what others say, and turn it back on them. Sir Winston Churchill was known to be one such man. Once, the lively Lady Astor went up to him at a social function and said, “Sir Winston, if you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee.” To which he replied, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” At another party, Sir Winston had had a drop too many, and a woman commented, “You, sir, are drunk!” To which he replied, “And you, madam, are ugly. But tomorrow, I shall be sober. And you’ll still be ugly.”

Humour relaxes us and encourages creativity. For one, it mentally distances us from the problem for a while. If we keep working at a problem constantly and intensely, we lose perspective. When we get away from the desk, go out, have some fun and come back, solutions just pop into our heads. Here’s a joke about perspective: Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, Holmes woke Watson up and said: “Watson, look up at the sky, and tell me what you see.” Watson replied: “I see millions and millions of stars.” Holmes said: “And what do you deduce from that?” Watson replied: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth out there. And if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.” And Holmes said: “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”

Humour also causes our brains to better explore possibility in situations. Punch lines are funny mostly because they are unexpected, and we have to work at making the connections that make the joke funny. For example, here is a joke: A man speaks frantically into the phone, “My wife is pregnant, and her contractions are only two minutes apart!” “Is this her first child?” the doctor queries. “No, you idiot!” the man shouts. “This is her husband!” Get the point? Whether or not this is the perfect example, I just love this joke.

Sometimes situations get sticky, and there is no possible way out of them. At times like these, humour is the one way to get around the situation without loss of face or your head itself. George Bernard Shaw wisely said, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise, they’ll kill you.” The truth can be told inoffensively through humour. Here’s a joke that illustrates the point: A wealthy older gentleman had just recently married a lovely young lady, and was beginning to wonder whether she might have married him for his money. So he asked her, “Tell me the truth: if I lost all my money, would you still love me?” She said reassuringly, “Oh honey, don’t be silly. Of course I would still love you. And I’d miss you terribly.”

Humour is an excellent ice-breaker. It puts people at ease, breaks down barriers, and encourages acceptance. When you laugh with someone, you share something, an idea, a view or a mental picture. You’ve reached common ground, and it is easier to communicate from there. Former US President Ronald Reagan knew this well. Before he first met with Michael Gorbachev in the SALT talks with the Soviet Union, there was a great deal of tension. Reagan melted the chilly atmosphere of the meeting by telling Gorbachev this joke: Moscow has been having a terrible problem with people speeding, so the Moscow police were given strict orders to give anyone caught speeding a ticket. One day Gorbachev is late getting to the Kremlin, so he says to his driver, “You get in the back and let me drive. We’ll get there faster.” They speed by a couple of motorcycle cops, and one of them takes off after the car. He comes back 10 minutes later, and his buddy asks, “Well, did you give him a ticket?” “No, I didn’t.” “Why not? Who was it?” “I don’t know, but his driver was Gorbachev.”

Gorbachev loved the joke, and from that point on, tensions were eased and considerable progress was made in the bargaining.

Lost in translation

Translators often find themselves in sticky spots when they’re unable to convey the exact import of a joke. Once, former US President Jimmy Carter was at a college in Japan and had just opened his speech by relating an anecdote, when the audience laughed uproariously. When he asked why the joke had gotten such an extraordinary response, he received this reply from his Japanese interpreter: “I told the audience, ‘President Carter told a funny story; everyone must laugh’.”

But there are ways you can get into tricky situations through humour. Making ethnic, racist and gender-biased jokes which may be funny, but aren’t in good taste, will cause you to lose good will. Cruel jokes and sarcastic remarks made at others’ expense will never win you friends.

However, there are some other ways to get in trouble, like the one below.

Three women are about to be executed for crimes. One’s a brunette, one’s a redhead, and one’s a blonde. Two guards brings the brunette forward, and the executioner asks if she has any last requests. She says no, and the executioner shouts, “Ready... Aim...” Suddenly the brunette yells, “Earthquake!!” Everyone is startled and look around. She manages to escape. The angry guards then bring the redhead forward, and the executioner asks if she has any last requests. She says no, and the executioner shouts, “Ready... Aim...” The redhead then screams, “Tornado!!” Yet again, everyone is startled and look around. She too escapes execution. 

By this point, the blonde had figured out what the others did. The guards bring her forward, and the executioner asks if she has any last requests. She also says no, and the executioner shouts, “Ready... Aim...” The blonde shouts, “Fire!!”
Get it?

(Published 30 March 2013, 16:51 IST)

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