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“Man is the only animal who enjoys the consolation of believing in a next life; all other animals enjoy the consolation of not worrying about it.” ~Robert Brault
Laughter is so quintessentially human.
Hyenas may sound like they are laughing, but that is just us anthropomorphizing as always, trying to see ourselves in everything. Thus, while scientific studies have shown that certain species emit laughter when tickled1, human laughter goes beyond a mere physiological response to stimuli. “Although nonhuman primates laugh, human humor seems to involve more specialized cognitive networks that are unshared by other species…. A sense of humor—especially adult humor—requires cognitive mechanisms that may not be present in other species.”1
So while there is some basis for laughter in other animals, a sense of humor appears to be unique to human beings.
But why? What about our existence makes laughter so necessary?
Interestingly, I only seriously pondered this question while teaching Hamlet, arguably one of the most famous tragedies in all of literature. Towards the end of play, there is a scene where a gravedigger sings as he tosses skulls about, making puns about the living and the dead, seemingly unfazed by the evidence of human frailty and impermanence that surround him. This attitude sharply contrasts with the depressed prince of Denmark’s who is somewhat disturbed by the gravedigger’s irreverent humor.
Studying this scene led to an interesting question: why did Shakespeare decide to include this bit of comedy in what is otherwise so obviously a tragedy?
And while there are many possible answers, I found the most compelling argument to be that this is Shakespeare demonstrating humor as a healthier reaction to the absurdities of life, and specifically in this play to the awareness of one’s own mortality, than depression or inaction, which is how Hamlet deals with death.
Because life and in particular, death, is just that – absurd. It is hard to digest the ridiculous fact that one moment we are here – living, breathing, feeling; a whole network of neurons making meaning out of the meaningless – and then in another moment, we are gone. Poof. No return. No proof of anything after.
Writer and philosopher Albert Camus explored this harsh reality. He proposed that there are several possible reactions when confronted with life’s absurdities: like Hamlet is for the majority of the play, we can be defeated by it (depression or suicide); or we can invent stories that help us cope with it (religion); or we can be courageous and keep striving for goodness and greatness regardless of the potential futility of our struggles.
Or in other words, we can laugh in the face of death. We can find humor in what should be an utterly humorless subject and thus prove that we are not undone by our awareness. We can choose to be brave by chuckling, giggling, and guffawing even though we are creatures that live day after day, knowing that each one may be our last. As beings who ponder the purpose of our existence and its finite nature, we need laughter. It is a way of giving the Grim Reaper a big fat middle finger, an act of defiance, a refusal to submit to the absurdity that is life.
This defiant aspect of humor is thoroughly explored in Rudolf Herzog’s book Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany. In it, Herzog demonstrates how the German people found what little voice they had through humor. For example, there’s the one about Hitler and Göring standing on top of the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the Berliners’ faces. Göring says, “Why don’t you jump?”
When a woman told this joke in Germany in 1943, she was arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to death by guillotine. While I’m sure she didn’t consider her little joke an act of sedition, the fact that by 1943, 1192 people were executed for similar offenses demonstrates the subversive power of humor.
Jokes are not merely something to be dismissed; they carry a weight, a spirit of resistance that those in power fear. To find humor in the difficulty, the unpredictability, and the unfairness of life is a form of rebellion in itself.
Yet, some people might argue that this type of humor is not always a good thing, that to laugh at poverty or war or cruelty is to downplay or distract from these serious issues. But this criticism assumes our entire existence consists of jokes, which unfortunately it does not. Comedy is only a momentary reprieve from reality. It is merely a pressure valve, necessary for venting the vapors of sorrow that might otherwise suffocate our existence.
This is exactly the sensation I experience when watching The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Both force me to face the idiotic action (or inaction) of our government and the bigotry and ignorance of human beings without wanting to cry in frustration or hopelessness…or at least they help me to laugh through the tears. Similarly, a show like the new Ricky Gervais series, Derek, helps me to confront aging, dying, and mental disability, subjects I would otherwise be likely to avoid, with humor and grace.
And in this way, we are lucky. Because even though life can be painful and filled with injustices and hardships, human beings will always have humor to help them cope.
1Bering, Jesse. “Rats Laugh, but Not Like Humans.” Scientific American. A Division of Natural America, Inc. 22 June 2012. Web. 23 October 2013. <www.scientificamerican.com>.