Who hasn’t responded with laughter to one of the most famous sketches in the history of British television comedy, the ‘Dead Parrot Sketch’ from Monty Python’s Flying Circus?
Well, one person comes to mind. A rival political party had adopted the image of a bird for its logo. Margaret Thatcher’s speech writers encouraged her to quote from the dead parrot sketch to lampoon her rivals. This she did do at the party conference. But the story goes that she had been initially reluctant to use it because she just hadn’t found it funny.
The sketch illustrates one common element in comedy which is delight at feeling superior to others, like when we laugh at their misfortunes or shortcomings in contrast to ourselves — like seeing someone hoodwinked by a pet salesman.
The question arises whether laughing at the misfortunes of others is a good thing to do. Is all laughter healthy?
Benefits of laughter
“There’s nothing more contagious than the laughter of young children; it doesn’t even have to matter what they’re laughing about.” (Criss Jami)
So pity those without a sense of humour. For is not laughter the best medicine? It can trigger healthy physical changes in the body. It strengthens your immune system, boosts your energy, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress.
Perhaps laughter has these benefits because it releases nervous energy. What better than to have a way of letting go of the tensions of daily living. Black humour amongst those professionals like the police and pathologists is largely unacceptable in other social contexts, because it considers human suffering as absurd rather than pitiable. Nevertheless, it serves to help deal with the gruesome and often ghastly side of life which can be too unpleasant to focus on and too terrible to talk about seriously.
When laughter is shared, it binds people together and increases happiness and intimacy. It reduces tensions of disagreement and growing conflict.
“It is impossible for you to be angry and laugh at the same time. Anger and laughter are mutually exclusive and you have the power to choose either.” (Wayne Dyer)
You also laugh the moment you realise the absurd incongruity in a situation. When what you expected is suddenly shifted with a changed perspective. Enjoying a sense of the ludicrous happens to the audience watching farce and what better theatre is there to induce a belly laugh.
Seeing someone slip on a banana skin is an example of negative humour. Another example is mocking laughter deriding people you don’t like. I witnessed this sort of thing at a football match recently when fans chanted sexually crude insults at opposing supporters. You might laugh out loud at risqué jokes told in a club but not smile at them if heard in the home. People do vary as to what they feel are the boundaries of good taste and propriety and perhaps some of the fans would have felt uncomfortable if the abusive noisy hilarity were expressed outside of the stadium.
Where you draw the line, between poking fun at someone in a teasing sort of way and using humour to deride and ridicule, is difficult to say. Court jesters who earned their living making their royal employers laugh, by pointing out some home truths, were appreciated because they knew how to hide the truth with humour and how far to go without having their heads cut off. The comic who reflected a section of public opinion about a cowardly politician was on fairly safe ground when he asked if the person in question would “please come to lost property where his missing spine has been handed in.” You may notice I haven’t named the politician. Somehow I feel that would be a little spiteful or may be I am being too sensitive.
I’ve nothing against poking fun at people but I happen to think that how one does this is all important.
“Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at somebody else’s expense. And I find that that’s just a form of bullying in a major way. So I want to be an example that you can be funny and be kind, and make people laugh without hurting somebody else’s feelings.” (Ellen DeGeneres)
Scoffing, jeering, and using sarcastic put downs seem to me to be not a good thing to do.
“My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh.
But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain.”
Is there not a crucial difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them? Sly smirks occur because people realise the social unacceptability of outright derisive laughter.
Emanuel Swedenborg suggests that the basis of laughing is liking what you see to be true about something. And that this means laughter generally entails something that is not so good. I would interpret this to mean that there is an element of harsh judgment here either about ourselves or others.
“Very much is contained within laughter, for the most part something of contempt which, though it does not show itself, is nevertheless lying underneath.” (Swedenborg, AC 2216)
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems