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Why do we laugh?

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, November 10, 2005

There are some jokes that we should not tell, but are there any things we should never joke about? Let’s start with some observations.

People do, as a matter of fact, joke about death, cancer, dementia, murder, suicide and other painful topics. Further, it is observably false that people only make or appreciate these jokes if they lack direct experience of the subject matter. Many Alzheimer’s patients love Alzheimer’s jokes, although many do not.

In England, medical students have a reputation for finding humor in what many would consider to be improper places; they name the cadavers on which they practice dissection, play catch with organs, and circulate legends about patients who arrive in the emergency room sporting injuries acquired in mortifyingly embarrassing ways.

All of which is certainly unsettling, but it would be a mistake to suppose that the students’ behavior is an indication that they are not serious about their calling as doctors. It just won’t do to sternly lecture them that when they are doctors they will be visited by people who are at their most weak and vulnerable, and mistakes that they make could easily be fatal. The students are acutely aware of these facts, and that’s why they joke; to make their responsibilities bearable.

Humor about somber subjects has long been known as black comedy, or gallows humor in cases in which people joke about their own death. My favorite example of the latter was provided by the Irish comedian Spike Milligan, who arranged for the epitaph on his tombstone to read “I told you I was ill.”

There are people who do not enjoy black comedy, who find that they cannot joke or appreciate jokes about some topics, because they are too painful or too sacred. These people are not humorless; it is just that for them there are certain areas of life that are off-limits to humor. They are not humorless, but humor plays a different role for them than it does for those of us who find relief in laughing about the darker aspects of life and as a result they frequently misinterpret black humor as a sign that those who partake in it find things less painful or less sacred than they do.

Monty Python’s film “The Life of Brian” contains a lot of black comedy, most notoriously in its conclusion, a crucifixion scene played out as an upbeat musical number. It’s easy to assume (I know it must be easy because so many people do it) that if you find the film funny, this must show a lack of seriousness about one’s faith, an inadequate sense of the sacred. But if you take the time to actually find out who enjoys the film you will discover that whether or not a person finds it funny is a very poor indicator of the seriousness with which they take their faith.

Last week, Lauren Prease, the vice president of Notre Dame’s chapter of the NAACP, wrote a letter in these pages condemning routines performed by two student comedians at a recent comedy show. She took exception to one joke in which the comedian claimed to have never understood why segregated seating on buses was a problem, since everyone knows that’s where the cool kids sit. Prease replies, “Perhaps for blacks during the Jim Crow era, sitting in the back lost its ‘cool’ appeal when they were forced to sit or stand uncomfortably in the back of the bus when seats were available toward the front.”

If you can’t prove your point, just prove a different point and hope no-one notices. I think I understand why Prease thinks the joke is offensive; what I can’t understand is why she thinks it’s a joke. Leaving aside the question of whether it was funny, the joke simply wouldn’t make sense unless it took for granted that in reality, the experience of segregation was horribly degrading and that we all know this. If Prease thinks that telling the joke or laughing at it is evidence that a person doesn’t think racial discrimination is a terrible thing, then she is in a position rather like that of the person who thinks that if a Christian laughs at “Life of Brian,” it shows that they don’t really believe that Jesus is the Messiah – as a theory, it has many advantages, being simple and easy to apply, but on the downside, it isn’t true.

Prease also took issue with a second comedian who, as she puts it, “mentioned the taboo word ‘nigger.'” He did mention the word, immediately after a skeptical joke about the attempt by some women to reappropriate a traditionally demeaning word as a term of affection. He continued: “Language in America has gotten out of hand anyway … for Christmas, my grandma sent me this sweater she knitted me. On the front it said ‘My Nigga.'”

The reclamation of this term for use amongst blacks was popularized by Richard Pryor, who later came to regret it (his explanation of why he decided to stop using the word is one of the most extraordinary and powerful routines I have ever heard). When I heard the comedian’s joke, I pictured a benign old grandmother knitting away at her gift while listening to gangster rap, who had noticed that the term had now been taken up as a term of affection but who had, disastrously, somehow failed to recognize that it was only taken this way amongst blacks. That the imaginary grandmother innocently produced a present that would earn its recipient social ostracism and very possibly a beating is one of the many things that would be horrible if it were true but is funny because it isn’t.

It’s often hard to know whether a joke is acceptable because it’s often hard to know why people laugh at it. What’s aggravating is that the critics don’t seem particularly interested in finding out.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. He has been producing and performing in student stand-up comedy shows at Notre Dame for three years, including the show that has been the subject of recent discussion.

In response to the letter-writer who wrote in to challenge his credentials as a cultural critic, Peter would like it to be known that he does so too know about popular culture. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.