Laughter—the cathartic safety valve.
A friend of mine recently said, “I have never seen things more politically divided and hostile.” Well, there is some truth to this, though it does also reflect that we have only limited memory regarding more distant past when things were really bad too. For example, one critic of our most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, said of him just PRIOR to his assuming office,
“The illustrious Honest Old Abe has continued during the last week to make a fool of himself and to mortify and shame the intelligent people of this great nation. His speeches have demonstrated the fact that although originally a Herculean rail splitter and more lately a whimsical story teller and side splitter, he is no more capable of becoming a statesman, nay, even a moderate one, than the braying ass can become a noble lion. People now marvel how it came to pass that Mr. Lincoln should have been selected as the representative man of any party. His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world. The European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President. The truth is, Lincoln is only a moderate lawyer and in the larger cities of the Union could pass for no more than a facetious pettifogger. Take him from his vocation and he loses even these small characteristics and indulges in simple twaddle which would disgrace a well bred school boy.”
And this was from a newspaper in his home state!
I don’t offer this as some type of apologetic for our current president, but rather to merely point out that such hostility has happened before in history and will happen again. From our faith perspective, we do rail against human frailty and perceived ineptitude and long for human solutions to our problems which, due to our fallen human condition, will be lacking. But, what I want to discuss, from an art/aesthetic perspective, is how laughter (which only we humans have the faculty to employ) is a perennial remedy for the ludicrousness of our human condition. I can’t help but think about satire, the figure of the court jester from “olden days,” and the very fact of comic theater to suggest that humor has always been with us to contend with the perplexities of life.
Three examples from visual artists come to mind that take this issue on directly. First, with the passing of Mary Tyler Moore this last month, I took the chance this week to watch again her renowned episode from her show, from its sixth season, called “Chuckles the Clown Bites the Dust.” I was surprised, beyond the side-splitting humor of Mary being reduced to laughter at the clown’s funeral (after having chided others for making jokes about the deceased before the funeral), that the episode takes time to reflect on humor as cathartic in a difficult situation like death. Laughter can become a healing release in the face of an untimely death or other tragedy, when we can make no human sense out of it. Here’s a link on youtube to watch it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ztsz7gop77s –don’t miss it!
Second, I thought about the GREAT, GREAT film by the American film director Preston Sturges from 1942, Sullivan’s Travels. The protagonist, Sullivan, wants to produce as an actor a work of “serious art,” and goes on the road to know the trials of the “ordinary man” in preparation for this opus magnus. Through a series of ridiculous misfortunes, the famous actor Sullivan finds himself imprisoned with no seeming chance to be found out and saved. What a great image of the ridiculousness that life can sometimes deliver! In this setting, Sullivan and the other prisoners take a night from their chain gang to watch a movie, which turns out to be a Disney cartoon where “Goofy” is afflicted by all kinds of misfortune. When Sullivan finds himself laughing at the comic character, and at his whole confounding and tragic situation, he finds the value in comedy before tragedy. I hope you can take the chance to see this VERY GREAT film! See the final scene here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtTE8aWCe9g
Finally, in a film clip not for children, consider viewing the short clip of the late comic Joan Rivers who, when making fun of deaf children, is accosted by an angry audience member who has a deaf child. While Rivers does sprinkle some mild profanity throughout the two-and-a-half minute clip, she also speaks to the value of comedy before tragedy. See it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAD-ky3TYQk
Of course, politics and how our government tries to make our world a more just place are serious business. But, comedy is serious business too—an essential part of our humanity trying to deal with tough situations. Let’s not forget to laugh—it’s a great gift given us by our Creator.