the Why humor has long been a mystery. For ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, it was a dangerous phenomenon, something that had the potential to undermine the authority and good order of society. Laughing officials was then a serious problem (and this remains the case in more autocratic regions of the world). Today in democratic societies we know how important it is to mock those who have power, and we Saturday Night Live in the United States and Do I have news for you? in Great Britain. On Sunday, after Boris Johnson – recently diagnosed with COVID-19 – announced that he would send every household in Britain a letter urging people to follow social distancing guidelines, I received a doctored photo from the Prime Minister , with a red nose and watery eyes, licking an envelope, subtitled: “Whatever you do, don’t open Boris’ letter. Johnson was making fun of him, his authority was being undermined in a way far more deadly than anything his political opponents could handle. In a typically provocative essay for Vanity Fair, the late Christopher Hitchens developed the link between power and laughter by arguing that humor was “part of the armor” of humanity, protecting us from the sad reality of life – that ultimately death takes it away. How’s that for an LOL. We are joking because otherwise we would cry.
But humor is not just about pointing your nose at power. It’s burette as much as satire, a man hitting another man with a frying pan; Kevin McCallister terrorizing Harry and Marv; Ross, Rachel and Chandler have a hard time putting up a sofa on the stairs in Ross’s apartment. The late Robert R. Provine, a professor at the University of Maryland who became one of the world’s best laughter experts, came to the conclusion, after a decade of studying how and why people laughed, that it was in makes a way to bond. “Most people think laughter is just a response to comedy or a cathartic mood,” he writes. “Instead … I concluded that laughter is mainly a social vocalization that binds people together. ” We laugh with others to give us “the pleasure of acceptance,” argued Provine – to show that we are the same. Simon Stuart, clinical psychologist in Britain, told me that from an evolutionary point of view, laughter is rooted in this ability to connect. It’s a shared social signal.
We laugh then to regain control and to connect – two things we lost in our fight against the coronavirus. Not only can we not stop the tidal wave of infections that submerges us, but we are forced to endure this reality alone in our own home. Powerless and isolated, we find that the joke is now our most reliable shield and our warmest comfort blanket.
British comedian and writer David Baddiel told me that his experience has certainly been that people turn to comedy at times like this. In his last public stand-up tour, before Britain imposed restrictions on social gatherings, he opened with a coronavirus gag: “It’s great to see that you’re ready to get together in so many at this stage of the apocalypse. He always made us laugh. In his last concert, before his tour was canceled, a man from the audience coughed in response, causing even more laughter. “People want jokes,” Baddiel told me. “Partly because jokes are a relief, and they eliminate the danger, partly because they are a way of dealing with the experience, and yes, partly because … it is a massive shared experience. People are looking for a way out of comedy – and knowing that they are not alone. If we all find this experience of being forced to stay at home funny, it’s reassuring, a form of group therapy. “We really can’t do a lot about these things, but we can laugh at them,” he said. In a Godless society, this is the only eternal victory we have. ”