The Essential Nature of American Laughter

M. Thomas Inge

Editor’s note:  In a little less than one year, the American people will elect a president.  In the past decade, politics has seemed to become much more polarized and impassioned–with the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street as prominent examples.  Politics has also been consistent fodder for humor–with the rise of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, as well as the continued influence of SNL and The Onion, among a myriad of other humorists commenting on politics and humor.  The interest of readers in the link between humor and politics is evident in the searches people use to find this site and in the consistent popularity of M. Thomas Inge’s piece “Politics and the American Sense of Humor,” which helped inaugurate this site.

In this spirit, Tom has graciously given us permission to post another piece.  Enjoy.


The Essential Nature of American Laughter

M. Thomas Inge

            For one brief moment in our history, it seemed that there was no humor in the land–September 11, 2001.  For the next few days, no jokes were passed among friends on the internet.  The New Yorker published no cartoons in its issue that week for the first time since Hiroshima and shrouded its cover in black.  Dave Barry announced to his readers, “No humor column today.  I don’t want to write it, and you don’t want to read it.”

Editorial cartoonists, caught with no time for reflection, traded in their wit and caricature for outrage and cliché and produced multiple images of the Statue of Liberty or Uncle Sam weeping or averting their faces from the carnage.  The irreverent weekly newspaper, The Onion, cancelled its next edition.  The David Letterman and Jay Leno shows went into reruns, and the comedy clubs closed down.  Even Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury declared his favorite target, George W. Bush, off-limits.  Comedy writers and performers gathered at a symposium on “Humor in Unfunny Times” in New York to discuss what their function should be at a time when the nation was racked by grief.  Several public intellectuals declared that irony, sarcasm, and comic cynicism had died in a country that has prided itself on its caustic sense of humor.  Finally permission to laugh came when mayor Rudolph Guiliani appeared on Saturday Night Live, along with New York police, fire, and rescue personnel.  After an opening tribute, the show’s director, Lorne Michaels, asked the mayor, “Can we be funny?” Guiliani quipped, “Why start now?”

This was a defining moment in our history, because Americans have always placed a high value on their ability to laugh.  William Faulkner once noted that “We have one priceless universal trait, we Americans.  That trait is our humor.”  Americans are thought to have a special sense of humor that often features exaggeration and hyperbole.  But our sense of humor has a direct link to our political system, what Robert Penn Warren once called a “burr under the metaphysical saddle of America.”

Comedy is encouraged by our democratic system because we have posited higher ideals than we can reach, but rather than berate ourselves, we engage in self-ridicule as a safety valve.  It is the incongruity between the ideal and the real, between the dream and the failure to achieve it, to which most American humor is addressed.  Has there ever been a time when we would not laugh at Mark Twain’s statement, that “there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress”?

Rather than discourage us, however, laughter refreshes us and allows us to try again to get it right the next time.  Thus humor is important because it gives us perspective, it works as a healthy corrective to adjust our hopes and expectations to reality and the possible.

Let’s see how that works.  Recently Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in England undertook the most comprehensive study of the psychology of humor ever completed.  After collecting more than 10,000 popular jokes, he asked more than 100,000 people in 70 countries to rate them.  The joke that emerged as number one goes this way:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are going camping.  They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep.  Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes wakes Watson up: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce.”

Watson says, “I see millions of stars and even if a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”

Holmes replied:  “Watson, you idiot, somebody stole our tent!”

Not everyone will agree that this is the funniest joke ever told, but here we see clearly how incongruity is at the heart of what makes us laugh.  It is the difference between the high-minded Dr. Watson and his lofty notions about the universe and the practical reality of the down-to-earth Sherlock Holmes that occasions comedy.

We hold nothing above ridicule in the exercise of free speech–the law, government, religion, the President, or the Pope.  Few nations so willingly celebrate their failures and foolishness through hilarity and the horse laugh as do Americans, and that’s one reason we remain resilient and survive.  A gauge of the success of our system is our willingness to abide and absorb ridicule and comic criticism.

Even President George W. Bush has dared to engage in self-deprecation, when he isn’t inadvertently committing malapropisms.  Last year he told the graduating class at Yale, “To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinction, I say well done.  And to the C students, I say, you too can be President of the United States.”

The late, great animator, Chuck Jones, who gave us such iconic examples of comic frustration as Wile E. Coyote and Michigan J. Frog, once reflected on the love/hate relationship that exists between the humorist and his target: “You must love what you caricature.  You must not mock it—unless it is ridiculously self-important.”

Demonstrating his keen insight into human nature, Jones added (echoing Mark Twain):  “You must remember always that only man, of all creatures, can blush, or needs to; that only man can laugh, or needs to; and that if you are in the trade of helping others to laugh and to survive by laughter, then you are privileged indeed.”

As cartoonist Charles Schulz once said, “I am convinced that one of the things which has helped man survive has been his sense of humor.”  As if to prove him right, medical researchers have recently discovered specific health benefits in laughter.  It optimizes the immune system, which helps fight infection.  It stimulates a mild cardiovascular workout.  And some claim it also provides endorphins which attack stress hormones tied to depression, fatigue, and anger.

Isn’t it odd that in our culture academics and intellectuals have always valued tragedy and the serious over comedy and the light-hearted?  Without the latter, how could we bear up under the former?  Tragedy is the human condition which we are powerless to change.  Comedy is the only available remedy because it posits freedom of choice and the possibility of salvation and regeneration.  Tragedy is the harbinger of defeat, but comedy is the instinct for survival.

Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo, once stated in his inimitable way, “The true humorist does not hide.  He searches for the hidden absurdities, the implicit pomposities and he puts the bright light of day on them.  Humor should not be regarded as the sweetening around a sour pill.  It is something that clears the air, makes life more real, and therefore less frightening.  This is its function.”

In other words, he who laughs today lives to laugh another day.  We might recall the words of George Bernard Shaw, who noted, “Life does not cease to funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”  May the saving grace of comedy be with us always.



M. Thomas Inge is the Blackwell Professor English and Humanities at Randolph-Macon College, where he teaches a course in American humor.  This article is based on the commencement address he gave at Virginia Wesleyan College last May.


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