Monday, May 4, 2015

The Great Sense (& Purpose) Of Humour


“Humor is just another defense against the universe. Look at Jewish history: Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breast, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast-beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one.”
Mel Brooks

“A good laugh makes any interview, or any conversation, so much better”
Barbara Walters

“I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.”
Woody Allen, Annie Hall: Screenplay  

A Trojan Pig?
Credit & Source
: Pinterest
Humour is important and too serious to ignore; it has an essential place in the history of civilization. Yet, we have all met such types: those who lack a sense of humour, those who take themselves too seriously and view life in the same way. It’s not that life can’t be serious, but it is not always serious. And it is often funny, it is often ironic, it is often comic. Humour makes life more bearable, as Mel Brooks says. And a good belly laugh helps grease the wheels of human relationships, helping to get to know people better, as Barbara Walters says. (Btw, she is a fabulous interviewer.)

The humourless fail to see this; and to a great degree they are not only untrustworthy observers of human nature, they are poor company and hostile companions. They consider their view as right and correct, and everyone else’s as wrong. Humour rarely penetrates their armor of seriousness. I sense that humour escapes them, evaporating into thin air like a black cloud of bile. They don't get it. Poor souls, living a life of misery. Their limitations compel them to restrict laughter and fun and, equally important, to make the world small. Very small. Some would call them public scolds; some would call them unhappy; some pendants. There is truth to this; a sad and miserable truth.

When I encounter such a person, and I unfortunately do from time to time, my impulse is to give them a wide berth and run far away from them. My experience informs me that I have every good reason to do so. This might seem harsh to some, but to spend even five minutes with such a person is to endure a kind of suffering similar to that of listening to an insurance salesman or an IT professional talk about computer code. I have had enough suffering. Who wants more? Not me, by any means.

The Jewish People have been sustained by humour; and some of the best jokes in modern times have been written by Jews during dark periods. (A good many blog posts on this site are dedicated to humour and Jewish humour in particular). As a modern example, Prof. Justin E.H. Smith writes (“Satire Is A Serious Matter”; March 4, 2015) that in repressive regimes, as during Stalinist Russia, humour thrives as a necessary counterweight to political absurdity:
Outside of the meeting halls, of course, humor thrived, as samizdat, as oral culture, as the irrepressible truth beyond the pretense. The transmission of anekdoty—jokes, but literally anecdotes—remained a crucial form of resistance. Not surprisingly, many of these jokes focused on the sort of humor beloved by Jews, typically embodied in the figure of a certain Rabinovich. It is existential humor: tragic and hilarious. One joke in particular tells the whole story of the idiocy of regimes of seriousness, and of the redemptive power of humor as a response. An Odessa census taker knocks at Rabinovich’s door. “Does Rabinovich live here?" he asks. Rabin­ovich replies: "You call this living?” (Razve eto zhizn’?)”
You get the point; there is some hint of truth in good humour. Then there is the gold standard of self-deprecating jokes that zeroes-in on another dark period in human history, Nazi Germany:
Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. "Herr Altmann," said his secretary, "I notice you're reading Der Stürmer! I can't understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?"

"On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we're on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!"
Self-deprecating humour says a lot about the confidence and points of view of the person making such jokes. Irony and satire are wonderful survival tools. One of my favourite American comedians is Woody Allen, who made a number of good films that look at the absurdity of the world in which we reside; he says: “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” And if it's a nice apartment with a good view, so much the better.

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