Comedy has always offered swift relief in times of stress. A good laugh can be good therapy, can lift us out of sadness and depression. Our sense of humor can restore us to high spirits and renew our sense of hope. Some scientists even believe that humor activates pathways in our brain that circumvent the primitive fight-or-flight response that leads to violence or evasion. A deft joke, then, acts much like a wise teacher in a tense classroom, directing us to take Time Out for reflection, re-channeling knee-jerk reactions toward more helpful, healthful outcomes.
Today, when the whole world feels the strain of a global epidemic, it pays to notice how people around the globe respond to anxiety with random acts of humor. Soon after news of the virus sent people scrambling for supplies, light-hearted memes began circulating through social media. One showed a pair of Swiss rescue dogs carrying toilet paper rolls instead of whiskey kegs. Another displayed an old-fashioned hoop skirt re-purposed for social distancing. On television, people everywhere watched Italians on balconies bursting into spontaneous songs.
Every nation uses humor to counter adversity in its own way. For a broader view of this phenomenon, we might turn to the planet’s great traditions of movie comedy. Because comedies reflect the times and cultures that produce them, they can help us understand what makes other people so distinctive as well as what we have in common. At a time when some are calling for closed borders, watching comedies from Europe or Africa, Scandinavia or the Far East can keep our minds and cultural borders open.
First, a closer look at laughter as good medicine. The therapeutic value of humor has been recognized by many cultures throughout history. Medieval doctors in Europe based their practice on principles, dating back to ancient Greece, that the body’s equilibrium depends on four vital fluids, called “humours.” They believed that physical, emotional, and mental health require a harmonious balance of these fluids. There is a similar concept in traditional Chinese medicine, which links wellness to the flow of qi, a vital energy or spirit. The free, unobstructed flow of qi through the body assures one’s physical health and mental stability
Today, psychologists and neuroscientists are finding scientific evidence that links humor to a sound body and a healthy brain. It turns out that laughter releases endorphins that buoy our moods and increase our tolerance to pain. Furthermore, comedy can put us into a special frame of mind, a comic mode that lessens distress and averts destructive impulses. Our cognitive effort to understand the incongruity of jokes (“Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”) stimulates parts of the brain associated with higher-order thinking. This gives us “time out” from adversity, a chance to entertain alternative behaviors in the playground of comedy.
There is, as well, a social dimension to comedy. Laughter can be contagious. Jokes can remedy embarrassing moments, reframe threats, and reinforce our sense of group belonging. That’s one more reason why evolutionary biologists are investigating the survival value of humor.
Film comedy registers a society’s nervous tensions through its many forms—from slapstick to parody, from light-hearted farce to the dark messages of black humor. Like fun-house mirrors, these comic sub-genres exaggerate reflections in various ways. Audiences laugh at the distorted image of themselves, which also functions as a corrective lens for viewing our values and the times in which we live.
Humor is universal, but social norms influence what we perceive to be funny.
In Russia, political satire and musical comedy have served as important outlets or defensive weapons during eras of revolution and repression. Alexander Medvedkin’s silent gem Happiness (Schastye, 1934) spoofed Russian society in the tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov. Medvedkin’s hero is a hapless peasant who dreams of a little happiness. “to eat the fat of the bacon and sleep.” When he decides to kill himself in despair, an army of Cossacks, soldiers and priests try to stop him. “Who will feed Russia if the peasants die?” they scream. Grigori Aleksandrov’s Jolly Fellows (Vesyolye rebyata, 1934) centers on a carefree shepherd from a collective farm. His madcap adventures lead a ragtag group of jazz musicians to Moscow, where they “sing and laugh like children, through the unending struggle and toil.”
In Africa, the comic roles that actors play owe much to the continent’s oral traditions of folktales, with their trickster animals and clownish dupes. In Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyenas (Hyènes, 1992), the wily swindler is a woman who seeks revenge on those who wronged her, and like her famously tittering namesake, she enjoys the last laugh. Ousmane Sembène’s two earliest movies, The Money Order (Mandabi, 1968) and Xala (1975) are also structured much like cautionary trickster tales.
In Western Europe, the dry, detached qualities of much British humor and the cerebral wit of traditional Gallic humor abound in their best movie comedies. Listen to the clever wordplay in Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule (1996), set in Louis XVI’s mockery-driven court, or in Dany Boon’s Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, 2008), France’s biggest box office hit ever. Then compare this energetic verbal jousting to the understated dialog of Alec Guinness in his 1950s Ealing comedies or John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda (1988). When Cleese makes love to Maria Atiken, they each undress discretely on separate beds, in contrast to an American couple in the next room, who rip off their clothes and dive into the sack like animals.
We can find both delicate and zany forms of humor in East Asian comedies. At one end of the spectrum, Hong Kong’s “king of comedy,” Steven Chow, mixes manic slapstick with mind-bending double talk in films like Kung Fu Hustle (Gung fu, 2004) and The God of Cookery (Sik san, 1996). At the other end, Taiwan’s Ang Lee serves up a gentler, more humanistic form of humor in The Wedding Banquet (Xi yan, 1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu, 1994). If Lee’s comedies embody centuries of Confucian values, a restrained ‘ethics of mirth,” Chow’s playful approach is more akin to Daoist teachings and the commotion of contemporary Hong Kong.
All of these movies show, in their own way, how people everywhere turn to comedy for relief, comfort, and connection. If, as Victor Borge once observed, humor is “the shortest difference between two people,” watching the world’s comedies can bring us all together safely through the common bond of laughter.
Featured image by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash.