Laughter: Why It Matters, I think
If you’re ever in the mood to find nothing funny ever again, you don’t have to subject yourself to Holocaust footage, or read about the Slave Trade, or, God forbid, turn on cable news. Even Nazis, for all of their dehumanizing cruelty, proved an occasional source of humor, as Mel Brooks made a fortune proving time and time and, perhaps one time too many, again.
No, if you really want to divest your soul of any humor or capacity for laughter, just read philosophers trying to dissect humor. I double dog dare you. Plato, it turns out, wasn’t a fan of, well, fun. And he was not alone. The list of great minds who have tried to forensically examine our capacity for laughter only to end up like those chimps braying incomprehensibly at the obelisk at the start of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is legion. However, for sheer, weaponized, eat-your-angst-ridden-vegan- heart-out-Morrisey level of humorlessness, Thomas Hobbes is tough to beat. Hobbes tackled the phenomena of humor with all of his trademark intelligence, insight, and gang-rape level of sunniness. Thomas Hobbes, it turns out, was a laugh riot, once you realize most riots end in blood, chaos, and trauma.
“Comedy Is You Falling Down a Manhole. Tragedy Is Me Getting A Paper Cut.” – Mel Brooks
As Hobbes once put it, “Laughter…is caused by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much Laughter is at the defects of others.” In other words. A lot of humor is based on cruelty. And to this Colossus bestriding the Enlightenment, I can only offer a humble but heartfelt: well, duh.
Yes, of course much laughter is based on the idea of “Thank God it’s that guy and not me!” But I challenge you, not so gentle reader, to think of many things in this world that aren’t. To view humor in those terms is to miss the point. It’s like looking at the Sun and focusing entirely on the fact it causes melanomas and provides Florida with so many electoral votes. In defense of the Great English Thinker, he was man of many gifts, but looking at his mug of ale as half full was not one of them, hence his pithy, nihilistic gem, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
Fine, If You’re Going To Be THAT Guy
Yes: OK, fine, Life can be all those things. And humor is often cruel. But my God, who’d want to go a day without it? Who could? One my mother once said has always struck me as uncommonly wise: never spend a minute more than you need to with someone who can’t laugh at themselves.
If music moves us because it perhaps expresses something we have no words for, then let it be equally said that humor and laughter bind us because it reassures us that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re never as alone as we think we are. The world is indeed sometimes as Hobbes described it. The world is also contains The Brandenburg Concerto, gelato, Side Two of Abbey Road, Jane Austen novels, puppies, and the cool, seamless poetry of Mariano Rivera’s whip-like delivery to home plate. It’s home to countless, small flowers struggling and blooming through imperceptible cracks in asphalt.
Make ‘Em Laugh, And Other Wisdom From The McCarthy Era
Most importantly, the world also contains laughter. Hobbes termed laughter a “Sudden Glory,” but, as only a philosopher could, he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Will it forever mark me as a cretin if I refer to one of the most important philosophers in Western political thought as a bit of a dick? Oh well, too late.
The idea of joy being an unalloyed good seemed to elude him, just as unalloyed joy too often eludes most of us. Certainly, it glides beyond my grip like mercury more days than I can count. But, every now and then, a bit of it catches on the edge of a laugh. So let me make the rather obvious but apparently philosophically radical proposition that laughter is not only good, but necessary. I urge each of us to be unashamedly greedy in our pursuit of it. And while we’re at it, let’s try to recognize each other in our laughter. Let’s try to recognize ourselves. That truly would be a sudden glory.