Recently, a man told me a joke — at least, I think it was a joke. “Why didn’t Superman save Princess Di?” he said. Being a good little drone, I shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Why?” “Because he’s paralyzed!” I walked away, shaking my head wondering why he thought that was funny. The night before, he had told me another Princess Diana joke, but I refuse to contribute to its longevity. I’ve already done enough damage repeating this one.

Why is it part of our nature to laugh at other people’s apparent misfortune? We laugh at Chevy Chase’s pratfalls, Jim Carrey’s weirdness, Urkel’s dorkness, Mr. Creosote’s fateful “wafair-thin mint.” We “ooooh” and make hash marks in the air when someone insults another with particular flair. We tune in religiously to watch real people have silly things happen to them on “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” but it’s okay because the winners are getting paid to have half of the country laugh at them. (That kind of makes me wonder about the others, who are just sending the videos in so they can brag to their friends, “See, Joan? Little Billy hit me right in the crotch! Ain’t that the damnedest thing you ever did see?”)

Often, people make light of a situation in order not to become upset by it. A friend in San Francisco told me shortly after the major earthquake at the end of 1989 that locals were calling it the “Pretty Big One.” In order to deal with the situation, people naturally were drawn to humor. Along the same lines, I suspect (though I have no proof) that racial jokes are created by the need for intolerant people to deal with their own insecurities about people seemingly different from themselves. Shock jokes like the one I used to start this essay are a way for insecure people to fight back at the world; “Here! I want you to feel as uncomfortable as I do!” The greater the insecurity, the more crass the subject matter.

I’m convinced it is a learned behavior rather than a natural reaction. I don’t think we are born with the instinct to laugh at others’ misfortune; I think we are taught that it is okay. Recently, my eight year old was introduced to the concept of formula laughter. He had confused the states of Iowa and Oregon and was laughed at for his mistake. His best friend was present, and rather than defend him, she laughed as well. He went to bed that night upset that she would laugh at his intelligence, thinking she was no longer his friend. I tried to explain to him that she was still his friend and did not intend to hurt him. She was merely laughing because someone else was laughing. It is a learned social behavior to laugh when the rest of the crowd laughs, but he was not used to being on the receiving end of it from this particular friend. I tried pointing out how he laughed at people in the same way, and that he would have to learn how to deal with that to make it in life. He would have to learn how to take a joke, like we all do. It certainly felt sad to be chopping away at his innocence and sensitivity like that, but it is a necessary skill to have in today’s world and he would be in for a lot of pain if he didn’t learn to laugh at himself every once in a while.

The last point demonstrates possibly the most common use of laughter: as a defense mechanism. We laugh at things in order to take the focus off of what we are nervous or anxious about. To avoid the pain of rejection or ridicule, we often learn to laugh at ourselves, even when we don’t really think something is funny inside. There are numerous instances from my childhood that I am embarrassed of, but I laugh when people bring them up so I won’t feel the pain from those experiences flooding back. This may not be the most direct way to deal with the problem, but it gets me through the situations with a minimum of discomfort. For this reason, I taught my son that it is okay to laught at yourself occasionally too. Though I wish I could let him hang on to his innocence forever, he does not live in a protected world where that is feasible.

There are types of humor that are not fueled by the pain of others. Puns are the best examples I can think of. They usually require the use of some intelligence to understand, they are meaning-based, rather than situation-based, and they usually don’t require the misfortune of another. In fact, they are a celebration of another’s intelligence because they often require making a connection between seemingly unrelated concepts. Making that connection requires a little effort, and the reward is a small bit of humor. I try to be a humorous person, constantly looking for pun opportunities. Often, I am met with groans or glares, but I know that a groan is a sign of appreciation when it comes to puns. On those rare occasions when I am asked to leave the room, I know I have done my best. :{D

I know I participate in the various types of humor I decry above. I admit that I laugh as hard as everyone else at various gross, violent, sick and twisted animation festivals. I like an occasional dirty joke, too, though I don’t like the really graphic ones as much as I used to. However, my favorite pieces of humor involve the intellect: philosophical humor, puns, historical humor — things that I have to think to understand, basically. Perhaps if we all were to concentrate on this kind of humor our kids wouldn’t have to lose their innocence and learn social defenses so quickly.

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