Tough, irritating, painful, sad, irritating, mystifying, ridiculous, absurd, terrifying: getting through the days can be a strange old business. Sometimes you could sit down and weep – indeed, there are times when this is exactly what’s required. Sometimes though, you just have to laugh.
One thing about this funny old thing called life is that we’re all in the same boat. We’re all absurd, we’re all ridiculous, we’re all scared and we’re all going to die. Sharing our vulnerability with a dose of good humour is, as it turns out, a healthy thing to do. Laughter has well documented physiological benefits. It lowers blood pressure, releases feel-good endorphins, stimulates the internal organs, improves short term memory and increases pain tolerance. Laughter is a fantastic natural social lubricant; it reduces hostilities, dismantles barriers and enhances relationships, whether personal,political or professional.
Of course, like many other activities with potentially therapeutic effects, laughter can be misused. It can be mocking, cruel or sarcastic. In this weak form, the joke is barbed and intended to wound, often by isolating and denigrating the person being laughed at. That said, there is one form of mockery that can be a very strong form of humour: political satire. There’s little funnier – or more empowering to the audience – than seeing pomposity popped, an overblown sense of importance deflated, and a disguised agenda revealed. Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy take a bow.
Usually, though, strong humour is kind at heart, generated from an awareness of our shared vulnerability. I might laugh when you slip on the banana skin, but only if you don’t hurt yourself and because I realise that the next banana skin has almost certainly got my name on it.
Strong humour is often also, at heart, extremely sad. Michael Leunig‘s wistful little lost figures (and his mean manipulative ones) speak to most of us. Haven’t we all been wistful, little and lost and mean and manipulative? Aren’t we all Mr Curly under the skin? Don’t we all really just want a duck, a teapot and a sky full of stars? It soothes the soul, somehow, to recognise these usually hidden aspects of ourselves in Leunig’s cartoons.
And of course, much humour is, at heart, a way of railing against the binds of mortality.
Knock knock. Who’s there? Death. Death who? Dea’think you’re ready or shall I come back later?
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus. Her novel, Strip (Makaro Press, 2016), is the story of a doctor-cartoonist who discovers he doesn’t know as much about the funny bone as he thought he did. Strip was long listed for fiction prize in the 2017 Ockham NZ Book Awards.