I remember my mother telling me a story about her younger sister growing up. Her sister was tying various strings to an old bottle and attaching a bunch of different objects to the other end of each string. When asked what she was doing, she explained that she was making a laugh machine. While the family was at first incredulous, simply watching her twirl her odd contraption had them all in stitches in the end. Why? It was so ridiculous! There was an irony in the fact that her prediction came true from those unlikely beginnings. My mother was still giggling 50-some years later.
What makes humor such an important part of our humanity? Fundamentally, all humor centers around truth. In slapstick, we highlight the ridiculous aspects of daily life. In a roast, we exaggerate selected features of a person to create a comic caricature. Wit often shows us a wry perspective on a situation. Sarcasm presents a critical truth mercilessly, Gallows humor transcends what is most grim in our human experience to point out irony or the absurd. Freudian humor, as Taz reminds us, carries the truth of our unconscious desires.
While humor can build up or tear down, it’s fundamental value lies in the way it allows us to approach truth less directly, to come at it sideways but to come at it nonetheless. It’s a way of coping with the things that…need coping with. At its best, it unites us as we share a laugh over some aspect of being human. Its playfulness pulls on a younger part of us. And isn’t it always children that overcome divisions that adults can’t seem to get around, simply by not seeing them in the first place? When we laugh together, we’re in touch with a part of us that can meet others in a place of youthful glee.
Personally, I love the way my kindergarten-age daughter laughs uproariously and uncontrollably when I crack a string of jokes about the inescapable truths of our digestive tracts. She can’t stop. She’s utterly helpless in the waves of laughter shaking her small body. Part of her will never outgrow her love of earthy humor. When she’s 16, perhaps we’ll find it awkward and difficult to connect in the tried and true fashion of adolescence. I’m sure I’ll be googling fart jokes and letting them rip.
Monica Green, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, PSY27391, working with Michelle Harwell Therapy, specializing in depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship issues and psychological aspects of chronic health conditions. She enjoys terrible puns.