ROBERT J. LEWIS
is the shortest distance between two people.
duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.
feels good. The opposite of laughing is crying. No one wants to
cry. Everyone wants to laugh. We are a species wired to laugh,
to want to feel good. Keeping ourselves alive feels good, sex
feels good, succeeding in life feels good.
good from laughter releases endorphins, boosts the immune system.
The slave who could laugh in the face of despair, who learned
to live and keep himself wholly in the present indicative survived
-- and procreated. It was his gift. Woe to the man who cannot
partake of the “the laughter of the gods.”
selection likes the funny guy, and all those he makes laugh. In
moderation, wanting to feel good is a healthy impulse. But we
all know, if only anecdotally, that wanting to feel good has gotten
too many into big trouble. We spend billions of dollars –
sometimes at the expense of the necessities of life (food, rent,
our children) -- in pursuit of feeling good. When feeling good
becomes its own terminus, it turns negative, destructive. With
the blessings of nature, feeling good is meant to be the means
to the end of optimal health.
good is an outcome that seamlessly integrates material and psychological
well-being: you can’t have one without the other, a basic
truth that certain cultures have grasped better than others. All
the having in the world cannot relieve the wholly unnatural and
unhappy state of being alone in the world. Loneliness, stress,
low self-esteem are inimical to well-being. The deeper the unhappiness
deficit, the need to feel good intensifies, and disproportionately
preoccupies our time and capital. Las Vegas, whose mega-casinos
offer a mother-lode of thrills and pleasures -- from gambling,
to circus acts, main event boxing, live music and stand-up comedy
-- is where the haves go to confess that something isn’t
quite alright, and they are convinced “the unexamined life”
is the answer.
the success or state of the nation be measured by its GDP or the
time and capital it spends on feeling good? As a percentage of
GDP, we are spending more and more on alcohol and drugs compared
to 100 years ago, and that doesn’t include the vast sums
that have been spent on the laughable (losing) war on drugs. We’re
also spending a lot more on comedy, gathering around the comic
instead of the primeval fire. As a nation, we have been very inventive
in creating diversions that cater to our growing need to feel
good. Our collective, no-class-left-behind obsession with feeling
good is the nation’s declaration that not all is as well
as its material wealth would have us believe.
the surest and quickest ways to feel good is through laughter.
Flick on the TV and there are any number of specialty channels
dedicated to keep us laughing 24/7. Old comedy shows from the
1960s and 1970s are in vogue. And for a more intense and communal
experience there are clubs everywhere that specialize in stand-up
comedy, featuring over the course of an evening a parade of comedians.
The circus that used to travel from one town to the next has been
replaced by the comedy circuit, as more and more of us are willing
to pay a pretty penny for a laugh.
does the increasing demand for and proliferation of comedy tell
us about our basic needs and collective values? Since laughing
feels good and ranks high among the past times we defer to in
our fugitive quest for well-being, are there reasonable grounds
to compare the laughing addict (someone who spends a disproportionate
part of his day tuned into comedy) to the druggie who has to free-base
cocaine or sniff gas all day long to get from one moment to the
is a potent drug because it engages both the mind and the body.
Once you’ve understood the joke, the body is handsomely
rewarded. From the Encyclopedia Britannica describing
facial muscles contract and stimulation of the zygomatic major
muscle (the main lifting mechanism of your upper lip) occurs.
Meanwhile, the respiratory system is upset by the epiglottis
half-closing the larynx, so that air intake occurs irregularly,
making you gasp. In extreme circumstances, the tear ducts
are activated, so that while the mouth is opening and closing
and the struggle for oxygen intake continues, the face becomes
moist and often red (or purple). The noises that usually accompany
this bizarre behaviour range from sedate giggles to boisterous
the origins of laughter, ethologists report that some of the higher
apes are capable of laughter (doubtlessly because they couldn’t
foresee what they would become) and the first Homo sapiens were
endowed with the capacity to laugh. Until recently in our history,
we were responsible for our own laughter; it was created spontaneously
as it was required. Scripting and scheduling laughter is a very
recent phenomenon, the first effect of the cause of a growing
and unprecedented deficit in psychological and social well-being
– in particular the atomization (monadization) of the individual.
If in the past we needed less laughter in our lives, what has
changed between then and now?
as self-evident as the clown who was only a clown for a while
that the conditions of life are such that we are either unable
to supply our basic laughter needs, or that we are less capable
of producing laugher because we don’t have enough time and/or
the mind has been dulled by over-reliance technology doing the
things we used to do. Either way, we now look to and depend on
laughter specialists to supply our needs.
the spectacular wealth generated by human ingenuity, ‘having’
doesn’t necessarily translate into psychological or spiritual
having, which means the haves still haven’t grasped what
constitutes real as opposed to apparent happiness.
We’ve been sold, hook-line-and-sinker on the consumer construct
of happiness, and to such an extent that even comedy is now regarded
as another item on a purchase list (God forbid bucket list). However,
our unhappiness persists, despite the best laid plans of the buy-now
pay-later model and being born into the exponentials of plenty.
philosopher Charles Taylor coined the term “the malaise
of modernity,” a condition which I propose is significantly
related to our alienation, our voluntary expulsion from the tribe
or community? We are no longer a people, but a nation of exiliacs
for whom Facebook has become the living room of choice. For the
first time ever, more than 50% of Canadian adults live alone.
Can there by any arrangement more unnatural? Is there a relationship
between living alone, our pre-occupation with pets (pet-ophilia)
and our national obsession with comedy?
two people are laughing it is certain misfortune has befallen
a third,” says the saw. But what if there isn’t a
second and third person? Without the other, the joke’s on
who? It’s on you. Small wonder television comedy dominates
prime time television. And if that’s not enough, most mid-sized
cities feature a comedy club or two, and many of our largest cities
program lengthy comedy festivals into their rites of summer. If
you’re looking for a restorative, shared communal experience,
there’s no better place than the comedy club to drop anchor.
the court jester to the present day comedian, the conditions of
life have been such that there has always been a need for laughter,
but it would take a millennium (from St. Francis of Assisi to
the 1960s), for the unrevolted masses to challenge the empty promises
of materialism. The counter culture or hippy movement proposed
an alternative set of values. Riding a drug-fuelled wave of euphoria
and idealism, the hippies took their chances on the trifecta of
“turn on, tune in, drop out.” Many of them, following
the sitar drones of George Harrison to their ghatly source, looked
to the East to fulfill their spiritual needs. But alas, Zen and
the Upanishads didn’t pay the rent and the movement was
eventually compromised by human nature -- temporarily down but
never out. We soberly note that Envy, Pride and Avarice have survived
the thousands of ‘isms’ that have been devised to
hippy movement -- a last stand against the juggernaut of corporatism
– petered out, the demand for comedy dramatically increased
and continues unabated. But it is for more than ‘just for
laughs’ that many of us are signing up for live comedy.
Our freedoms, especially First Amendment freedoms are under siege,
in part because the Tsars of political correctness (PC) enjoy
popular support at the ballet box. Never before have we been so
hamstrung by political correctness. You can’t open your
mouth without offending someone; and if you argue against victims’
rights you’re either a racist, homophobe or sexist. The
comedy club is the only public place where PC hasn’t made
any inroads. In the club, nothing is sacred, no joke too offensive
or dirty; it is where the people in their marvelous diversity
come to air out their hang-ups and civilizational discontents
with a grin-and-bear-it as wide as the world, and the only thing
hurting are them bellies full of laughter, and the only angry
man is the guy who can’t get a ticket.
is healing, it is therapeutic; it allows us to reconnect with
our authentic, essential selves. In its funny way, it fills a
void in our spiritual life that left unfulfilled leaves us vulnerable
to an endless procession of quick fixes and their dubious claims.
And finally, laughter allows us to indulge human nature so we
can more easily recognize it and better understand and manage
'semiotic' indicator, you’d have to be 'idiotic' not to
realize that our growing need to laugh is no laughing matter.