A discussion of the importance of humor.


There’s a story about a newly incarcerated prisoner, who at his first meal sits quietly at a table with other inmates.  He eats his dinner in silence as is the rule, which is clearly posted on the walls of the mess hall.  NO TALKING DURING MEALS.  Guards are posted around the perimeter, stationed so that they can monitor the prisoners and quickly enforce this rule if they happen to see anyone in conversation.  Only the clatter of utensils against the prisoner’s individual stainless steel trays disrupts the otherwise quiet atmosphere.  Near the end of the meal, one of the prisoners yells out “ninety-seven.”  The room comes alive with gales of laughter while the surrounding guards take billy clubs from their utility belts to show that they are at the ready.  They yell at the prisoners.  “QUIET DOWN, NOW,” but nothing can be done, as the entire population of the prison roars with laughter, save the latest addition to their ranks.  Eventually the laughter dies down, the end of meal bell rings and they all stand to remove their dirty trays and single file, quietly exit the mess hall.

The “new guy” can’t wait to get back and ask his cellmate what was so funny about the number “ninety-seven.”  His cell mate looks around to make sure no guards are in their line of sight and explains that since they are not allowed to talk at meals, they have all memorized a joke book.  All of the jokes are numbered, so one of the prisoners waits until no guard can actually see him and calls out the number of his favorite joke.  The new guy is given a copy of the jokes with the numbers and told that if he memorizes them by number, he, too, will be in on the joke.

At the next several meals, sure enough, someone always called out a number with the same raucous result. “THIRTY-NINE,” elicits the same hilarity from the prisoners.  The frustrated guards remove their billy clubs and bat the heavy end into their other palm to show their irritation, but even they know they’ve been bested again.  Shortly the meal ends and the prisoners again return to their quarters.

After a few weeks, the new guy has memorized all of the jokes, but he has a favorite.  He decides that at the next meal he will summon his courage and call out the number of his chosen bit of humor.  Near the end of the meal, all is quiet, as usual, and the new guy loudly calls out “FIFTY-SIX.”  The clatter of utensils continues as the only sound in the cafeteria.  The new guy looks to the left and right amazed that nobody at all laughs at his joke.  He can’t understand what happened.  It’s one of the funniest jokes on the list.  When he returns to his cell, he asks his cellmate why nobody laughed at fifty-six.  “Well,” came the reply, “some people can tell a joke and some people just can’t.” 

Humor is truly a valuable part of life.  There are times when everything seems dreary, but a good joke can bring to life a room full of people.  We know that as individuals, sometimes humor is the only way to overcome a lousy mood.  We also know that humor is not always welcome.  My little story illustrates the fact that some people just don’t have the knack of telling a good joke.  Timing is important.  An ill-timed joke can even be offensive, depending upon the listener’s point of view.

Humor makes life bearable sometimes.  At other times it adds a bit of spice to the atmosphere.  When I think of the difficult times in my life, humor often nullifies what might otherwise become a central unpleasant issue.  Recently a good friend of mine encountered a health situation which was not dire, but certainly uncomfortable.  We all know that when we have a physical discomfort, it’s difficult to focus on anything else.  Naturally I had to treat his situation carefully, but my goal was to help refocus his attention on a humorous aspect of life.  I’ve often heard that laughter is the best medicine, but then there are all kinds of sayings like that, such as prevention is the best medicine.  There’s probably some truth in all of these sayings.  There’s no specific joke connected with this mini-anecdote.  I happen to know this person extremely well and can almost always elicit a laugh from him.  We shared a house during graduate school, and often a gloomy morning filled with trepidation about what we might encounter that day could be laughed away before we ever left our quarters.  I guess knowing one’s audience can be helpful, particularly in such instances.

My father had a great sense of humor.  I don’t think he would have done so well in these times of political correctness. He often conjured laughter from others by personalizing jokes and making them about my mother.  He used to tell how she complained that he didn’t get her a birthday present one year.  He went on to say that she didn’t use what he got her the previous year.  “Yes,” she replied, “but last year you gave me a cemetery plot.”  Of course, he would provide all of the dialogue and mother would just say, “Oh Johnny.”

I think she enjoyed my father’s use of her as a comic figure, but a devout feminist could have easily found fault with his banter.  He truly never aimed at hurting anyone, but always had a joke at the ready and a great laugh to follow his own stories.  I have written before about my father, and he had great depth well beyond his sense of humor, but it was his sense of humor that so often brought smiles to others.

I love to laugh, but more than that, I love to hear others laugh.  Humor can be simple and decent. It’s never necessary to couple humor with filth.  I’m not a prude, and of course, I’ve heard rather raw jokes that make me laugh.  The point of this, though, is that humor stands on its own.  People love to laugh.  When we are laughing, we are not thinking about the sad or troublesome things in life that so often beg our attention

Much of entertainment is aimed at providing humor, but it’s well known that some of the most highly visible comedians trade their public persona for a private life of depression and feelings of inadequacy.  I’ve often wondered if it’s worth the trade-off.

Most comedians have a style to their comedy.  Some provide humor through ethnic comparison. This can be a slippery slope, again, a result of our current penchant for political correctness.  There are humorists who play with words to make their mark.  Others use facial expressions to get a laugh.  Those individuals often go the distance and become clowns.  They make a statement with their attire and their make-up that says “go ahead and laugh at me.”

There’s a poem titled “Solitude” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox in which she begins with: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.”