A joke does not trivilaise suffering but reminds us there is life beyond itby Shappi Khorsandi / March 25, 2020 / Leave a comment
In Kate Fox’s brilliantly observed book “Watching The English” she notes how, after the 7/7 bombing, messages from all over the world flew towards our stricken capital, declaring “We are all Londoners today.” Many Londoners responded with jokes along the lines of “Then you owe us £8 congestion charge.”
Far from making light of a crisis, a well-timed, well-aimed joke is the very thing we need to keep us hopeful. Jokes among one another help us acknowledge the dire straits we are in and release tension to give us strength.
As we try and navigate our way through the coronavirus crisis, humour is standing shoulder to shoulder with us as we face catastrophy. The memes, jokes, videos, take-downs have not dismissed the severity of where we are, but they help us connect with each other. And in a crisis, we need to feel that connection to keep our morale up, to keep us from despair.
Of course music, poetry and other art forms do this too, but what does humour do specifically? Well, for a start, it is culturally specific: its potency is very often lost in translation. Humour gathers under its umbrella those who “get” it, gives us the reassurance that we are not alone. Joking around our fear makes it real but managable.
Two weeks ago, my parents began to self-isolate. My brother messaged from his own isolation in Italy and joked that coronavirus wasn’t as big a threat to our parents as being cooped up alone together. Ho ho ho, how we laughed on our family WhatsApp about my parents’ legendary squabbles. None of us expressed our sadness or fear. There was no need. We miss them and are terrified for them, we know we all feel this. Laughing together was acceptance and gave us a feeling of solidarity that crying couldn’t. Crying has its place of course, I’ve been doing some of that too. Sadness and worry are inevitable, but by laughing, we reassure others that we are managing. Humour builds strength.
Satire too thrives in a crisis. Everyday humour and satire are different things of course but both have a critical role to play. Satire keeps its head when others are losing theirs. It goes against the grain, pricks pomposity and lampoons leaders, reminding us that power belongs to the people. Satire does not need to be laugh-out-loud funny; it makes you think, and it can make you cry.
It is a powerful political tool. Across the planet and the centuries, satirists have a history of being executed by tyranical regimes or put in prison, such is the effect their words can have on targets. My own father is an satirist exiled from Iran whose essays and articles earned him a place on the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Death List (which, by the by, is very different to a wish list, or a “bucket” list. It’s more of a “head-in-a-bucket” list). In Europe we saw the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo satirists by Islamists.
According to his wife Judy, David Steel’s political career was ruined by the satirical TV programme Spitting Image’s portrayal of him, sending him up as a tiny little man sitting in the pocket of David Owen. Satire is not just “jokes.”
The crisis we are in at the moment, is, frankly, a terrible time for extroverts. I understand why so many are taking to streaming and making cringy videos (I have made a couple myself). Gad Gadot and her A-list friends sweetly missed the mood when they put out a video of themselves singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” They were mercilessy lampooned for the massively self-unaware cringe-fest.
Happily though, it kick-started an avalanche of memes, spoof videos and wisecracks at their expense which cheered everybody up for a moment, so I am thankful to them for that.
Madonna has been hanging around in her bathroom and treating us to some bizarre home videos, sing about fried fish into a hair brush in one, and in another, she bathes in a milk bath strewn with rose petals as she tells us we are all equal. Fair enough. Look, we are all doing whatever it is we need to deal with this as we get into our groove.
Comedians have stepped up and are producing masses of online content to keep people, but mainly ourselves, amused. We are finding our pockets of audience online as we still need to connect with people.
One of my favourite jokes is Arnold Brown’s line “I became a comedian because of the lack of attention I got as a child.” Awareness is key in humour and that’s where the A-listers go wrong. We don’t need sincerity; we have seen a video of a critical care nurse who, after a gruelling shift, went shopping to find there wasn’t so much as a manky satsuma left for her. We see the doctors imploring us to stay home, we are seeing daily the death tolls rise. We see the horror we are in. We don’t need movie stars telling us they are feeling “philosophical” and singing to us.
Like talking about feelings, or taking a walk through nature, humour is a human coping mechanism at a time of crisis. Some of the best laughs I’ve ever had have been in the most serious of situations. Dark humour can carry us through the darkest times. Humour never diminishes trauma or sadness, but reminds us that there is life beyond it.