My six-year-old son likes to skip. He skips everywhere. This habit makes him seem relentlessly cheerful, even though the skipping has more to do with the fact that he has Asperger’s syndrome than with any genuine bonhomie on his part. I often think that when the 100-foot albino alligators emerge from New York City’s sewers, intent on devouring the populace, Gus will be skipping toward them, greeting them with a wave and asking if they prefer to travel by train, bus, or cab. (Urban transport: his current obsession, along with giraffes, the Beatles, and ladies’ feet.)
Having a son who is autistic and hyperactive is not, on the face of it, all that funny. Yet every single day, he cracks me up. Occasionally, I get into trouble for a certain lack of solemnity about his differences. For one thing, I don’t call them differences; I say he’s nuts. This hasn’t always endeared me to other moms of kids with special needs. And it’s not that I don’t understand the heartache and worry of having a child who can’t kick a soccer ball or carry on a complex conversation or, for that matter, zip his own pants. I understand. Believe me. But rather than look at, say, Gus’s budding foot fetish and run screaming to the psychiatrist, I’d rather think, Hey, at best he’ll be a podiatrist, and at worst he’ll have plenty of company in the chat rooms.
Every day of my life, I thank God for dark humor. I subscribe wholeheartedly to this idea, first put forth by Woody Allen: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.”
What is it about humans that makes us want to laugh when logically we should cry? Well, for one thing, dark humor is a form of bravery. Katherine Russell Rich is the author of The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer and Back, a laugh-out-loud chronicle of her battle against metastatic breast cancer. She’s one of the 8 percent of people still here 20 years after the stage IV diagnosis. I guess laughing didn’t hurt. For example, her first reaction to finding a lump in her breast was to stop having sex. WASP that she was, she didn’t know how etiquette dictated she should respond if someone felt it. When she got over that fear, she embarked on what she called the Bataan Dating March, finally settling on a relationship with an alcoholic shrink. Why? Because he was usually so drunk that “he wouldn’t have noticed if my head had fallen off,” she says, let alone notice a lump.
As the book progresses, one assumes it would be hard to get big yuks out of puking and bone-marrow transplants. But Rich somehow does.
“The worse things get, the funnier I think they are—that’s just how I grew up, how I learned to handle things,” she says. “But aside from that, I think you have to be funny so that other people don’t freak out. I mean, it’s fine to be going ‘Oh my God, I have cancer’ with your closest friends. But you can’t do that with everyone; you can’t ask the entire world to buoy you up.”
Dark humor is also, for Rich, a thumb in the eye to pain. “With cancer, it’s saying ‘You can take my body, but you’re not taking my mind,'” she says. “There’s a form of macho defiance there I really like.”
Humor also puts people at ease. Robert Reich is terrific at this. The former Clinton Labor secretary is four feet ten inches tall, born with a congenital disorder that stunted his growth. When he was running for governor of Massachusetts a few years ago, he’d start his speeches with “They told me to be short.” Or, standing on a step stool, he’d announce, “I’m the only candidate with a real platform.” His audience was comfortable with his height because he was comfortable. It’s a sophisticated form of consideration.
A twisted sense of humor, I realized recently, is the common denominator among the most loving, considerate people I know. A few years ago, my friend Spencer’s father died; this year, Spencer spent much of his time at the bedside of his mother, who was waging a long battle with heart disease. He loved her deeply, but he’s not exactly a sensitive New Age guy. A theater fanatic, he said only this in the e-mail announcement when his mother died: “Well, I can finally join the chorus of Annie.”
Arnie Cann is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who studies the role of humor in stress—specifically, how humor helps us cope. He has demonstrated what we all know instinctively: that being able to laugh after a trauma limits the awful effects of the traumatic event. But the question is, What kind of humor helps? In a study soon to be published in the International Journal of Humor Research, Cann used a psychological measure of humor styles, developed by Canadian researcher Rod Martin, to see how different kinds of funniness helped people deal with stress.
A couple of the humor styles measured, so-called aggressive and affiliative humor, had no effect one way or the other on how people perceived stress. Aggressive humor is exactly what it sounds like: attacking or teasing others for laughs. Think Polish jokes, think Lisa Lampanelli. Affiliative humor is a more general joking-around about neutral subjects: the weather, the latest Top Ten list on Letterman, etc. But two styles—so-called self-enhancing and self-defeating—did matter.
“We asked people to think about stressful experiences in the past month,” says Cann. “People high in self-enhancing humor simply don’t perceive as much stress in their lives as people with a self-defeating humor style.”
Self-defeating humor (think Rodney Dangerfield: “When I was a kid, my parents moved a lot, but I always found them”) can help make you more popular. After all, most of us like people who are funny and modest. But, says Cann, self-defeating humor “led to higher levels of stress.”
On the other hand, self-enhancing humor, the ability to crack wise and see the humor in a situation when your world is falling apart, protects us from stressful events. Jim McKay, the former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is an example. Suffering through a woeful first season, McKay was asked about the execution of his team. He responded, “I’m in favor of it.”
“The subjects who could look at the funny side of something grim really did seem to buffer themselves from anxiety,” concludes Cann. Indeed, McKay is now a football icon.
I couldn’t help thinking about Cann the other day when a married friend came to me and confessed she’d been having an affair. By then, her marriage was in ruins, she felt humiliated, and she had no idea how she’d go on with her life. But I knew she would be okay when, after an hour of sobbing, she said, “Well, I lost the man I love. But on the bright side, I could start a whole new career as a hotel consultant.”
Laughing in the face of disaster is a great tonic at the office too. People who work in high-stress fields agree: You gotta laugh, or you can’t do the work. Indeed, in their off-hours, I’ve always found funeral directors to be an unusually jolly lot. “You have to have a sense of humor in this business, just to deal with all the emotion,” says James Olson, owner of a funeral home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. “It’s often the families who come in and start joking around.”
My friend Spencer agrees. The day after his mother’s death, he and his brother went to the crematorium to make arrangements. “We were sitting in the funeral director’s office, and of course we were all very somber,” he says. “That’s when I noticed the sign on the wall: ‘No Smoking.’ Let’s say it broke the ice.”
Laughter, Olson adds, is often the flip side of crying. “That’s why you see so many people at funerals get the giggles.”
This brings to mind the famous Mary Tyler Moore Show episode. Mary goes to the funeral for Chuckles the Clown, who’d been dressed in a peanut costume for a parade when he was shelled by a hungry elephant. During the eulogy, Mary suffers from a bout of nervous giggles after Chuckles is remembered by a coworker for his many characters: “Peter Peanut, Mr. Fee Fi Fo, Billy Banana, and my particular favorite, Aunt Yoo Hoo. And what did Chuckles ask in return? Not much. In his own words—’a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.'” That’s when Mary completely loses it.
Our need to laugh—or, indeed, howl—in the face of awfulness is exactly what makes us human. Comedian Eddie Brill knows that, which is why his act treads some sensitive territory. At one point in his routine, he talks about how hot it is in Iraq. “It’s so hot there,” he says, “that the suicide bombers are blowing themselves up just for the breeze.” The line is dark, and it gets a laugh every time.
When a moment is freaky or sad or even tragic, laughter restores both normalcy and hope.
Last week, I got our son Gus’s report card. Despite reading and doing math ahead of grade level, he essentially can’t function in school. He is delayed in every social and behavioral marker. He won’t do anything with a group of kids, speaks loudly and inappropriately in class, acts up to get attention, and has such poor motor skills that at six, he can barely write his own name.
My husband, John, and I looked at the card together in grim silence. Then we got to phys ed. The gym teacher reported that Gus was advanced for his age-in skipping. “Look!” said John. “Our son is gifted.”
We snickered like idiots for a while. But you know what? Gus is our gift, for so many reasons, not the least of which is: He’s just so funny. When we laugh about him, we feel better about the future. It works every time.
Leave no gravestone unturned if you’re looking for guffaws.
“Here lies Johnny Yeast – Pardon me for not rising”
Ruidoso, New Mexico
“Stranger tread this ground with gravity – Dentist Brown is filling his last cavity”
St. George’s Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
“None of us ever voted for Roosevelt or Truman”
Hallenbeck Family, Elgin, Minnesota
“At rest beneath this slab of stone – Lies stingy Jimmy Wyatt – He died one morning
just at ten – And saved a dinner by it”
“Here lies John Ross – Kicked by a hoss”
Kendel Parish Church, Westmoreland, England
The evening news has been pretty bleak of late. As these headlines from the satirical newspaper The Onion prove, one way to cope is to laugh at it.