Ken Dodd recently agreed to give a lecture on the relationship between citizenship and humour. He correctly argued that laughing can be a balm to someone who is hurting: “You are what you laugh at; you laugh at what you are afraid of” he said.
Good humour can reveal a good attitude and celebrating the joy of simply being alive can be a positive way of strengthening society.
It was Gracie Fields, the Lancashire comedienne, who once said “it’s so bad luv, laughing is all that’s left.” Laughter is one of the greatest therapies in combatting adversity; and whole communities and nations have frequently relied on humour to get them through their bleakest times.
On august 13, 1961, the barbed wire was rolled out of Berlin to create the Berlin wall. For nearly 30 years, until it was dismantled, wall jokes proliferated – especially among those living in the east. Laughing was all that was left.
It was a way of humanising the tragedy of an ideology that had divided families and a nation. Wags would ask, “when does a good border guard fire the warning shot?” And answer with chilling wit; “at the end of the second clip of ammunition” – thereby making light of the german democratic republic’s command to its border guards to “shoot to kill” anyone trying to cross the wall.
Jokes about those who rule you – and sometimes those who tyrannise you – are a form of folklore that has existed in societies as seemingly different as communist eastern Europe, Czarist Russia, modern Egypt, 12-century Persia, and modern day Iran. Humour can also be wonderfully subversive. It can protect self-respect and identity.
When the nazis invaded Norway, in April 1940, beginning a five-year occupation, Quisling jokes – fearlessly exposing Quisling’s stupidity, his lies and his arrogance – rallied national morale, were a focus for solidarity and encouraged courageous resistance.
Wartime humour – not unlike the gulf war bumper sticker `Saddam Hussein – so dammed insane’ – helped consolidate public opinion against the Nazis. It also provided hope.
Comic songs, during war time, offered relief from the sombre realities of the aerial bombardment of cities like Coventry, London and Liverpool; humour inspired solidarity in the face of a common enemy.
Laughter and satire – the parody of a spitting image, the poking of fun at totalitarian tendencies, the political cartoon, the sardonic cryptic wit of a Nancy Astor – is often the antidote needed for survival in times of crisis. As Rory Bremner has shown, it also helps deflate the self important.
In the face of acute suffering humour really is balm. Prisoners of war, returning from Vietnam and Japanese internment told how mirth, wise-cracking, ridiculing humour and mocking had sustained them. It was a way of fighting back.
Even in holocaust literature there are references to humour as a way of coping. Victor Frankl recalls that “humour was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”
In more totalitarian societies laughter relieves, at least temporarily, the pressures and anxiety of political oppression. Political jokes may not in themselves topple dictators, but they can provide solace. In a democracy like our own, perhaps the trouble with political jokes is that they sometimes get elected.