I’m going to date myself here, but I grew up watching Laugh In and the Carol Burnett Show. I still laugh hysterically if I see a clip of Arte Johnson in his yellow raincoat riding a tricycle and simply tipping over or Ruth Buzzi as Gladys Ormphby. I can’t help but smile if I hear “Sock it to me!” or “Here comes the judge!” or “My name is Edith Ann and I’m six years old.” I get a bit teary eyed hearing “I’m so glad we had this time together” and I can’t think of Tim Conway without thinking of Harvey Korman. I remember sitting around the big colored TV in the living room with my entire family and not a minute went by without us at least chuckling.
The humor in those shows seemed innocent to me. Yes, some of it was stereotyped (like Goldie Hawn as the “dumb blond”) but as I remember it, it poked fun at humanity in general: at our foibles and quirks, at our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. Individuals were not targeted for ridicule due to race, religion, orientation, nationality, political views or situations in which they may have found themselves embroiled. The shows (at least the comedy sketches on the Carol Burnett Show) were, for the most part, entirely staged just to make you laugh.
Several years after Laugh In and the Carol Burnett Show had been on the air, All in the Family first aired. This was, I believe, one of the first shows that intentionally used humor to illustrate the dangers and illuminate the hypocrisy of bigotry and intolerance. It was one of the first shows to use humor to increase the consciousness of the nation. M*A*S*H followed a year later and also used humor not only to raise our consciousness but also to make us aware of the horrors of war and show us how to use humor to cope with life’s daily ups and downs.
But M*A*S*H, along with two other shows that began that same year, Sanford and Son and Maude, also began to use humor to make fun of, embarrass, denigrate or mock individual characters in the show’s cast. Hawkeye’s relentless persecution of Frank Burns, Fred Sanford’s obvious dislike of his sister-in-law, Esther, and Maude’s disdain for anyone who was not a democratic women’s libber helped make laughing at someone one didn’t like or agree with acceptable. (I realize these shows were not the first: Don Rickles began his career in the 1950s and almost his entire act is centered around making fun of people. Not people in general but very specific people.)
Many years later, shows like Roseanne, while addressing social issues in much the same way as All in the Family, brought biting sarcasm and wilting diatribes against individuals, both real and fictional, into homes all around the world by the new technologies of cable and satellite TV broadcasts. Now, jokes or graphics making fun of celebrities, political parties, certain faiths, ethnicities, orientations, genders, weights— the list is literally endless— make their way around the world overnight via viral videos or graphics posted on the internet.
I don’t remember when I first began to question humanity’s use of humor. I do remember writing an article in the early 90s entitled “Prescription for Poison” in which I addressed the issue of humor and children. To a child who hears an “off-color” joke and sees Mom or Dad laugh at that joke, a seed is planted. After all, Mom and Dad don’t like lies, which make them angry, so if what they’re hearing is making them laugh, it must be the truth. And so stereotypes and prejudices and ignorance and hatred and intolerance are all planted in the minds of children without much thought by the adults around them.
I eventually decided that the only jokes I would tell would be those that involved any group to which I could claim membership. My reasoning was that I knew the pains and struggles of being a member of that group (overweight, gay, female, single mom, black sheep of the family, brainy, etc.) and I had no qualms poking fun of myself in good humor. I no longer find jokes about other groups funny if told by someone who does not belong to that group. (The only exception I make to this rule is that I will tell one very specific “dumb blonde” joke, but then the “dumb blonde” is not really a real group, although it is a stereotype.)
I hear people making fun of others while I’m standing in line at the grocery story or in the lounge at work or sitting in a waiting room at the doctor’s office or any place where strangers gather momentarily. And I hear people laugh not for the joy of laughing but at the expense of others. I have come to believe that many (most?) people nowadays use humor as a way in which to demonstrate to themselves that they are indeed not only different from but better than those they make fun of or laugh at.
Laughter really is one of the best medicines out there, but when laughing at others as opposed to laughing at oneself, I believe that laughter becomes more like a medication overdose, toxic to the human psyche. The level of toxicity in our humor is steadily increasing and has even reached lethal doses in some instances. Remember the international incident, involving violent protests in cities all around the world, after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad?
Being able to laugh at ourselves, at the situations we humans create for ourselves, at how things that seem so “right” at the time can go so “wrong”— that kind of laughter can be a very healing experience. In “When Everything Changes, Change Everything”, Neale Donald Walsch writes, “The opportunity that we have every day is to look straight at what’s going on right now and smile and have a good laugh on ourselves and say, ‘It’s all good.’” (p. 226)
But note something. He says to “have a good laugh on ourselves.” Not on others. Laughing at our own “mistakes” and our own “failings” can be very healing. It demonstrates that we recognize that, A, we survived our “mistake,” B, that our “failing” taught us something valuable and increased our understanding of Who We Really Are and, C, that we can still be happy even when things appear to be “going wrong.” In other words, being able to laugh at ourselves demonstrates that we have reached a state of acceptance and that we’re still okay with ourselves despite making a “mistake” or “failing” at our latest endeavor. This is when humor becomes holy. When it is healing and healthy and brings happiness to everyone who hears it.
And now I have a confession to make. I laughed when I wrote the title of this article because I can’t help but hear it in Burt Ward’s voice, although he adds the word “Batman” at the end.
(Shelly Strauss is a civil rights activist and speaker. In addition to becoming an ordained minister, she has written 20-plus novels and is the “resident visionary” at One Spirit Project. Shelly is also a spiritual helper on the ChangingChange website, offering support and guidance to people faced with unexpected and unwelcome change .)