Charlie Chaplin once said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” Thankfully, most of us should be able to live according to Chaplin’s philosophy quite easily. Humour is such an integral part of our communications that we often employ it without much thought when conversing with others. Whether it is a cheap ‘three men walk into a bar’ joke, or a witty retort in the middle of a political debate, humour is a universal concept understood by all people regardless of time and culture. Of course, the more serious-minded of us may find humour a waste of time when there are more productive things to do. While it is true that humour is not appreciated in certain instances, it has much importance to us in societies because of the value it brings to people.
Humour plays a significant role in our lives as it is a source of entertainment and relaxation. After all, as the saying goes, “laughter is the best medicine”. It gives us a respite from stressful and tense situations. This explains why comedy films and shows such as Mr Bean and Jack Neo’s ‘Ah Boys To Men’ are so popular as well as why ‘sense of humour’ consistently makes the list of top ten traits people look for in potential life partners. Even in the tense and high-stakes world of politics, humour can be used to great effect. Former US President Ronald Reagan, for instance, was a master of using humour to diffuse tense situations and make his policies more relatable to the people. In justifying his policies of having limited governmental intervention in economics. he explained that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”. When questioned about the mounting US deficit, he said that he was not worried because it was “big enough to take care of itself.” During his re-election campaign in 1984, he was debating against opponent Walter Mondale about whether his old age would affect his ability to hold office for another term. Reagan won over the crowd, even evoking laughter from Mondale himself, when he said that “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. So I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Similarly, Barack Obama evoked humour to counter his Republican opponent Mitt Romney’s argument that the US military having fewer warships was a sign that it had become weaker by pointing out that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets”. These cases demonstrate how humour is significant in breaking up usually tense or boring situations.
In fact, humour can have uses beyond the occasional quip or remark. It can form the entire basis of discussing dull, controversial and sensitive topics. In education, for example, one way O-Level Chemistry students memorize the order of reactivity of metals is to use the sentence, “King Napoleon can manage all zany fellows since puberty” (the starting letters of each word represents the symbol of the element in the periodic table so ‘king’ is potassium, ‘napoleon’ is sodium and so on). Once students hear this nonsensical but amusing line, there is a good chance that they will never forget the pattern of reactivity again. In contrast, memorization through rote learning and brute force often ends up less effective as students become uninterested. Humour might even work for adults too. The rise of news reporting in the US through satire and comedy, such as John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ on HBO and ‘The Daily Show with Trevor Noah’ on Comedy Central, has made news interesting for members of the public. This has allowed topics ranging from hot-button issues such as capital punishment and voting rights to those mundane or alien to the average viewer like vaccinations and elections in Mexico and India, to be covered in segments as long as ten to 20 minutes. It also brutally exposes certain contradictions, hypocrisies and errors which public figures make, in ways that mainstream news stations cannot do. In an extreme case, actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen acted as fake interviewers in “documentaries” like ‘The Ali G Show’ and ‘Who Is America?’ to coax politicians out of their scripted messages. For instance, in an episode of ‘Who Is America?’, Baron Cohen managed to get former US Vice President Dick Cheney—a controversial person due to his involvement in the CIA’s use of torture on suspects—to openly endorse waterboarding. In another episode, he convinces gun lobbyists in the US to support arming children as young as three years old. The use of comedy and satire in these cases show that humour can play a significant role in society in making news entertaining and accessible to people and even in some cases, more accurate.
Nonetheless, there is a time and place for everything and there are certainly occasions where humour ought to play a limited role, or no role at all. In extremely serious and solemn situations such as funerals and court cases, there is not much place for humour. Humour isalsoof little to no value when it is used inappropriately or insensitively. Mocking people for things like race, religion, gender, height, weight, age and disability, for instance, is bullying, because it derives selfish pleasure at the expense of innocent people. Furthermore, it may cause harm to the victims beyond just normal hurt—they might suffer from alienation, depression and may even attempt suicide.Likewise, racist or sexual jokes that are likely to offend others should be avoided, especially in today’s highly globalized world where societies are more diverse than ever. A tactless comment made without any real harmful intent may still be taken the wrong way and this can cause or perpetuate social prejudice and tensions. The comparison that Italian politician Roberto Calderoli made between Italy’s black minister of integration and an orangutan example, was claimed to have no malicious intent.However, that does not change the fact that such a remark serves to reinforce the racist mindsets which are a major problem in multicultural Italy, and might create a backlash from the insulted group that could spin out of control. For instance, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings in France was a response to the newspaper’s publication of a cartoon that mocked Prophet Muhammad.People have to be careful about how they use humour as the consequences can be damaging if they cross the line. Therefore,there is a time and place for humour, and occasions where it is less significant and indeed, best not to be used.
In essence, humour plays a significant part of our communications and ourlives, but it is significant only in certain scenarios and when used appropriately. In more solemn and sensitive scenarios, humour becomes less important as its use is minimised or even eliminated due to social and cultural sensitivities. Ultimately, some types of humour are more meaningful than others. Jokes that are appropriate and made with good taste are the ones that actually add value to our lives, and in this way can play a very big role in making us happy and even to help us make sense of the world around us.