Feeling uncomfortable, laughing anyway: Humor helps us cope


I wake up to an excited phone call from my mom — already on her third coffee of the day — saying that comedian Mike Birbiglia’s show she saw last November has just aired on Netflix. Having attended a Catholic grade school and a Jesuit college, my mother, a self-proclaimed “casual Catholic,” will laugh until she cries at Birbiglia’s satirical anecdotes on changing hymn lyrics or his confusion over Jesus’s undying love for him.

This has not been the response from all of Birbiglia’s audiences. In his latest Netflix special, “Thank God For Jokes,” he recounts offending the entire audience in a Christian college gymnasium. Like most comedians, he constantly walks the line of what is deemed okay to joke about. He stays up late with his wife debating the potential of jokes that deal with subject matter he believes is “meant to offend or upset [an audience] momentarily, before ultimately releasing tension.”

Birbiglia is just one example of a comedian unfairly criticized. When intelligently executed, purposeful humor should not be censored.

Comedy takes the very thing that makes us want to run and helps us catch our breath. Humor helps us recognize the importance of being temporarily unsettled. As a smart platform, deserving of critical evaluation, humor at its most effective does not hurt or demean, but rather sheds light on subject matter that is hard to digest.

The crucial difference between successful and offensive humor lies in execution. Audiences should laugh at the purpose and delivery of the joke, not the subject matter itself. The conversation should not be what is acceptable to joke about, but how one should use comedy to further a depth of dialogue that is unacceptable in most conventional public speech. We should be critical of the societal issues humor is attempting to tackle, rather than challenge the jokes that are calling attention to them.

It’s dangerous, however, when a man jokes about having ebola (after sneezing on a plane) and is subsequently escorted off the flight by health officials in hazmat suits. Or when Donald Trump jokingly implies that supporters of the Second Amendment should take matters into their own hands regarding Clinton and her pick for Supreme Court nominee at a rally in North Carolina. As Birbiglia puts it, “’I’m joking’ is always a defense when people say dumb things. A joke should never end with ‘I’m joking.’”

Humor and its complexities can make difficult or impossible situations tolerable. It retains the power to act as one of the most commanding forms of social commentary and catharsis. It can help us confront issues we are not prepared to face. As comedy writer Steve Kaplan puts it, it helps us “grapple with the contradictions of being human and with the meanings — if there are any — behind life’s cruelties.”

After being arrested for an expired license, Birbiglia uses his phobia of bears to comment on problematic law enforcement. “If a bear kills you, everyone gets mad at the bear,” he says. “If a cop kills you, 30 percent of Americans are like, ‘It’s a hard job’.”

In spring of 2015, Amy Schumer released a sketch parodying “Friday Night Lights,” calling out behavior that encourages and condones rape culture. A football coach stands in front of his team and yells, “How do I get through to you boys that football isn’t about rape? — It’s about violently dominating anyone who stands between you and what you want.” Jokes lower our defenses enough to dig into the nuances of sensitive situations. By offending us, they humble us and foster trust between performer and listener.

Built on the work of linguist Tom Veatch, the Benign Violation Theory asserts that humor is derived from the combination of a situation that is simultaneously viewed as a violation and as benign; a moment where threat and harmlessness merge. It is Louis C.K. saying that on the one hand, children with nut allergies should be protected, but following up to say if touching a nut kills you, maybe you’re supposed to die. It is the powerful intimacy that stems from being the butt of a joke.

If the threat weren’t serious enough to make us want an EpiPen injection, laughing wouldn’t be as much of a relief.

Maggie Duffy is a sophomore sociology major. She can be reached at mduffy@oxy.edu.