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Humor

  • Date: 12/13/2008
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Commencement (P.M.)
  • You have heard that the world, now at your doorstep, is a world of opportunities...a world also with many risks.  That is true; opportunity and risk usually go hand-in-hand.  But remember that risk and anxiety are two quite different conditions and a simple story will illustrate my point.

    The Surgeon General tells us that cigarettes kill more than 150,000 Americans each year, and that automobiles on our highways kill more than 50,000 people per year. But nobody, it would seem, is afraid of cigarettes, nor of automobiles. However, according to the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health, everyone is afraid of sharks. The Navy says that there are about 50 shark attacks worldwide each year.

    The National Bureau of Health Statistics doesn't even keep a record of shark attacks because there are so few. (They know how many people are killed by bee stings, but not shark bites.) The best guess is that sharks kill two or three people each year in the United States.  But, the fact is that if you went to a crowded beach and shouted "shark" -- everyone would race out of the water, jump into a car, light up a cigarette, and drive home!

    That's the difference between anxiety and risk. 

    However, our topic today is not risk or anxiety; it is humor, which this shark story has helped us introduce by creating the opportunity for a bit of laughter.

    Indeed, even on this solemn occasion, we must not take ourselves so seriously that we forget to have some fun.

    Humor and the laughter it brings have been a staple of our American culture since the American Revolution, if not before.  Why?  Because there is obvious pleasure in distraction from the daily routine and humor has practical uses.

    Humor tends to point out incongruities to drive home a point and increase its power, as was the case with the shark story I shared a moment ago.  Humor also can be used to create bonds with others, to gain their attention or affection.  And, humor can be used therapeutically to relieve stress and improve health.  

    One researcher estimates that "...a good laugh produces an increase in heart rate that is equivalent to ten minutes on a rowing machine or fifteen minutes on an exercise bike."1

    And, while I would be the first to tell you that a comedian's monologue does not replace a good workout, laughter certainly has a positive and healthy benefit. 

    Jim Holt, a long-time contributor to The New Yorker, was asked by the magazine to create an article on the philosophy and history of humor for an upcoming special edition.  His efforts resulted in his book, Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes.2

    In it, he "...discusses why we laugh at what we do.  He sets out competing theories about the motivation behind joke-telling: the Superiority Theory, rooted in mockery and derision; the Incongruity Theory, in which whimsicality disrupts logic; and (Sigmund Freud's) Relief Theory, holding jokes to be a way of breaking down inhibitions (in other words, usually a naughty joke)..."3

    For thousands of years, comedians have provided us with laughter - from the late-night monologues of Jay Leno and David Letterman all the way back to the "Group of Sixty," a comedy club in ancient Greece that met regularly to trade wisecracks.4

    Yet..."Although we think of a joke as a cultural constant," Holt tells us that, "it is a form of humor that comes and goes with the rise and fall of civilizations..." 5

    For example: Not long ago, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote about a group of young, black comics who are taking on the system in South Africa and have taken the country by storm. 

    Unlike the United States, where every politician seems to be considered fair game, "nearly every country in Africa has 'insult laws' to protect the dignity of its leaders..."6 

    Malan's article, "Did You Hear the One About Apartheid," describes their monologues as "renegade comedy of a sort never previously seen in South Africa," slaughtering sacred cows and lampooning important people.7

    Indeed, humor serves as political commentary, and some of the best comedians often find themselves doubling as social commentators.  In the United States, there have been many good ones, including Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, Jon Stewart, the group Capitol Steps, and many current and former cast members of Saturday Night Live.

    This past June, we lost comedian George Carlin, one of the icons from the 1970s counterculture movement.  One of Carlin's classic monologues took on television censorship.  I am sure that your parents remember: "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."   And even after all these years, the "heavy seven," as Carlin called them, still holds up.8  

    If you are wondering what George Carlin's seven forbidden words are my guess is that you will not ask your parents, but go directly to the Internet where you will find just about any type of joke imaginable. 

    Interestingly, some comedy enthusiasts worry that the millions of jokes shared daily on the worldwide web, even though they are funny by their content, might be ruining the ancient craft of telling humorous stories well or delivering a punch line optimally. 

    Others tell us that "old-fashioned joke-telling, done face-to-face, is a species of performance art, in which intonation, timing and often the use of foreign accents are decisive.  You can't do a parrot with a Yiddish accent joke via e-mail.  Nor can you gage the response of your audience and know when to speed up or slow down the pace of a longish joke."9

    Several years ago, a project headed by Professor Richard Wiseman and The British Association for the Advancement of Science, set out on the Internet to find the world's funniest joke.  They encouraged their readers to send in their favorite jokes and to also rate the jokes submitted by others. The project resulted in 40,000 entries and received 1.5 million ratings. 

    So as to not keep you in suspense, let me tell it to you:    

    "Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his (cell) phone and calls (911). He gasps, 'My friend is dead!  What can I do?'  The operator says 'Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.' There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says 'OK, now what?'"10

    Now, whether this is the world's funniest joke certainly is open to debate, but my point is that our ability to laugh together keeps us connected.  And, it certainly is an area in which we want to hone our skills, because in today's business world, the punch line can improve the bottom line. 

    The best people are attracted to those companies where there is an element of fun in the workplace.  Business guru Tom Peters certainly understands the importance of humor in the workplace.  "The number one premise of business," he says, "is that it...ought to be fun. If it's not fun, you're wasting your life."11

    And the reverse also is true.  Businesses are attracted to those job applicants with a good sense of humor, because they tend to be more creative, have better decision-making capabilities and have fewer problems with absenteeism. 

    In an article entitled, "Making Sense of Humor in the Workplace," Steve Bannister cites two surveys.  The first showed 84% of the 1,000 executives interviewed, "...felt that workers with a sense of humor do a better job."12 

    The other found that 98% of the CEOs surveyed preferred "...job candidates with a sense of humor to those without."13

    As University of Akron graduates, you have learned how to learn and you have learned how to reason.  You have gained the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions.  Hopefully, one of those decisions is that life is too short to take yourself too seriously. 

    So in closing, here is my advice to you: Continue to develop your skills, have fun, tell some good clean jokes and laugh often. 

    References

    1. Professor Richard Wiseman, University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, Laugh-lab, Founded by The British Association for the Advancement of Science to understand the psychology of humor., Sept. 2001
    2. Holt, Jim, Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, W.W Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 2008, p. 30
    3. Epstein, Joseph, "It is Only a Joke.  Or Is It?", The Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2008, p. W6
    4. Holt, Ibid, p.8
    5. Holt, Ibid, p.6
    6. Malan, Rian, "Did You Hear the One About Apartheid?", The Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2008, p.W1
    7. Malan, Ibid
    8. Carlin, George, "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,"  1972
    9. Epstein, Ibid
    10. Professor Richard Wiseman, University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, Laugh-lab, Founded by The British Association for the Advancement of Science to understand the psychology of humor., Sept. 2001
    11. Bannister, Steve, "Making Sense of Humor in the Workplace, CanadaOne magazine, October 2006
    12. Bannister, Ibid
    13. Bannister, Ibid
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