"I purposely go into areas that people are still very sensitive about and smarting about, because if you can laugh at it, you can deal with it. That's how I've lived my whole life. I swear to you - and I'm Jewish - that if I were in Auschwitz, I would have been doing jokes just to make it OK for us."

     -Joan Rivers on Larry King

Maybe Joan Rivers was your cup of tea. She wasn’t always mine. But her comments on joking about the Holocaust resonated with me as a recovering shikker because, as offensive as Holocaust jokes may be to most of us, there is no doubt in my mind that the prisoners who found a way to laugh about their plight were more likely to survive it. 

After years of battling alcoholism, I know recovery would not have been possible without a sense of humor. A joke was the quickest way to turn on the light, even if briefly, when your world was engulfed in darkness.

With the sudden, sad demise of Joan Rivers, it’s unfortunate that we don’t have someone to provide us with the gallows humor that would help us cope. 

Someone like ... Joan Rivers.

Laughter in the face of tragedy has long been a staple of cinema and television.  The movie and TV series “M*A*S*H” featured surgeons cracking wise while up to their wrists in war casualties in a mobile Army hospital during the Korean Conflict. In “Patch Adams,” a medical student treated cancer-stricken patients with humor. And in “Life Is Beautiful,” winner of the 1997 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture, a Jewish/Italian father helps his son survive a Nazi death camp by whimsically treating the Holocaust as a game.

But humor for survival’s sake has many real life applications as well. Repatriated Vietnam prisoners of war said making light of the intolerable was more helpful to them than religion. From naming their horrific POW camp the “Hanoi Hilton,” to scratching the note, “Smile, You’re on Candid Camera,” on the wall of a decrepit shower stall, POWs found a temporary mental escape from the prison walls. “Believe it or not,” one survivor recalled, “even under the almost worst of conditions over there, under the right circumstances, we could laugh.”

Playfulness, which forms the basis for the sense of humor, has even helped people survive the most horrible of events, like the World Trade Center attack.

One survivor reports a group of office workers who were running down flight after flight of steps, not knowing if they had the strength to make it to the bottom. By the time they had reached the 11th floor, they were exhausted and couldn't go on. Then one woman suggested that they pretend it was New Year's Eve. En masse they began a countdown with each flight of stairs and shouted out, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” This “game” gave them the distraction and energy they needed. Encouraged by the levity, they all made it to the street and to safety.

In addiction recovery fellowships, members insist on humor. Their rule No. 62 is to not take oneself too seriously. Twelve-step meetings are the only places you can find people laughing heartily about failed suicide attempts. Doing so is not evidence of moral baseness; instead it’s a way members support one another. They know that if it isn’t funny, it’s too real. And, let’s face it, the dark desperation that leads to suicidal thoughts, let alone attempts, is wretched on a nuclear scale.

Humor is a good strategy in building resilient families and particularly useful when times are hard, says parenting expert Michael Grose, who lists humor as his No. 1 coping mechanism when children experience failure or loss.

“Come on, laugh it off,” Grose urges. “Some children and young people will naturally crack jokes or make fun of seemingly serious situations. This is a fantastic way to release. As a parent, you may need to lighten up tense situations by introducing humor of your own.”

Can a sense of humor be learned? Renowned humor researcher Paul McGhee, PhD, who teaches nurses about the coping benefits of humor, has an eight-step training program for improving your sense of humor:

  • Surround yourself with humor you enjoy
  • Learn to adopt a playful attitude
  • Laugh more often and more heartily
  • Begin telling jokes and funny stories
  • Play with language puns and other verbal humor
  • Find humor in everyday life
  • Take yourself lightly - laugh at yourself
  • Find humor in the midst of stress

In positive psychology, humor has been identified as one of 24 character strengths considered vital to human thriving. And in the first study of its kind, researchers found that people who can laugh at themselves tended to be more cheerful.

The ancient Greeks took it a step further. To them, laughter was truly the best medicine. The term “humor” derives from the Greeks’ humoral medicine, which taught that the balance of fluids in the human body, known as humours (Latin: humor, "body fluid"), controlled human health and emotion. Sickness occurred when the body fluids were out of balance.

Perhaps this explains why we often find comfort in laughter, even in the worst of circumstances. If you need an example, check out Richard Pryor’s classic standup routine on YouTube about setting himself afire while freebasing cocaine. No one has been to darker places, and no one ever made them more hilarious.

Laughter is indeed the best medicine.

For her part, Rivers made a career of poking fun at herself. "I have no sex appeal,” she once quipped. “If my husband didn't toss and turn, we'd never have had the kid."

She famously joked about her penchant for cosmetic surgery, saying, “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.”

Self-deprecating humor, she said, helped her survive her husband’s suicide, bankruptcy and the blackball by NBC that nearly destroyed her career. Of course humor at the expense of others, whose dress, style or body type came into her sights on Hollywood’s red carpets, would reignite her career late in life.

Lena Dunham, the celebrated young creator of the HBO series “Girls,” and a recent target of Rivers for her zaftig build and unusual evening gown choices, honored her tormentor upon news of her death, saying that the 81-year-old’s standup act was “incredible: athletic, jaw-dropping, terrifying, essential. It never stopped. Neither will she.” 

But Dunham, despite the solemnity of the occasion, couldn’t help but add: “Joan is gone but a piece of her lives on. Her nose, because it's made of polyurethane.”

Somewhere, Joan Rivers is laughing.

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Right Step's family of Texas addiction treatment centers and luxury rehab program Promises Austin. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, a scientifically validated approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives upon achieving sobriety.

About the Author

Jason Powers
Jason Powers, M.D., is certified in addiction and family medicine and serves as chief medical officer at Right Step and Promises Austin.

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