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What's So Funny About the Pandemic?

Laughter may not be a vaccine, but it's still good medicine.

It's a curious thing. We're in the midst of the worst global health crisis in over 100 years, and yet we're overflowing with jokes, memes, parodies, cartoons, gag videos, and gifs from cabin-fevered pet owners putting pajamas on their dogs for fun.

The sheer gross tonnage of it surely has something to do with all those comedians being out of work, and the number of people worldwide who are personally affected by the pandemic—thus more people weighing in on the subject. Plus, it's just human nature. We can't help ourselves. In the face of crises, as we often say, if we didn't laugh we'd cry.

There's nothing wrong with crying, of course. In fact, a lot of us would probably benefit from the salutary effect of a good jag. But you can't laugh and be scared at the same time. And laughter gives us a bit of benevolent amnesia, a chance to momentarily forget our troubles. In a word, escapism. People have always turned to humor in times of trouble, and the deeper the trouble, the more relief we need from it. “I feel extremely fortunate that I still have laughter in me,” I recently heard someone say. “Very soon, I might not.”

The pandemic is pretty much the only topic of conversation these days—have you noticed?—and even when we do bring up some other topic, it's barely a degree of separation away from the pandemic anyway, and within moments we're back to talking about it. But the topic is fairly depressing overall, even when gilded with silver linings, and we crave a break from being pinned to the ground by the gravity of it all. And the antidote to gravity is levity.

Humor is among our favorite pick-me-ups, even when it's black with no sweetener, and black comedy has always had the effect of bolstering the morale of the oppressed and blunting the morale of the oppressors. And it's certainly less injurious than some of our other coping mechanisms, like denial, intoxication, bingeing, conspiracy theories, and feckless raging at the powers that be.

And though there's plenty that's not funny about the pandemic, there's enough absurdity, farce, nonsense, and slap-your-forehead stupidity in our attempts to cope with it that it would be hard not to laugh. And we should, in my opinion. In fact, we should let 'er rip. “Life does not cease to be funny when people die,” said George Bernard Shaw, “any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."

Some may think pandemic humor inappropriate (and it certainly could be; no-one is laughing about elderly people dying in their nursing homes, or being quarantined with an abusive partner), but it's also a coping mechanism, if not a survival mechanism. In fact, one of laughter's most curative features is that it offers us catharsis, a chance to blow off steam and lower the internal pressure.

Catharsis was originally a medical term referring to the flushing out of the body during menstruation, and means to cleanse or purge. Aristotle was the first to use it in a theatrical sense, referring to the emotional discharge a playwright hoped to effect in an audience by the release of pent-up emotion, typically at the end of a good old Greek tragedy. (Speaking of which, is it just a coincidence that it was the Greek god of fire who built a place that John Milton called Pandemonium, which in his epic poem Paradise Lost is the capital of Hell.)

In a sense, humor is part of our natural immune response to crises, and indeed laughter has been shown to be good for the immune system, doubles as a stress-reliever and mood enhancer, and helps us take back some of the control we've lost to the pandemic. Freud even considered humor a kind of affirmative defense mechanism. “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality,” he said, “to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world. It shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”

Some research even suggests that the healing effect of humor isn't necessarily a function of how much you laugh at all the jokes going around, but whether you maintain a generally humorous outlook on life, the downs as well as the ups—an outlook that would surely come in handy these days.

Meanwhile, pandemic humor is proving to be, well, infectious. An outbreak of contagious laughter, you might say. At the least, it takes the edge off this frightfully, powerfully, marvelously edgy experience we're all having, is a kind of barometer of our resilience, and gives us a way of bonding with one another, because we end up passing all these jokes and memes and stupid-pet-trick videos around to our own peeps, creating a kind of social cohesion.

“Love is probably the most powerful tool for overcoming negativity,” says Paul McGhee in Health, Healing and the Amuse System. “Humor comes in a close second.”

So, in the spirit of amusing and immune-ing ourselves, I thought I'd share a sampling of our attempts at overcoming negativity in the time of coronavirus:

  • For the first time in history, we can save the human race by laying in front of the TV and doing nothing. Let's not screw this up.
  • Definition of irony: When the Year Of The Rat starts with a plague.
  • Has anyone let the Amish know what's going on yet?
  • Oh nowwwww everyone wants to know what introverts do for fun.
  • Guys will stand 5’8” from you and call it 6 feet.
  • My daughter just maintained eye contact while stuffing her face with the last of my chocolate stash, and my husband said “oh s---” and picked her up and took her into the other room. But he won’t always be here to protect her.
  • Moment of silence for the people who agreed to live with annoying roommates because they wouldn't be spending much time at home anyway.
  • Day 7 at home: The dog is looking at me like “See? This is why I chew the furniture.”
  • My house got TPed last night. It’s now appraised at $875,000.
  • Never in my whole life would I imagine my hands would consume more alcohol than my mouth.
  • I’m so excited it’s time to take the garbage out. I wonder what I should wear?
  • Some of you have never before gone through a global pandemic during an economic crash with a reality-show-host president who ignores repeated scientific warnings and can't lead—and it shows.
  • I just tried to make my own hand sanitizer and it came out as a rum and coke.
  • We are about three weeks away from knowing everyone's true hair color.
  • Homeschooling, Day 9: Today we did math: If you have 3 kids, and they're awake roughly 13 hours of the day, and you’re trying to work from home, how many times will you hear the word “snack?"
  • How long is this social distancing supposed to last? My husband keeps trying to get into the house.
  • The World Health Organization has announced that dogs cannot contract COVID-19. Dogs previously held in quarantine can now be released. Just to be clear, WHO let the dogs out.
  • In an unsettling reversal of my teenage years, I'm now yelling at my parents for going out.
  • I went to the chemist today and asked the assistant, "What kills the coronavirus?" She replied, "Ammonia Cleaner." I said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you worked here.”
  • Let's not forget that Rapunzel was quarantined and met her future husband, so let's think positively here.

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