December 2015

Humor and Mental Illness

Here’s another report from the Humanities Research Seminar on the topic of humor.  In this installment, Kim Ivey, a graduate student in Anthropology, considers the ways in which humor might be used to help better understand and event treat mental illness.

“Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.”

– Grenville Kleiser

As participants of the humor seminar have learned this semester, humor is a consistent element of the human condition.  Our everyday exchanges are dotted with joking and laughter.  We can express joy with mirthful smiles or disapproval with sarcastic humor.  It seems to be an invaluable device in the Homo sapiens’ toolbox.  But, how can this instrument be honed to comfort our minds?

For many years, laughter has been known to have a curative effect on health and well-being.  Even in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, we find the verse, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  Doctors and philosophers have prescribed humor and laughter throughout history.  For many decades in the United States, however, the psychological treatment of mental illness has been focused almost exclusively on negative symptoms.  Therapies have also centered on traumatic or painful explanations – forcing the patient to relive haunting memories on the long road to recovery.  It seems at some point doctors and psychologists held the notion of “humor being good for health” in a different realm than their serious business of diagnosing the ill mind and its deep-rooted conflicts.

wasted dayIn recent years, however, research and therapist-led change has moved in the direction of positive psychology.  Instead of looking for the bad in every situation, they promote the positive aspects.  Some of the treatments utilize humor or laughter – bringing us back to our topic of interest.  Ways of introducing the humor approach include use of jovial drawings about the patient’s complaints (done cautiously and in a non-threatening way), laughter through joking, and watching comedies.  These techniques, and others, can be applied in individual or group therapy.  Results vary, yet most studies have yielded at least some optimistic results such as reduction in negative psychiatric symptoms, lower anxiety, and a drop in depression.  Other benefits were an enhanced coping ability, increased regulation of thoughts and feelings, and the ability to laugh at oneself.

Humor possesses real power, and it seems imperative that we dedicate more time to its study, benefits, and meaning in in our lives.  For what is a life lived without laughter?  Mark Twain once said, “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”  Hopefully, we will wield our weapons wisely.

For more information about positive psychology visit these links:

Humor and Assimilation in Vaudeville

Our latest report from the Humanities Research Seminar comes from Machele Miller Dill, Director of the Musical Theatre Program at TU.  Here she considers the way vaudeville helped explore the rapidly changing shape of American culture in the early twentieth century.

Sophie Tucker

I like Sophie Tucker. In fact, I love Sophie Tucker. If you read about her, some accounts may claim that she was a Ukrainian-born entertainer originally named, Sonya Kalish. While the name is true, the rest isn’t. She was actually born on the boat on the way over from the Ukraine – a true immigrant. Her life after landing in the United States embodied the very notion of the American dream: she married young, had a child and then left that all behind to make it big in the big Apple. And boy did she, thanks to her grit and moxie. You see, she was big, she was ugly and she was Jewish. But once she opened her mouth, no one cared. They just yelled for more. I wish I could relate some of her jokes here, but I can’t even tell you the clean ones! Sophie Tucker was the last of the “Red Hot Mamas” and she owned vaudeville and burlesque stages for decades. She used self-deprecating humor, making fun of both her Jewishness and her appearance, to entertain while at the same time putting people at ease with her otherness.

Bert and Friend
Bert Savoy and a Friend

She was in good company. Fanny Brice (the original Funny Girl), Bert Williams (hailed by W.C. Fields as the funniest man in show business…and the saddest), and a host of other entertainers who might not otherwise have fit into the mainstream, helped re-define a rapidly changing American culture . They were immigrants who could never go home again. They were former slaves forced to work in blackface if they wanted to entertain – portraying the white man’s notion of black identity. They were vaudevillians who would later go on to be some of the biggest names in cinema. And all used humor as a tool – a chisel, if you will, to break down barriers to their own American dreams.

My own research isn’t on why something is funny. People find things funny or they don’t. I’m interested in how the disenfranchised, immigrants, and others used humor to fit into, and to eventually, transform American culture. So the next time you crack a joke at your own expense – know you are in exceptional company.

Satire, Friendship, and Masculinity

Our reports from the Humanities Research Seminar continue.  Here, Dayne Riley, a doctoral student in English, reflects on the role of satire in eighteenth-century Britain.

Alexander Pope, by Michael Dahl (circa 1727)

For the famed satirical poets of Augustan Britain (1700-1745), humor and friendship mixed to create a unique and still unsettling kind of humor. In his “An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” Alexander Pope discusses his life as a satirical poet. As he does so, he defends himself, his friends, and his relatives; he explains his censure of those poets whom he deems morally or poetically inferior; and, he releases his pent-up anger about his position and life as a writer. In “Some Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift D.S.P.D,” Jonathan Swift imagines how he will be remembered after his death. Even while painting a morbid picture, he still finds room to praise himself in a melancholy way. Like the classical satirists Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, Pope and Swift defend the value of staire. However, these poets also reveal a very important aspect of the genre in the Augustan age: the importance of masculine friendships to their creative yet often abrasive endeavors.

Pope uses a fictitious conversation with his friend and fellow writer, Dr. Arbuthnot, as a rhetorical device in his poem. By developing this fictive voice, Pope is able to show how well he understands his own satirical goals. Through Arbuthnot’s cautionary voice, Pope underscores his own zealous pursuit of poetic honesty, while also making his close friend look somewhat meek. Swift’s ironic use of his friends is even more radical. He uses them to examine the fleeting aspects of human friendship, stating that none of his friends will think of him longer than a month: “Poor Pope will grieve a month, and [John] Gay / A week, and Arbuthnot a day” (ll. 207-08). Swift, pointing out even his friends’ transient thoughts of other people, establishes how we are truly remembered after death, as opposed to what we might like to believe.

In both works, the poets use personal friendships to achieve deliberate satirical ends. In the urban environment of London and the poetry it spawned, masculinity was fluctuating in response to the changes within the culture. In this period of literature, when irony had become such a prevalent part of society, even the authors’ friendships were treated satirically. Furthermore, in these poems, both Pope and Swift illustrate how friendships between male writers in this time period fluctuated between close friendship and professional rivalry. As British culture began to shift away from affectionate—and oftentimes homoerotic—male friendships, it is important to note how both Pope and Swift posit their personal friendships as appropriately masculine by mocking their closest male friends.