Much-Needed Comedy Brightens a Difficult Start to the Year

2021 continues 2020's struggles, but laughter can help

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The new year has begun turbulently, highlighting our need for a good laugh. CNN has published a listicle of places to find exceptionally good humor in such trying times, from podcasts to books. Different societies approve or disapprove of humor.

Group of women laughing while watching tablet device
A good laugh not only helps relieve emotional stress, but it also relieves muscle tension and improves the body’s immune system. Photo By adriaticfoto / Shutterstock

According to CNN, the tumultuous start to 2021 isn’t without some yuks. An article on the 24-hour news network’s website has listed 11 sources of laughs to help lighten the mood as the world waits for coronavirus vaccines and for political tensions to wind down.

If you like podcasts, they recommended How Did This Get Made?, with hosts Paul Scheer (Black Monday), June Diane Raphael (Grace and Frankie), and comedian Jason Mantzoukas. “[They] break down truly awful movies—and it’s hilarious,” the article said.

Meanwhile, essayist and humorist David Sedaris has a new book called The Best of Me, collecting several of his favorite pieces from throughout his career of offbeat, sardonic stories for print and radio.

Some societies view humor as a welcome and healthy part of life while others view it as subversive and harmful.

Knock, Knock

One popular belief in comedy is to “always punch up.” In other words, comedy should lambast those in power, rather than the disaffected. Turning the less fortunate into the butt of a joke often comes across as bullying, while “punching up” shows that the rich and powerful are fallible, too.

Not everyone approves.

“Humor is one way the downtrodden can inject their voice into the larger discourse in a way that’s not unpleasant to those in the in-group and that can be the camel’s nose under the tent,” said Dr. Steven Gimbel, who holds the Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, in a lecture for The Great Courses.

“As such, humor can be seen in some societies as a threat. In others, it is regarded as a virtue. Funny people are more sociable, more intelligent, more clever—the humorous are to be celebrated.”

It Was Just a Joke

Dr. Gimbel said there are terms for these two extremes. A society that celebrates humor as a healthy way of life is gelastic.

“‘Laughter’ in Greek is ‘gelos,’ so ‘gelastic’ means ‘humor-friendly,'” he said.

The other end of the spectrum, which sees humor as dangerously subversive, is agelastic.

“In these societies, humor is seen as unhealthy, undesirable, and the mark of vice, sin, or evil.”

According to Dr. Gimbel, we can look at these types of societies along the lines of a model introduced by sociologist Pitirim Sorokin. Sorokin made a distinction between two kinds of cultures: ideational and sensate. An ideational culture seeks truth in the spiritual, the abstract, and the structure of a system; the sensate focuses on the worldly, material, and experiential.

“The ideational society is one where the core commitment is to principles, values, and beliefs,” he said. “They regard fidelity to those ideas and ideals as central to being a true member of the society. The sensate society is one where what is real, what is valuable, what is important, is that which is tangible.

“Sensate societies tend to be more pragmatic.”

For anyone feeling ideational or gelastic as the year begins with a bump, a few good laughs may be just what the doctor ordered.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

This article contains material taught by Dr. Steven Gimbel for his course Take My Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor. Dr. Gimbel holds the Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. He received his doctoral degree in Philosophy from the Johns Hopkins University.