According to an old adage , “comedy is tragedy plus time”. This has been true for many terrible events, when after periods of shock and sadness, humour and laughter are eventually restored.
But the current pandemic seems different. People haven’t stopped joking about it. Memes and funny videos are all over social media, even while an increasing number of people across the world get sick and die. So why is this happening? Why is there no gap between the disaster and the humour created around it?
One thing that makes the current situation unique is that it is not a single event in a specific place and time. It is a rolling and continuous crisis, spreading endlessly across continents with no end in sight. The shock factor is therefore reduced compared to a single terror attack, for example. This enables people to adjust more easily to what is happening – and humour may be one of the best ways to do just that.
Of course, many people will feel uncomfortable laughing in these dire times, especially if they know someone who has been directly affected. But for others, it is not only acceptable to use humour in the face of the pandemic – it may even be a necessity.
Obviously, we do not laugh at the tragedy itself, the victims of the virus or the people who are suffering from it. But we can take aim at the seemingly absurd situation we are all in.
This is because from a psychological point of view, humour is a great defence mechanism which helps us deal with emotionally challenging situations, especially ones which are overwhelming and unpredictable. Many cancer patients and their doctors, for example, routinely tell jokes and laugh about the disease, in an attempt to cope and distract themselves from the serious situation.
On top of this, the unique circumstances surrounding the pandemic may make humour more prevalent, not less.
First, many people now have an unusual amount of time on our hands. Being stuck at home with not much to do forces people to find ways to be more creative. And while the situation is serious, in our daily activities we are mostly preoccupied with more mundane tasks, such as what to do all day, how to entertain children, how not to eat too much, and how to stay sane in general.
Second, being a bit scared, tense, and in a state of alert is actually a good thing for humour to develop. These states of physiological and emotional arousal serve as driving forces in creating and enjoying humour.
Usually, intermediate levels of arousal are best. With too little, you are bored, and with too much, you are too excited to enjoy humour. Right in the middle is perfect. The laughter after hearing a good joke serves as a release of all the physiological and emotional energy that was built up, and that’s what makes us feel good.
Another important element of humour that is prominent during the pandemic is what humour researchers call “incongruity”. For something to be funny, there needs to be something odd or surprising in the situation. The current situation reveals plenty of such oddities.
Here is a joke that illustrates the point: “All this time I thought that the tumble dryer was shrinking my clothes. Turns out it was actually the refrigerator.”
The joke is built on the unusual circumstances we live in, of being stuck at home. The setup is the common knowledge that the heat of a tumble dryer can shrink clothes, but then there is a surprise. It’s not the dryer at fault, but the refrigerator, where we store our food. We resolve this incongruity by realising that we are getting fatter from eating too much when we are at home. This resolution gives as the “Aha!” moment that makes the joke funny. (And yes, analysing a joke does ruin it.)
So, while humour may not get us out of this awful crisis, it can help us deal with it. We cannot change the reality of the disease or the economic impact, but we can try and change how we feel about it.
By creating and sharing humour we can cope better, and ease some of the tension due to the pandemic. That way, we can have at least some control of the situation. And what better way to do that than by having a good laugh?