Is Laughter the Best Medicine?
10 Sep, 2010 - Thomas Turner
It dawned on me the other day that I don’t really listen to the news, I laugh at it. I go out of my way to relish in the absurdity of the 24-hour news cycle and the stupidity of celebrities and politicians whom I wouldn’t give two cents about except for the fact that I can laugh at them. Other than listening to NPR in the mornings, the four main sources of news in my life are The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, and the Relevant Magazine podcast. All of those shows make really good efforts to make fun of the news and point out the absurdity and irony of our media-driven culture.
Laughing at reality is a big business. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are cultural icons in their own right, and the radio program Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me attracts nearly three million listeners a week. It’s such a big business that Fox News even made an ill-fated attempt at a news satire show a la The Daily Show with a conservative slant called The Half-Hour News Hour (it aired seventeen episodes before getting axed).
The old adage is that laughter is the best medicine, and some kind of medicine is needed in a world where one of the biggest TV shows in the country follows the misadventures of a bunch of beach-loving, hard-partying Italian-Americans stuck in arrested development. Laughter seems to take the edge off the world for those who want to cut through the mass-marketing of plastic trinkets and overwhelming cultural garbage of reality shows and politicians scheming about spending billions (or trillions). Laughing at the news every few days is an act of cultural catharsis, removing the stench of our world’s stupidity by laughing it away. But is a medicine that causes you to purge and forget, to just laugh the world’s wrongs away like you laugh it off after you fall out of a chair, really the best medicine?
Cleansing oneself when dirty or sick is often necessary, but to do it too much, to turn a medicine into an addiction, is to begin to treat laughter as a coping mechanism — it gets you by until you need your next hit of laughter. There is a lot of valid talk about the vitriol in the political conversation in our country lately. People are using anger to cope, and the anger of Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann feeds people like a drug. It makes people want to change the world by raging against the machine, breaking stuff, or forming militias. Laughter seems like the better option when compared to anger, but I’ve begun to find all the laughter is making me apathetic. Instead of being mad at the world, I’m being conditioned to think the world is all one big Camus novel and there’s really no point to the madness, so just laugh.
There is a way out of the mire, though, and it’s by taking a long view of culture. Our fascination with the present compounds our tendency to react with anger or laughter. We crave real-time information from Twitter, 24-hour cable news, and our smartphones. When inundated with information, we focus on the present so much that we forget the harsh fact that what we’re arguing about is probably not even going to be significant in a year or two. The world only appears to be a big Camus novel if we never look to the future with any sense of calm or hope. If we take a breath and think about the long-term impact of what’s going on in the world, what really matters in life will rise to the top, and that certainly won’t be contemporary political drama or the latest celebrity gossip. Our human nature drives us to instantly react, but deciding to take a more rational approach, to not become angry or apathetic, but to live a quiet and peaceable life, gives us a more grounded outlook on the world.
Laughter has its place, and I’m not going to stop watching Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, but what’s more important is to begin to cultivate a view of the world that is not stuck in the ever-changing present. It’s just too much to keep up with, and the disequilibrium caused by all that information is what provokes anger and apathy in the first place. The corruption, evil, suffering, and stupidity of this world are enough to make us grow mad at the world or shut down rather quickly. Instead, when anger begins to simmer or apathy begins to choke our desire for a new and better world, we should remind ourselves that there is truly nothing new under the sun. The world will always have problems. We can choose to get angry about it. We can choose to laugh at it. But the world would be a far better place if every once in a while we got up off the sofa or put down the picket sign and did something about it in a selfless and radical way.