Liz Neeley: How to talk about the coronavirus
The why of humor has long been a mystery. For ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, it was a dangerous phenomenon, something that had the potential to undermine authority and the good order of society. Laughing at those in charge was a serious issue then (and still remains the case in more autocratic parts of the world). Today, in democratic societies, we know the importance of mocking those with power, and we celebrate it, on Saturday Night Live in the United States and Have I Got News for You in Britain. On Sunday, after Boris Johnson—recently diagnosed with COVID-19—announced that he would send every household in Britain a letter urging people to follow social-distancing guidelines, I received a doctored picture of the prime minister, red-nosed with watery eyes, licking an envelope, captioned: “Whatever you do, don’t open the letter from Boris.” Johnson was being mocked, his authority undermined in a manner far more deadly than any his political opponents could manage. In a typically provocative essay for Vanity Fair, the late Christopher Hitchens expanded on the link between power and laughter by arguing that humor was “part of the armor-plate” of humanity, protecting us from life’s grim reality—that, ultimately, death wins out. How’s that for an LOL. We joke because if we didn’t, we’d cry.
But humor is more than thumbing our noses at power. It is slapstick as much as satire, a man hitting another man with a frying pan; Kevin McCallister terrorizing Harry and Marv; Ross, Rachel and Chandler struggling to get a sofa up the stairs to Ross’s apartment. The late Robert R. Provine, a professor at the University of Maryland who became one of the world’s leading experts on laughter, came to the conclusion, after a decade of studying how and why people laugh, that it was actually a way of bonding. “Most people think of laughter as a simple response to comedy, or a cathartic mood-lifter,” he wrote. “Instead … I concluded that laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together.” We laugh with others to give us “the pleasure of acceptance,” Provine argued—to show that we are the same. Simon Stuart, a clinical psychologist in Britain, told me that, from an evolutionary perspective, laughter is rooted in this ability to connect. It is a shared social signal.
We laugh, then, to take back control and to connect—two things we have lost in our fight against the coronavirus. Not only are we unable to stop the tidal wave of infection washing over us, but we are being forced to endure this reality alone in our own home. Powerless and isolated, we’re finding that the joke is now our most reliable shield—and our warmest comfort blanket.
The British comedian and writer David Baddiel told me his experience has certainly been that people turn to comedy at times like this. In his most recent public stand-up tour, before Britain implemented restrictions on social gatherings, he opened with a coronavirus gag: "It's great to see you're prepared to congregate in such large numbers at this stage in the apocalypse.” It always got a laugh. In his final gig, before his tour had to be canceled, a man in the audience performatively coughed in response, which garnered an even bigger laugh. “People want jokes,” Baddiel told me. “Partly because jokes are a relief, and they take the edge off danger; partly because they are a way of processing the experience; and yes, partly because … this is a massive shared experience.” People are looking for the release of comedy—and the knowledge that they are not alone. If we’re all finding this experience of being forced to stay at home funny, it’s reassuring, a form of collective therapy. “We can't really do much about these things, but we can laugh in the face of them,” he said. “In a godless society, it's the one eternal victory we have.”