My phone flashes bright. A new video’s appeared in the family WhatsApp group. Before I’ve even pressed play, I’m smiling—a roll of toilet paper is in the shot, so it must be good. Someone replies with a video of a naked man riding a bicycle. Mud’s spattered up his backside. Another toilet gag. A third video arrives of a toddler crying because the local McDonald’s has had to close as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, forcing her to eat her parent’s cooking. And on it goes.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused so many things to happen, some predictable, others not. European leaders have confined people at home and seen their approval ratings soar. Right-wing politicians have temporarily socialized their national economies. And as the world hunkers down, threatened by the worst global health crisis in 100 years, there’s been a mass outpouring of gags, memes, funny videos, and general silliness. We might be scared, but we seem determined to carry on laughing.
What is it about tragedy that is so funny? Why do I find myself flicking through Twitter in the evening, alternately looking at tables of COVID-19 death rates and bidet memes? How can I find something so scary one minute so funny the next? And what is it about this crisis in particular that has spawned such an industrial output of humor? Even as I wrote this piece, looking out my window on a locked-down London, a video arrived from a neighbor featuring a stack of empty beer cans singing “Nessun dorma.” Is this some kind of hysteria?
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.”
Tim Minchin, the British Australian comedian, actor, and composer, agreed. “We don’t laugh at scary things because we don’t understand their seriousness,” he told me. “We laugh because they’re serious. Making jokes gives us a sense of power over the threat.” Minchin, like Baddiel, rejected the notion that joking about serious issues was somehow inappropriate—those making that argument, he said, were actually reaching for the same thing: a sense of power over the scary. “Their weapon is signaling their moral purity,” Minchin explained. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, though. “Both the clowns and the virtuous can at times be bores or boors or bullies,” he said. Moralizing is not simply comedy’s opposite, but the flip side of the same coin. Both offer people hope or relief and the sense of a shared experience, and both have dark sides.
Reflecting on these strange couple of weeks of coronavirus house arrest, I realized I have had more funny videos sent to me from neighbors in 10 days than in the past four years that I’ve lived in this neighborhood. Perhaps this is also why when we receive jokes from friends, we often immediately forward them to others. We are reaching out, establishing a shared experience. And when all the jokes are about life in lockdown, we instinctively do so even more; because we have been banned from congregating in person, we congregate online—we are a congregation.
We laugh together to show we’re the same. Yet here we must detour to the darker side of humor. The corollary of inclusivity for some is often exclusivity for others. Jokes can be mean and derisive, picking on those who are different, establishing who is inside the group and who is not. We laugh with people to belong, and at others to exclude. This is why being laughed at feels so horrible. It is—returning to ancient Greece—why politicians would rather be feared or disliked than ridiculed.
In our current crisis, humor is everywhere because fear is too. Laughter binds us together against a common enemy. The jokes and memes being shared are not (yet) mean or exclusionary, partly because the threat is universal. But it is early days—in Britain, the lockdown began only last week. The jokes are mostly about the silliness of life locked away, the domestic farce and absurd concerns. They are about exercise routines and videoconferences, the challenges of working from home, and, of course, toilet paper. But perhaps we should be on guard in case the jokes turn, and they start to target the vulnerable or sick, or minorities who might be accused of causing the crisis.
Humor also does not reach some topics, even if they are part of our collective fear. The British comedian Matt Forde told me timing was important: “If you're joking about how boring self-isolation is when the death rate is relatively low, then that probably won't offend too many people.” This may change as more people die, and the national mood changes. The psychological scientists Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren have found that jokes poking fun at the ills of the world remain funny, usually, only if they are considered “benign.” Observations about people’s behavior can be funny if they poke fun at a social norm that is being broken in a relatively inoffensive way—such as hoarding toilet paper or binge-watching Netflix. If the joke is about other types of rule-breaking behavior seen as unappealing, or disgusting and upsetting, it is much harder for it to be funny. No one is making memes about people without respirators dying in agony. We don’t laugh at the fact that child abuse may increase during periods of enforced domestic isolation, though even now some “joke” about beating their wife.
Things, then, can be too serious to joke about. Humor can both bring people together and exclude. But it nevertheless remains part of human nature. We need it. We’re laughing now because we’re scared and because we’re being kept away from those we love.
Of course, we’re also laughing because we’re being kept with those we love. The video that has made me laugh the most isn’t about toilet paper or online spin classes, but forced family quarantine. It features a serious-sounding narrator describing a hypothetical conundrum. “Because of coronavirus, you are going to be quarantined,” the voice informs a man on camera. “But you have a choice: Do you (a) quarantine with your wife and child, or (b)—” Before the second option is read out, the man interjects: “B,” he says, definitively. “B. B.” Laughing, I showed the video to my wife, who proceeded, somewhat disconcertingly, to laugh even louder before sending it to all her friends. The more we watched it together, the more we laughed together. It made us feel better about the ordeal ahead. It felt a lot better than looking at death graphs.