Five years ago my brother awoke to dreadful news. His close friend was on a business trip in Mali, staying in the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako. It had been stormed by Islamist militants and, ultimately, 170 hostages were taken, 20 killed. My brother’s friend, a Canadian, was on the seventh floor. Gun battles exploded directly below him. Escape wasn’t possible. He locked himself in the bathroom, texted his wife, his family – and my brother.
“Things are a little tense inside the Radisson at the moment, Simon. Any English humour available?” He was looking for jokes.
“Is the fridge stocked?” my brother replied. “They probably won’t charge you for it.”
Their thread stretched across three hours. It’s tense, poignant and peppered with my brother’s humour. “Just checking… Did you cancel your business meetings for the day?” and, “What will you write on the hotel’s ‘Tell us how we did’ card?”
His friend was rescued – his last text reads “out and safe!” Malian commandos saved his life, but humour helped carry him through. It helped him stay calm, intact, himself, under unfathomable pressure.
We’ve seen humour play a similar role this year. One week into lockdown, the nation still in shock, the Les Mis spoof of One More Day, performed by the Marsh family in Kent (“Have you seen my brother’s hair / Do I change my underwear?”) racked up millions of views. The public fell gratefully on videos from out-of-work sports commentators commentating on their dogs or unclogging the shower drain. Twitter came alive with memes – loo roll, home educating and overeating featured heavily. Other viral jokes were darker: the daily briefings closing to the theme tune of Only Fools and Horses; a Dominic Cummings meme (“Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Drive 450 Miles to Check Whether You’re Going Blind.”)
All this has been no surprise to Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. They have spent five years studying the power of humour: watching hours of standup; interviewing comedians; training in the world’s best comedy institutions and teaching it at Stanford University. They’ve now written a book on their findings, entitled Humour, Seriously, and its message is that humour is an unappreciated, underused superpower.
“Some people believe this is too serious a time to laugh,” says Bagdonas, speaking via Zoom from her home in California. “But this is when we need humour more than ever. With this global pandemic, the shift to remote working, loneliness and depression rising precipitously, many of us have never felt so disconnected. When we laugh with someone – whether through a screen or 2m apart – we get this cocktail of hormones that strengthens our emotional bonds in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Studies show it makes us more resilient, creative and resourceful.”
Bagdonas and Aaker came to this subject via very different routes. Bagdonas is a business consultant by day and a standup by night. She was raised by parents who wove humour into the fabric of family life. She recalls, aged eight, a Christmas when her father had been sick for many months, unable to go downstairs where they usually kept the tree. “Obviously, not having a Christmas tree was the least of our worries, but when you’re young, the first year without one is memorable,” she says. On Christmas morning, she found her dad wearing a tree skirt, both he and his IV pole decorated with ornaments, tinsel and lights – an unforgettable magical moment in the hardest of times.
Aaker, a behavioural psychologist, is not a natural comic. (When she asked her children who was the funniest person in the family, she ranked last, after the dog.) She became interested in humour’s potential after working on a bone-marrow donation drive with her Stanford students. Through this, she met Amit Gupta, a young man with leukaemia, in need of a transplant but unable to find a match. From this dark corner, Gupta set forth with humour, hosting bone-marrow events where guests were invited to BYOSA (Bring Your Own South Asian) and “swab parties” in NYC bars. He found his match.
“Humour drew others and mobilised them,” says Aaker. “People believe, implicitly or not, that humour has no place in serious times, that it might mean you’re not taken seriously. For Amit, humour was authentically him – it was how he always approached life.” The writer and actor Michaela Coel made a similar point about her hit series I May Destroy You. Based on her real experience of sexual assault, much of the show’s power is created through humour, because, says Coel, it’s still present in the lowest moments, “the uninvited guest at a party”.
Humour, Seriously presents a huge body of research to illustrate why and how humour works. Laughter triggers the “happy hormones” and suppresses cortisol, the stress hormone. It increases blood flow, and is a muscle relaxant. One 15-year Norwegian study of more than 50,000 people found that those with a strong sense of humour lived longer than those who scored lower. Another study of recently bereaved people showed that those able to laugh when recalling their loved ones reported less anger and less distress.
Despite this, warn Aaker and Bagdonas, we’re falling over a humour cliff. Their own survey of 1.4 million people in 166 countries found that rates of laughter plunge at the age of 23 – just as we “grow up”. Other research backs this up. It has been found that a four-year-old laughs 300 times a day; a 40-year-old 300 times every 10 weeks. Aaker and Bagdonas say this is due to a number of factors. There’s the belief that adulthood and the work place is “serious business”. There’s the fear of a joke failing – and also, as we become adults, the “born with it” myth. You’re either funny or you’re not.
Their book shows that there are many ways to introduce levity, to live on the precipice of a smile and be open to humour without having to crack jokes. But for those who do wish to improve their comedy, Aaker and Bagdonas examine the anatomy of humour to reveal just what makes something funny. Truth is comedy’s beating heart, so Aaker and Bagdonas suggest “finding the funny” by “mining your life”. Notice the absurdities of our world. What would an alien find illogical? (Hence the viral meme of a packed Dorset beach in June with speech bubbles floating from the dense crowds. “Mummy. Am I going to school tomorrow?” “No son. It’s not safe.”)What’s irrational about you? What makes you angry, frightened, envious, embarrassed? Use your moments of pain, too. There’s a saying: “Comedy equals tragedy, plus time.”
In times like these, though, this is the hardest balance to strike. When comedian Gyles Brandreth recently cracked a Covid joke on This Morning (“You’ll have to wait two weeks to see if you get it”) some viewers complained. “It’s so tough,” says Bagdonas. “Humour is one of the most context-dependent things in the world.” The three factors to consider when making jokes, she says, are truth, pain and distance. “Examine the truth, ask how great is the pain and is it distant enough?” she says. “The closer the truth gets to the very real pain people are experiencing, the greater the risk of offending.” So, when a Covid joke is cracked on breakfast TV, the audience is unknown and wildly varied and the individual differences in pain and distance are vast. “We’re in a hard place, but we can still joke about it,” says Bagdonas. “It’s looking for elements of shared experience – like lockdown – that don’t hit so exactly on that direct pain.”
Both agree we mustn’t stop trying. Bagdonas describes an improv/life skills class she gave in her local county prison. “One of my students was talking about how much control had been stripped away from him,” she says. “He’d lost control of his space, his time, who he could see, but he said there was this baseline level of control – the control of his mental space – that no one could take away. It’s the choice of how we spend our time in our head. What I learned from that was that finding ways to laugh through hardship reminds us that we’re in control of our heart and mind, whatever darkness lies behind the door. And that’s a triumph.”
Humour, Seriously: Why Humour is a Superpower at Work and in Life by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas is published by Penguin Business at £14.99. Order it for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com