The Need for Laughter

“I remain just one thing, and one thing only, and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.”  

— Charlie Chaplin

Humour is often thought to be inappropriate in our field since the work we do deals with serious matters which should mostly elicit outrage, shock, sadness or frustration, but not laughter. 

But every society is characterised in one way or another by its sense of humour and how humour is used within it. It’s a form of storytelling. 

When we find something humorous, we laugh. Laughter is innate, it starts from an early age and if we’re lucky, it’s a daily occurrence. It has a strong social meaning because it establishes or strengthens a sense of community. Unlike many other emotions, laughter wants to spread and grow, as Henri Bergson described it, laughter is a sound that wants an echo, like thunder in a mountain. 

It’s also a very healthy practice. The study of laughter, known as gelatology, and its effects on health have become a popular topic in medical research. It’s widely accepted, for example, that laughter reduces stress, anxiety, depression, anger, lowers blood pressure, relaxes muscles and more. 

It can also be a forbidden act. Laughing when we should be ‘serious’ is frowned upon or associated with immature behaviour. We all remember being told to stop laughing when we were children, usually by the adults in our lives. And laughing when you shouldn’t makes it even more funny, even as adults.

Used wrongly, humour can ostracise, reinforce prejudice or humiliate, for example through the use of ridicule or sarcasm. And some people laugh more than others and this can depend on many factors, including our environment and personality traits.

Finding humour in your circumstances, or the world around you, can also be a coping mechanism, a practice we can develop to keep going in troubled times. Even Gandhi was known for his sense of humour and once said that without it he would have taken his own life.

As Charlie Chaplin said: “we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature — or go insane.”

Humour is also a tactic or a tool. Whether in social or professional spaces, humour is used as a way to ‘break the ice’ or as a tool for conflict resolution or in nonviolence work. In Zen Buddhism having a sense of humour is an important tool to liberate ourselves from attachments, expressed in this poem by Mizuta Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down — Now, I can see the moon.” Basically, ‘oh shit my house burnt, oh well, the view is better.’ 

It’s also a common tactic in civil disobedience. Showing those who have power over you that you can laugh, even in the face of immense suffering or difficulty, is a victory for the oppressed. It disrupts power, “each joke is a tiny revolution,” George Orwell said.

And making people laugh is a profession. Throughout history, clowns or jokers, bouffons in France, Tricksters in indigenous communities, were people, real and imagined, whose job it was to make fun of those in power or challenge authority. Many such roles are still present today of course, from comedians, clowns to cartoonists and satiric news outlets. 

It’s a form of accepted social criticism, which often has a moral purpose to it. Minna Salami comments “the point of clowning is not strictly to entertain and amuse people; it is rather to urge them to open their eyes to deception. The clown wants the world to be better. They may use humour, but ultimately the clown is mocking the bigger structure of trickery rather than the trick.”

Used skillfully, it surprises us, it challenges our tightly held beliefs, it breaks our assumptions and can open our minds to new ways of seeing the world. 

“We expect elevators to go up and down, not sideways,” says Thomas Kasulis, adding that “we expect animals not to be able to talk,” and when something challenges those assumptions, we laugh. It’s like mental exercise, like philosophy; it invites us to think differently, it fosters our imagination.

Within socially minded organisations, humour shouldn’t be about laughing at someone’s expense, it should be used as a tool for self-criticism. It’s a way to take a step back and look at a situation from a distance. Only then may we be able to see things with a critical eye and notice the absurdity of a situation. It’s also a good reminder that perhaps we take ourselves far too seriously sometimes. 

With that, we invite you to explore some of our favourite pieces taking aim at the work of NGOs and do-gooder celebrities alike: Africa for Norway, Human Rights Group Campaigns To End Use Of Child Politicians, or Rent-a-Minority for every occasion. 

And of course, reminding you that as part of the ongoing Rights Studio Festival, we have a special evening of comedy, Seen & Not Heard, celebrating youth, challenging power and punching up with some of the UK’s finest comedy acts. The night will be hosted by musical satirists and comedy double act Jonny & the Baptists, and will feature comedians Josie Long, Nish Kumar, Deborah Frances-White and Charlie George!

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes