In 1933, when the grip of the Great Depression was at its absolute tightest, the New York Sun made mention of a satirical sign hanging in the front window of a Brooklyn grocery store. “Due to the depression,” it said, “credit will hereafter be extended only to persons over the age of 80 years if accompanied by their grandparents.” Even in such dire times—correction: especially in such dire times—a sense of humour was a priceless commodity.
Seventy-six years later, it’s a lesson worth repeating. As stock markets melt and layoffs mount—and fake news reporters ambush politicians in the middle of “serious” and “important” press conferences—don’t feel guilty about letting out the occasional laugh. Boom or bust, a good giggle is never a bad investment.
No, Geri Hall didn’t exactly nail her latest sketch. When the star of This Hour Has 22 Minutes cornered Dalton McGuinty last week, the Ontario premier was talking to journalists about steel mill closures in Hamilton and Fort Erie, and her in-character intrusion (“Single Female Voter”) certainly didn’t match the somber mood. But if Hall’s timing was inappropriate, her intentions were not. Comedy, even when it flops, is a welcome distraction in these uncertain days. To suggest otherwise—to argue, as some headlines did, that a credit crunch is no place for comedy—is, well, laughable.
Isaac Asimov famously wrote: “Jokes of the proper kind, properly told, can do more to enlighten questions of politics, philosophy and literature than any number of dull arguments.” Which is why, as another deep recession looms, we need Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and even Geri Hall to keep supplying the punch lines, awkward or not. Nobody likes to think about pink slips or plummeting pension funds. But at a time when countless “experts” are lining up to tell us why things went so horribly wrong, it’s strangely fitting that The Simpsons, and not CNN, has provided the clearest explanation yet. “When you gave me that money, you said I wouldn’t have to repay it ’til the future,” Homer told his mortgage broker in the latest episode. “This isn’t the future. It’s the lousy, stinking now!”
When the lousy, stinking now was the Great Depression, it was the Three Stooges who offered comic relief to a beleaguered nation. In the downturn of the early 80s—and again today—it was Saturday Night Live. Money (or lack thereof) has always been a favourite topic for talk show hosts and editorial cartoonists, and no matter how many workers lose their jobs or how low the markets go, that won’t change. Nor should it. Bill Cosby put it best: “If you can find humour in anything, even poverty, you can survive it.”
It’s no mystery, then, why comedy DVDs are flying off the shelves in Britain, or why U.S. networks are pitching new sitcoms about bankrupt Wall Street tycoons, or why Fox just signed The Simpsons for another two seasons. People want to lose themselves in laughter, even if the joke is sometimes on them. We don’t chuckle at Homer because he’s a bumbling fool (although that’s part of it). We laugh because so many of us fell for the same sub-prime scam that he did. D’Oh!
Doctors have long praised the power of laughter (as did the Old Testament: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine”). Studies show that a hearty, hold-your-belly laugh produces pain-killing hormones, increases T-cell production, relaxes muscles, and triggers creativity. Science also says that laughter helps people overcome their fears and approach their problems (ie. tumbling portfolios) with a positive attitude.
By the way, have you heard the Canadian Oxford Dictionary has a new definition for optimism?
An investment banker ironing five shirts on a Sunday morning.