The alchemy of laughter
Pedro Silva is the Founder of Liberation Comedy and Director of Engagement for YOUnify.
In these serious times, we often find that laughter has lost its place. As someone who experienced bullying throughout my youth and into adulthood, I acknowledge the importance of safeguarding against words that can incite violence. I vividly remember an incident when a bully's words led to a physical altercation involving a dozen people simply because he threatened violence if the name "Pedro" was spoken. Somehow, this ignited a violent response among the other teenagers on the bus. In my attempt to defend myself using words, I found myself beaten. I wish they had chosen words over violence.
However, I disagree with the idea that silencing speech is the optimal path toward building more inclusive societies. Words like, "I want to hurt you" are an evolutionary step up from actual physical harm. If you could speak to many of my ancestors or people from communities that endured unspeakable violence, they'd likely prefer insults over their town being burned down, as happened in the Greenwood District in Tulsa. So, instead of suppressing speech, I believe we need to become better at using our words and become better at hearing words we disagree with, discerning when to argue and when to walk away. In comedy especially we should examine its role more closely before lumping it together with everyday speech because the purpose of comedy is inherently different—it seeks to invoke laughter, which is inherently life-affirming, sometimes even when the laughter is at our own expense.
What's So Funny About Something That's Not Funny?
Throughout my life, I've been a nervous laugher, often laughing at inappropriate times about things I knew were not funny. This idiosyncrasy sometimes angered people who thought I was making light of their pain or situation. The truth is, my laughter was my body and brain's way of coping with stress. It wasn't as extreme as Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of the Joker, but watching the film, I cringed at the familiarity. My younger brother even said I had the "Joker Disease" after watching it. While I can't diagnose myself with such a condition, I only learned to control it by slowing my mind, deep breathing, and thanking my body for trying to protect me.
Initially, my uncontrolled laughter didn't serve me well. The best I could do was avoid situations that triggered it or stay as serious as possible. However, during basic military training, I discovered the value in what my brain and body were trying to do in stressful situations.
On my first day of basic training, I couldn't suppress my laughter as a drill instructor yelled at me. He asked, "Is something funny, airman? Am I funny to you?" His attempts to intimidate me only fueled my laughter, and I couldn't stop. To make it worse, I started picturing my mom beating him up, which made the situation even funnier. In the end, he said, "You won't be laughing when you get off that bus and start real training." He was wrong—I laughed the entire time. But this time, my laughter endeared me to fellow airmen who nicknamed me "Smiley."
Observing other airmen break under pressure, I became grateful for my uncontrolled laughter's benefits, much like an accidental superpower. I realized that laughter releases "feel good" chemicals in our brains and considered it my body's way of working for me, even if others didn't appreciate it. Rather than suppress it, which only made it worse, I embraced it. My nervous laughter subsided, and I learned to regulate it in a healthier way. While I still sometimes smile or snicker when it seems inappropriate to others, it no longer provokes anger.
If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry
My family often told me that if I didn't laugh at some of the tough experiences I've been through, I'd be crying. They were right. I've shed my fair share of tears, but laughter has allowed me to cope with grief and avoid succumbing to depression. When they pointed out that I was probably laughing to avoid crying, my response was, "Well, I'm going to laugh later, so I might as well laugh now." Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a key ingredient of comedy.
Tragedy Plus Time Equals Comedy
I recently started an organization called Liberation Comedy. Our mission is to help us tap into our alchemical superpowers, realizing that we have the ability to create a better world for more people. In our inaugural podcast episode with comedian and entrepreneur Karith Foster, founder of FRAME (the Foster Russell Alliance for Meaningful Expression), she affirmed the quote, "Tragedy plus time equals comedy." This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain and Carol Burnett. Regardless of its source, it's a profound insight. As someone who has officiated many funerals, I can confirm that even the most tragic events can include laughter. But have you ever wondered why?
I believe it's because we're emotional alchemists. When we laugh at painful experiences, we acknowledge that pain is temporary. Laughter is a revolutionary act, signaling hope for a better tomorrow. When we laugh at our own suffering or at societal issues like racism, sexism, and poverty, we declare that a cure exists for our social ills. Laughter defies the limitations of oppressors and the burdens of the oppressed, proclaiming equality. Laughter is an echo from the future.
But What About Jokesters Who Are Jerks?
Despite some people's belief that all comedy should be palatable to everyone, I think there's a place for comics who use insults as artistic expression. They're the "ego slayers" of this medium, reminding us not to take ourselves or life's challenges too seriously.
Recently, I "took the bullet" at a comedy show in Maui. This means performing early in the show to warm up the audience and gauge their demeanor for the comics who follow. I mentioned my past as a pastor in my set, and subsequent comedians poked fun at me, religion, and the belief in God to get laughs. Some jokes landed, and some didn't. I saw it as an opportunity to improve my comedy skills.
Some people choose to sit in the front row at insult-heavy comedy shows, even though they might become targets. It's similar to engaging in risky activities like bungee jumping, skydiving, or riding a roller coaster. These experiences bring us face to face with the existential fear of death, the ultimate concern of not belonging. It's what some call "The Void." When we emerge from it, we feel more alive. These comics ignite our adrenaline response, immersing us in the present moment where we feel most alive.
Isn't this what all comedy does? It reminds us that despite the chaos in the world—wars, pandemics, addiction, politics, "isms," inflation, infidelity, endangered species, pollution, reality TV, and whatever Kanye West says next—we're still alive and there's hope. Let's harness our internal alchemy to laugh in the face of danger until we all feel safe enough to laugh at ourselves together.
If you appreciate the power of laughter to drive positive change and bridge gaps across differences, I invite you to share this post, subscribe to our podcast, and watch and share my recent comedy set, "What's In a Name?"
For the inaugural Liberation Comedy Podcast, "What's So Funny About...?”, we are thrilled to have Karith Foster, American comedian, speaker, television and radio personality, actress, author, and entrepreneur. Karith is the founder and CEO of Inversity Solutions a consulting firm that specializes in and Foster Russell Alliance for Meaningful Expression (FRAME), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization which is committed to, "Inspiring free speech, social change and empowerment through education and mentorship." In this episode, we discuss how comedy can help be a healing force in society and we ask ourselves "What's so funny about...? Question of the Day". Listen and enjoy.
If you know comedians who support important causes or use comedy to unite people, connect them with us.
To read the originally published piece, visit here.