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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

A Change Of Plans

The children start out to do some errands with Mary Poppins, but along the way, they encounter Andrew the dog at the entrance to the park, and their plans change.  Mary has talked with Andrew and finds out that Uncle Albert is having problems again.  Bert is already there when they arrive, and is concerned about whether the children should come in, since what Uncle Albert has is contagious.

“I Love to Laugh”

Uncle Albert is up on the ceiling in a laughing fit, which he cannot control or stop. The children and Bert begin to laugh as well, while Mary warns that “its really quite serious.”  As Uncle Albert sings “I Love to Laugh,” Mary and Bert join in, singing about different kinds of laughter, demonstrating the types as they go.  Bert then floats up and joins Uncle Albert for a pranksterish midair pas de deux.  When the children float up, too, they all begin joking and wordplay ensues.  They continue to joke and act silly, while Mary continues to act seriously, and says “It’s the most disgraceful sight I’ve ever seen or my name isn’t Mary Poppins.”

Then Bert riffs off of her, saying “speaking of names” and he begins a joke: “I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith,” and Uncle Albert delivers the punch line, “What’s the name of his other leg?” Mary remains serious throughout, serving as a counterpoint and thus allowing the others to be positively giddy.  Then Mary announces that it is teatime, and since she will not have her schedule interrupted, Mary levitates the table and officiates, as they all enjoy a tea party on the ceiling,

Excursion into Joking Matters

It's Catchy

Laughter shows and produces affiliation with others, a sense of closeness and mutual understanding, and laughter helps us to get through socially difficult moments.  When Mary and the children arrive at Uncle Albert’s house, Bert expresses concern about whether they should come in, because laughter is contagious, as we see in the “I Love to Laugh” song.  Like yawning, laughter is infectious, and as Mary Poppins remarks, this infectiousness can be quite serious.

In late January of 1962, for example, in what is now Tanzania, a laughter epidemic occurred which resulted in the periodic shutting down of schools and quarantining of infected villages.  The initial outbreak affected 217 out of 10,000 villagers, and by the time the epidemic had abated in June of 1964, “This plague of laughter spread through villages “like a prairie fire,” forcing the temporary closing of more than 14 schools and afflicting about 1,000 people in tribes bordering Lake Victoria in Tanganyika and Uganda” (Provine, 2000, p. 131). 

The Enlightening Benefits of Irrationality and Nonsense

A sense of humor allows us to take things more lightly, providing the distance necessary to help us have freedom of movement.  Mindess (1971) calls this having a “god’s eye view.”  Laughter and a sense of humor open up more choices in thought and behavior, and more spontaneity, joy, and freedom result.  Oscar Wilde said “life is too important to be taken seriously,” and humor blends both playfulness and seriousness. “Our heartiest laughter is evoked when the humorous outlook is brought to bear on an area of genuine concern.” (Mindess, p. 120)   We need to be able to take things playfully, so we have enough room to be able to deal with them effectively. Mindess notes:

The aim of our sense of humor is not to reduce us to a childish state of mind but to enliven our adulthood with injections of childishness. Once we have acquired the ability to take things seriously, we need to revive the ability to take them playfully.  Once we have learned how to care, we have to remember how not to care.  (Mindess, 1971, p. 121)

Much of what goes on at Uncle Albert’s is nonsense humor.  Nonsense is important because it provides a “recess from rational thought” it confounds the intellect and beckons to the wealth of irrationality within us: “as human beings we are capable of visualizing things which cannot be, conjuring up both frightening and wondrous fantasies, dispensing with the boundaries of time and space, the law of cause and effect” (Mindess, 1971, p. 80).  Nonsense humor allows us to shake off the bonds of sensibility and run free in the fields of our imagination.  Reason, although providing a great many positive benefits also tones down and curtails joy, and is an agent of constriction.  Nonsense, although frivolous and childish, is freeing and renewing, like Zen koans that give enlightenment. We enjoy nonsense so much because after a diet of logic, reason, and rational knowledge “we thirst for a refreshing sip of the absurd,”  the irrational, the illogical (pp. 82-83). ∆RC[mp29]

Jokes Abound

Uncle Albert and Bert begin exchanging jokes, and in the end or rather near the end of the movie, it is a joke that sets George free.  Jokes reveal the play in language, and, like play of which they are a part, jokes often link incongruent elements and take unexpected turns.  Telling jokes entails surprise and release and is often aimed at areas of tension. The punch lines provide a moment of release. Jokes share qualities of surprise and fit, playing tricks on our expectations and jokes put their topics together in a novel manner:

The combination of these two characteristics—surprise and fit is common throughout the kingdom of humor.  It occurs in many variations, but some form of confounding our preliminary expectations and putting the puzzle together in an unexpected pattern is what humor almost always does. (Mindess, 1971, pp. 150-151)

Many jokes are based on incongruity and Derrida notes that jokes aren’t static, they build up to “a crescendo, which is disrupted when the outcome is ‘nothing’” (Glenn, 2003, p. 20).  The setup creates expectations, or a trajectory, for what is to follow; the punch line shifts frames and delivers “nothing.” Jokes have a sequential pattern:  a mood is suggested, or a line of thought and then it is dispelled in a novel manner. 

At the beginning, there is the set-up that gets us going in one direction, and then, unexpectedly, we veer off course, and end up somewhere else.  While going down one train of thought, we are sidetracked and get taken on a tangent.  It is just another kind of bricolage, and so it is very appropriate that Bert is the one who tells the joke that George will later repeat epiphanically at the bank.

Whenever we hear a joke, see a ludicrous image, or perceive the ridiculous aspect of a real life situation, our habitual mental operations are forestalled and new ones are substituted.  We are robbed of the opportunity to complete a conventional train of thought and are presented with a more imaginative one in its place.  The substitution is amusing, but its ramifications are more than amusing, for they turn us on to the possibility of unique, unstereotyped thinking on a wider scale.  Whatever the specific topics of our laughter, in the mere fact of reacting through humor, we achieve a moment of nascence, of renewal, of creativity.  The process sheds light on the levitating influence of wit and comedy in general. (Mindess, 1971, pp. 152-153)

The liberatory and enlightening nature of humor are highlighted in Mary Poppins, where there is actual levitation, caused appropriately by levity.  Zen koans, as just noted, are tools for enlightenment precisely because they work like jokes, and interrupt the normal patterns of the ego.  Speaking of interrupting, let us look at how this relates to the trickster. 

Mindess (1971) says that “The comic spirit is an embodiment of the spirit of disruption.  It breaks us free from the ruts of our minds, inviting us to enjoy the exhilaration of escape" (p. 22).  Trickster tales are entertaining, they make people laugh, but beyond that teach people how to behave, and they are used in healing rituals.  Trickster tales also “help us become conscious of aspects of life and culture that might otherwise be neglected.  By becoming aware of them, we can rearrange them or see why it is best to leave them the way they are,” (Hansen, 2001, p. 59) and Hansen also notes that Babcock says that creative thought is “double-minded” as opposed to routine thought (p. 60). Laughter, too, allows us to see things that might otherwise be neglected.  Like the Trickster, laughter deterritorializes the ego, and allows us to get unstuck, to free ourselves from habit, routine, and one-sidedness.  Later, one of the jokes that Michael learned at Uncle Albert’s will prove very enlightening indeed. 

Jane and Michael think that they will have to stay up on the ceiling forever, but they learn that there is a way to come down.  You can literally "come down," by thinking of something sad, by becoming emotionally down, which Uncle Albert is reluctant to do.  When Mary says that they must go, it is sad, and as a result, they all end up back on the ground.  Bert stays with Uncle Albert after Mary and the children leave, unsuccessfully attempting to cheer Uncle Albert up again, but his jokes fall flat and Uncle Albert just weeps. 


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