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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Laughter’s Liberatory Perspective


Mindess (1971) discusses the liberatory nature of laughter.  Laughter helps to free us from the cages of conformity and convention in which we have trapped ourselves into, along with the ruts of redundancy in which we have become stuck.  During our lives, we become pressured to conform in many subtle ways, through different social conventions and morals, through language and logic—all of these provide structure, bringing sense and order into our lives, helping us feel secure.  ∆RC[mp17]


Mindess (1971) observes that we achieve a mixed blessing when in the interest of fitting in, we abide by the fashions and habits of our society and reign in our instincts, and banish “strange fantasies and irrational ideas from our minds” for the sake of sanity.  For the sake of security and peace of mind, we split from part of our authentic selves, sacrificing spontaneity and genuineness in the process.  According to Mindess, what laughter offers us is a “release from our stabilizing systems, escape from our self- imposed prisons . . . liberation from our controls” (p. 23).  Mindess argues that through laughter, we can escape the cages of categorization, conformity and redundancy, which the security of structure provides. The Marx Brothers in their movies exhibited the trickster quality of freely flaunting conventions.  These kinds of characters and movies appeal so much because of our pressure to conform, which stifles our uniqueness through fear and habit.


While our sense of humor helps us to escape from the systems in which we may be stuck, be they perceptual, logical, moral, conventional, or linguistic, humor also helps to disillusion us “from the naïve belief that man is a reasonable trustworthy creature” (Mindess, 1971, p. 106). We are short-sighted, semi-blind in our understanding of ourselves and the world.  Humor, Mindess notes, makes us laugh and see, it allows us to “grasp the grotesque absurdity and pathos of the human scene.” Humor allows us to both appreciate our admirable qualities and acknowledge our contemptible ones, showing us that normally we inhabit a narrower range of consciousness than we possess.  Humor releases us from the “naïveté of single-minded views” (p. 106). 


Laughter’s quintessential power, however, is to free us “from identification with our own egos” (Mindess, 1971, p. 28).  Our egos require that we be taken seriously, for we need to matter. Our fear of letting go often keeps humor from working its magic. We get very attached to our selves, as well as our views.  Mindess notes that:


We all feel a need to bank on [emphasis added] something or someone, to believe in something or someone, be it reason, morality, science, the church, democracy, family, friends, our own attractiveness, intelligence, strength or charm. These anchors provide our security; they keep us safely moored in the frightening swirl of being. (pp. 30-31)

Mindess’s interesting choice of words reveals yet another level of subtlety to Mary Poppins. George Banks works at a bank, as his father before him did.  George’s name and his occupation coincide, but now with Mindess’s help, another important aspect comes into view.  “Banking on” something, means counting on it, and so not only is George identified with his job, but the particular job itself is another level of the pattern as well, and serves to underscore the stable, secure, structural aspects that George so Saturnianly embodies, running his “home precisely on schedule.” The liberation that laughter strives toward: "a state of mind keenly aware of its contingency, its relativity, its fallibility,” while “liberating to my identity as a human being” is devastating to the ego and intellect (Mindess, 1971, pp. 82-83)


We are not only stuck in our own identities, but we are also prisoners of our patterns, obsessively repeating them in a circle of sameness.  We think mostly of things we’ve ever thought, instead of things that we’ve never thought, and thus become slaves to single-mindedness:  “like wound-up spring action toys, we play out our little repertoires again and again and again, for we are frightened and confused at the prospect of doing anything unlike ourselves” (Mindess, 1971, p. 109). ∆RC[mp18]


This rather “foolish consistency” keeps us in behavioral and attitudinal ruts.  But why?  Repetitive patterns simplify our lives, saving us from constantly making new self-assessments and decisions.  “Having settled on any outlook whatsoever, we are stubbornly resistant to opposing points of view because they threaten our serenity.  Having found peace of mind, we are loathe to relinquish it even if it means becoming narrow and dogmatic” (Mindess, 1971, p. 112).  Redundancy is part of our makeup, which we cannot eliminate, but humor helps illuminate it, and at times humor is able to offer a helping hand to pull us out of our routine ruts.   


Our sense of humor demands the opposite of conformity and redundancy, that we be flexible, restless, changeable, various and unpredictable: “It evokes the rhythm of the life process in its most elemental form.  It does not tolerate redundancy in any human endeavor, for redundancy is the enemy of human vitality, and vitality—unvarnished and unpretified—is humor’s favorite protégé” (Mindess, 1971, p. 113). Ironically, we often laugh at instances of rigidity and nonthinking in others.


Mindess says that babies love when people make faces at them and when they are tossed in the air.  Common to both experiences are “sudden brief distortion of his usual experience," which is what jokes are. Surprise disrupts usual order of things, and allows our minds to skip about, shifting views and coming up with surprising observations, instead of remaining locksteply logical, or precisely proper.


We laugh when we experience the unexpected. When what we believe will or should happen is inconsistent with what actually occurs.  Incongruities temporarily rupture our expectations of what is to come.  The sudden shift and resulting surprise often provoke laughter:  “children’s humor, word play, surrealist and dadaist art, and theater of the absurd all draw on incongruity for ludic effect . . . . The incongruity between expectations and actuality, between the mechanical and the adaptive, motivates the laughter in much of comedy” (p. 20).  We will look at this more during the scene-by-scene-play when we visit Uncle Albert’s house.


Morreall (1983) notes that a sense of humor allows us to see "our way" as just one of many possible ways, enabling us gain distance on ourselves and to be disengaged from action. A sense of humor allows us distance from both our successes and our failures, keeping us from becoming inflated by a sense of self-importance, and helping us to enjoy otherwise difficult situations.  By gaining distance from our problems through humor, we are more apt to find solutions.  We can be less egocentrically involved and thus not overvalue our own view.  ∆RC[mp19]


The distancing that humor provides also allows us to see the absurdity of different aspects of our problems, and thus we can more easily begin to change things. An example of this is the scheduling of a time to be anxious which is used in “paradoxical therapy.”



Viktor Frankl found that humor was “almost a prerequisite to survival” in his experiences in concentration camps and Frankl used humor in different psychotherapeutic techniques:

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self preservation . . . humor more than anything else in the human make-up can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, if only for a few seconds.” (Morreall, 1983, p. 104)

In times of distress, laughter allows us a “god’s-eye view,” a semi-detached, quasi-indifferent objective perspective, what the gods would see looking down from a height.  While this perspective of laughter:


may not enable us to change reality, enables us to endure it.  It may not allow us to discard our egos, but it allows us to transcend them.  The full development of our sense of humor results in a frame of mind so free, so flexible, and so kaleidoscopic that it rigidifies nowhere, gets hooked on nothing . . . . It is this frame of mind that can, with some conviction be called our ultimate hope, for the ability to evoke it represents an ability to take whatever comes with a shrug if not a smile. (Mindess, 1971, p. 30)

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