Humour can be a subversive activity. It does this by offering a perspective that not only challenges our assumptions but in doing so lightens the world that can often feel difficult and hard.
Within two years of coming to Canada in the late 1960s I spent a summer on the Siksika Nation’s territory east of Calgary. One of the resource people and a subsequent friend, Butch Wolfleg, was part of an orientation at the beginning of the summer as we toured the far flung community. He pointed to a ramshackle building one day, in badly need of repair. “One of our local penthouses,” he declared.
We could not help but react with smiles and laughter to his perspective. Sometime later in conversation Butch offered a further perspective. “Our humour has helped us survive,” he said. I had never before considered that humour contributed to individual or group survival. If you have listened to ethnic U.S. or Canadian comics, often what brings laughter is their unique interpretations of predominant ethnic stereotypes.
A recent South African comic by the name of Trevor Noah, who has taken over Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show has began to gain an expanding audience talking of the U.S. via his humorous comparison to pre- and post-South African Apartheid.
In fact, the recent title of his book Born a Crime describes his legal status under South African law at the time of his birth. Like the anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. it was illegal to have romantic relationships between races. His mother was from the Xhosa tribe in South Africa; his father was Swiss. “As you know,” he says. “The Swiss love chocolate”.
To laugh at predicaments and at life’s ironies is healthier, I once heard, than crying, because laughing exercises and involves more muscles. Who am I to dispute a claim that promotes health and a more relaxed disposition? After all, as Noah says, when people laugh together, conflict is the furthest thing from our minds.