Renuka Chowdhury has been rebuked by the ruling party for her ‘inappropriate’ laughter in Parliament. But can any laughter be deemed ‘inappropriate’?“Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” The reference, of course, is to Abraham Lincoln who was assassinated while watching a stage performance. Lincoln was shot in 1865, in the politically surcharged atmosphere following the end of the American Civil War. I heard that joke some 40 years ago, though its provenance is probably much older; the colloquialism ‘his name is mud’ is believed to be derived from a contemporary reference to a Dr Mudd, a Confederate sympathiser who treated Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who was injured while escaping.
‘Black’ or ‘sick’ jokes seem to spawn spontaneously at times of trauma. Though PG Wodehouse was pilloried for his humorous broadcasts during World War II when he was held captive by theGermans, his ‘sin’ was seen to be not his inappropriate recourse to jocularity but his apparent collaboration with the enemy. In fact, blitz-ravaged Britain kept its morale up with laughter in the dark: A bombed-out, roofless establishment would bear the sign, “More open for business than usual”.
The wars in West Asia, African famines, the death of Princess Diana have all fomented a sub-cultural bacillus of gallows humour. Within a few hours of the massacre in Kathmandu palace, a ‘sick’ story was doing the rounds: Prince Charles tells his mother, “OK, so you won’t let me marry Camilla; why don’t you and the rest of the family come round to my place for dinner Friday night”.
Sickening as it undoubtedly is, ‘sick’ humour is like a toxic titration prescribed to cure or alleviate a deeper malaise; it is a psychic alka seltzer taken for a mass emotional hangover. It’s based on the therapeutic principle that a judiciously administered dose of the poison that made you ill can make you feel better.
Like ethnic jokes, ‘sick’ humour is deplored as being ‘politically incorrect’. This is to understate the case. ‘Sick’ jokes are meant to illustrate the incorrectness of the politics that have brought you to the grief from which you now seek deliverance. The more incorrect the politics, the blacker the corrective humour.
War is the ultimate incorrect politics—‘Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent’, as Isaac Asimov says—and the most effective anti-warparegoric is not pious bromides but black humour. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a classic example. The protagonist, Yosarian, takes off all his clothes and goes around naked on the army base. He hopes that he will convince his superior officers that he is insane so that, by virtue of his insanity, he is discharged from service. However, the army psychiatrist turns down this plea on the grounds that since only madmen would want to fight a war, madness is not a valid argument for dismissal from combat service. That’s the Catch-22 underlying the war conducted by other means that we call the human condition.
Sex and death are the primal polarities of our lives. Both have long been the subjects of subversive humour. But while ‘The Rationale of the Dirty Joke’ has been discussed at length in the bestseller of that name, death—particularly violent or untimely death—has largely been deemed to be too close-to-the-bone for humour. There have, of course, been dissidents from this conventional view.
Osho, for instance, was only one of a long line of Eastern sages to treat death as a juvenile practical joke—like pulling a chair out from beneath someone about to sit on it—and greet it with an indulgent chuckle.
Graveyard humour has its recognised place in many societies. I remember as a child returning from the burning ghats where we’d gone to consign the mortal remains of an ancient grandaunt. Some prankster broke the solemn silence by exclaiming “Hey! Haven’t we left someone behind?” Initially shocked, I laughed when the adults began to laugh. I learnt early that, like sex, death fills us with shame, from which we seek release in laughter. It’s a psychological defence mechanism.
Ramakrishna told the story of the itinerant sage who came across a village terrorised by an aggressive poisonous snake. He sought out the snake and forbade it from biting people. Months later, the sage returned to the village. The villagers were well and happy, but the snake was badly battered and dying. “What happened?” asked the sage. “You stopped me from biting, so the villagers lost their fear and attacked me,” complained the snake. “You fool,” the sage replied, “I told you no biting. Did I say anything about hissing?”
Black humour is the hiss of the safety valve on the pressure cooker. You can plug it, but only at your own risk. So critics of Renuka’s laughter might like to do a re-think.
Writer, columnist and author of several books