The Current

Coping through laughter: Why comedy can help get us through the pandemic

Even though a pandemic isn't exactly hilarious, these Canadian comedians believe laughter can be valuable in the trying times we're in — and researchers agree.

Researchers theorize that laughter is an evolutionary reaction that helps us assess threats — like a pandemic

Leonard Chan is a comedian in Toronto. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he's hosting a YouTube show titled Chandemic. (Scott McLean)
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Even though a pandemic isn't exactly hilarious, these Canadian comedians believe laughter can be valuable in the trying times we're in.

"Why is it important?" asked Baroness Von Sketch actor Aurora Browne. "Well, I guess because otherwise life is an endless cycle of despair if we don't laugh, really."

As physical distancing measures continue, and Canadians look for the bright spots in a dim period, both Browne and comedian Leonard Chan say there's plenty of humour to go around — within reason.

"I don't think there's ever too soon for jokes. There's too soon for bad jokes … the sooner it is to a tragedy, the better the joke has to be," Chan told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Whether you're in a pandemic or not, when you write a joke, you have to be very cognizant of who the target is of that joke." Instead, comedians should focus on punching up, he adds.

Chan joked his comedy career is "in shambles" thanks to COVID-19, but agrees there are ways to find the funny in challenging situations.

The Asian comedian pointed to racism arising from the pandemic, but said he personally hadn't experienced any "because I've been quarantining at home with my wife — and she clearly likes Asians."

So, if stand-up specials are getting you through the pandemic, you're not alone.

In fact, researchers theorize that laughter may play a key role in assessing threats — like a global coronavirus outbreak.

"We call it the benign violation theory and it can explain a wide range of comedy," said Caleb Warren, a University of Arizona professor and a co-founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL).

Coping through laughter

That theory suggests that people will be open to something that feels violating — emotionally or physically — as long as it's done in a benign way.

"Tickling, for example, is an attack that someone levies, but, you know, they trust they're not going to hurt you," Warren explained. "If some creepy dude on the street tries to tickle you, that's not funny."

Caleb Warren is a professor at the University of Arizona, and a co-founder of the Humor Research Lab. (Rod Mikinski/University of Arizona)

Even puns, as harmless as they may seem, fit the theory.

"Most puns involve some language or communication or logic violation. So when is a door not a door? When it's ajar," joked Warren. 

A pun, he explains, is a logic violation. While logically, the joke makes no sense — thus violating one's logic — the sentiment is often understood, making it benign. 

In addition to HuRL's benign violation theory, the researchers believe that the reason humans laugh — as do other mammals, including apes — is as a "communication signal."

"What we think it signals is that thing that looks threatening out there is actually not a problem," Warren said.

So, as people adjust to the new reality that COVID-19 presents, laughter can be a key coping mechanism.

Aurora Browne is a Toronto-based actor and stars oin CBC-TV's Baroness Von Sketch show. (Corbin Smith)

Looking ahead to better days

Warren acknowledges that not everyone will find humour in a situation like this pandemic — particularly those who may be out of work or have a loved one who died as a result of the illness.

"But as people start to recover, and for those of us who are in, I would say, less unfortunate situations where we're just stuck at home for months at a time ... humour can help a lot," Warren said.

According to Browne, it's not the pandemic itself that's funny — it's everything happening around it. 

"There's an endless array of how people are strange or petty or shortsighted, and that's always kind of funny, except, of course, when those shortsighted decisions lead to lives being lost," she said.

For the time being, Browne says she's turning to comedians on Reddit and Twitter for her comedy fix. 

"You just have to do it because we can't get into a room together and laugh," she told Galloway, adding that she's looking ahead to better days.

"I'm fantasizing about getting back together with my fellow humans."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Joana Draghici.

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