Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Humor and laughter

Since ancient times, humor and laughter have helped calm people's minds, smoothing human relations all over the world. Humor lightens our burdens, inspires hope, connects us to others and keeps us alert. Nothing works faster or can more dependably bring the human spirit and body back into balance than a good laugh. There is a great deal of meaning inherent in long-established adages such as: "humor is mankind's greatest blessing"; "humor brings insight and tolerance"; "what soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul"; "laughter is the best medicine" and "good fortune comes to the door of people who laugh."

In famous playwright and actor Moliere's (1622-1673) satirical French comedies of the 17th century, such as Tartuffe or the Hypocrite, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, and The Bourgeois Gentleman, there's a healthy sense of humor that has long entertained ordinary citizens in western countries. In Japan as well, short satirical Japanese poetry from the early modern period (senryu) and comic stories (rakugo) have had the same effect.

It would be shallow to say that this type of entertainment was something that only diverted commoners' attention from the problems of their societies like poverty, social injustice, class distinction and oppression. In a much deeper sense, ordinary citizens must have felt laughter was necessary to triumph over hardship and head toward a bright future.

Regrettably, humor is sometimes jeering and despicable, disclosing vicious and inhumane aspects of life. But the essence of laughter does not exist in such humor. I sense something "sick" in Japanese comic dialogs (manzai) of late. From what I have seen and heard about these shows, I have concluded that recent manzai contain unhealthy and harmful humor.

For example, many comedians make jokes at the expense of senior citizens, the underprivileged and other disadvantaged groups. They tease and ridicule people who are weak. This verbal harassment is often directed at a person's physical appearance, ethnic origin or occupation. Therefore, the term "sadistic comedy" can be appropriately used to describe manzai. These sadistic manzai are a far cry from the time-honored healthy satirical spirit that invites spontaneous laughter. They seem to be devoid of feeling and so repugnant that they have no value. This type of comedy is really about denial and destructiveness.

What worries me most — in addition to this negative tendency — is the almost total lack of humor regarding satire of Japan's hierarchy, politicians and bureaucrats. Personally, I am afraid this tendency reflects political indifference and a sense of helplessness prevalent among Japanese.

Unhealthy and harmful humor has become both a symptom and a cause of a malaise of triviality and foolishness currently troubling Japanese society. Unfortunately, the majority of Japanese viewers accept this, as if to say, "If it's on TV, it must be OK!"

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: February 12, 2010 (Published in Japan Times ST)

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