Breaking The Rules

A shadowy introduction to a funny business

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 5
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

PLAY AND HUMOR ARE A FUNNY BUSINESS – in both meanings of that phrase. We mostly think of them as delightful, fertile with laughter and refreshment – which is the kind of play and humor most of this issue is about. Yet they can also be funny-strange, riddled with paradox and even pain. Take, for example, the many things we associate with "clown" – from the happy laughter at a circus, to the folk image of the professional clown as a fundamentally unhappy person, to the use of "clown" to describe someone who is either incompetent or disruptive in a group. Likewise, there is clearly something wonderful in childhood play, yet most people have also had painful play experiences as children – experiences that can continue to block their adult playfulness.

Why do we have such conflicting associations with play and humor? That question has kept reappearing as a strange undercurrent as we’ve gathered material for this issue – like a dark companion to our brighter image of play and humor. We’ve been tempted to ignore this uninvited guest, but it’s been persistent, so we’ve decided to take the opposite, and perhaps riskier, approach. We are going to invite this question right into the center of our circle and use it as an introduction. Perhaps if we are willing to hear its shadowy tale, it will reveal some of that special wisdom that the darker side of subjects always seem to hold, and lead us to a richer, more powerful enjoyment of the wonderful gifts that play and humor have to offer us.

A good starting point for exploring this question is to notice that at the heart of both play and humor is the temporary setting aside of conventional rules, roles and expectations. If we are playing a structured game, like basketball, we temporarily set aside our normal roles and activities for another clearly specified set of roles and rules. If we are just being playful, most of the changes are unspoken, but there is a common understanding that we can, during our playfulness, pretend, behave in ways that we would not ordinarily, and do things that are not meant to be taken seriously. Humor is the same in a less active, more mental way.

This puts us into a curious double world, since our normal roles and expectations, while they may partially be set aside, do not disappear from our consciousness. The interplay between these two worlds creates a (usually enjoyable) tension, and this tension leads on to the subject of laughter.

Neil Schaeffer, a literary critic, says that "laughter results from an incongruity presented in a ludicrous context." Annette Goodheart, a therapist who makes extensive use of laughter for catharsis, says that "all laughter comes out of pain." I don’t think I’d go quite that far, but it does seem to me that all laughter involves the release of tension. The process goes like this: Whenever we perceive something abnormal, our instinctual response is to give it more attention and view it (in part) as a potential threat. Past uncomfortable associations add to our sense of tension. If we then discover that it is not, in fact, a genuine threat, our tension can subside. If the timing of this rise and fall is right – slow enough so that we experience some genuine tension, but fast enough so that the processing is only semi-conscious – we often release the tension (including associations from the past) in laughter, or at least a smile.

Laughter is, of course, not the only way to release tension. Insight, caring, and changes in the conditions that gave rise to the tension can also do that, but humor can work when these others either can’t or won’t. Even better, humor and play often work as facilitators of insight, caring, and genuine change.

So humor and certain kinds of playfulness walk a delicate line. They must deal with subjects that can give rise to tension, and yet evoke that tension in ways that cause no ultimate threat. If the subject is too mild, the humor falls flat. If it raises unresolvable or overly painful tensions, it is seen as offensive, in poor taste or, at best, simply not funny. Both of these requirements are highly dependent on the audience and the situation.

This inescapable dependence of humor on tension, and the constant risk in humor that the tension it raises won’t get released, provide part of the answer to why both pleasure and pain are so commonly associated with humor and play. To get at the rest, we need to go back to the "setting aside of rules and roles," and ask, "whose rules and why are we setting them aside?"


The least controversial situation occurs when we have no quarrel with our normal rules, roles and expectations. In this case, we set them aside simply for the sake of recreation and health, for a change of pace, a relief from temporary boredom, or as a way of cleaning out the minor accumulated stress in our lives. With this motivation, we’ll make jokes based on things like word plays – intellectually amusing, but otherwise innocent. Our play takes the form of well specified games and sports that reflect our normal values.

Play and humor of this type are expected to refresh, perhaps even stimulate, but there is no desire to produce any fundamental change. If anything, such play and humor serve to reinforce the status-quo. They are part of a cyclic but non- evolving world.


The opposite situation occurs when someone actively dislikes the rules and roles they are in. If both sides in this conflict can be included, humor and play can be very effective at melting the rigidities and tensions in the situation. They can provide a basis of commonality on which to resolve or diffuse the disagreement.

Yet many people feel they are stuck in unwelcome situations. Think, for example, of the way that many children feel about being in school. In this case, humor and play can become a safe cover for protest and resistance. The underdog probes the grey areas, playfully violating the expectations and desires of the powers-that-be, but always ready to pull back from a direct confrontation with some variant on "I was only kidding."

Alternatively, play and humor may become a route of escape. Rather than directly challenging the authorities or the situation that has you trapped, you simply spend as much time as possible living in your own imagination. Taken too far, this can be a road to insanity, yet many prisoners have kept themselves sane just this way.

The underdogs aren’t the only ones who use play and humor as a tool of power. Throughout the centuries, those in power have often toyed with their "inferiors." Consider such grisly "play" as bringing someone almost to execution, and then, at the last moment, setting them free with a laugh that it was "all a joke." The message of power ("I can violate the rules") gets communicated without creating a martyr. At a milder, but more pervasive level, ridicule of underdogs usually flaunts the dominant group’s power. In their ridicule, the dominant group violates their own rules of decency. The message is, "We can treat you as we would not treat each other, and you are powerless to stop us." Yet by doing it in a "playful" style, the dominant group can claim that they are really not as indecent as their ridicule suggests.

In these power-oriented examples, the "let’s pretend, but don’t take it seriously" quality in play and humor is used as a way to communicate without having to take full responsibility for the message. It is easy to look on this as a negative thing, but as long as oppression exists, the use of this approach by underdogs remains a valuable and relatively humane response.


The third situation is most like normal childhood play. You are neither completely content nor in a power struggle. You simply want to grow, to expand beyond the present limits of your own knowledge and skill, to take on a challenge. So you pretend to be something you are not (yet) in order to find out what it might be like, you "play around" with some ideas, or you "try on" a new activity.

In this case, play and humor may be an invitation to creativity and exploration. You say "Let’s pretend" to tap into the creative power of the imagination, and you may use the results of this exploration in other areas of your life.

You may also have a more specific direction in which you want to grow. Role playing can then be a powerful way to begin training yourself for what may be a new "normal" set of roles and rules. One of the more effective new sport training techniques has people watch video tapes of skilled athletes, and then use their bodily imagination to inwardly experience, to pretend, that they are going through the same motions.

Another major area for expansion and growth is interpersonal relationships. A playful atmosphere can allow people to get to know each other "as people" beyond their normal roles.

Lest we get too rosy, however, remember that perhaps the most popular form of expansive play is based on "Let’s pretend we can afford . . . " Now there’s a game with a multi-trillion dollar level of enthusiasm behind it!

Play and humor based on growth motivation are usually pleasant at the time for those who chose it, but it can be threatening to others who are wary of such growth or who may have to pay for its consequences.

Looking back over all these different kinds of play and humor, we can see that, whatever the motivation, "setting aside the rules and roles" is an inescapable part of each, and (just like tension and laughter) that implies some risk of misunderstanding, unforeseen consequences, pain and hurt. This risk is acceptable, indeed is part of the fun, as long as the intentions behind the play and humor are friendly. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Yet hostile play and humor, by themselves, are not the root problem. As long as hostility exists, play and humor provide better outlets for its expression than many other avenues. The problem is that our culture is only slowly becoming adept at distinguishing between friendly and hostile play and humor. And as long as we don’t have a good cultural recognition of this difference, then the tolerance we grant to the more common forms of friendly play and humor will continue to be a good cover for "breaking the rules" with the intention to at least avoid responsibility if not also directly to hurt.

It should not surprise us, then, if our society has some wariness towards play and humor. After all, which rules are going to get set aside and who will take responsibility for the results? Getting beyond this wariness will require more than simple appeals for "more play." It is going to take the development of a well recognized style of play and humor that releases their full positive power while minimizing the ways they can be abused.

David Spangler brings an interesting perspective to this by connecting the concepts of play and stewardship:

"Play allows us to see our world as if for the first time, transcending habit and embracing the presence of the spirit of birth and creativity that is within all things. Stewardship is the complement to Play. It honors the form and structure of things, delighting in the familiar and nurturing what already exists. While Play allows the emergence of new forms, Stewardship enables existing forms to reach their fullest potential." (From Currents, Spring 1986, PO Box 663, Issaquah, WA 98027.)

In our society, we often see play and stewardship as opposing qualities, with some personalities drawn more to one or the other. But when I set aside this stereotype and look around me with fresh eyes, I notice that many of the people whom I know as wonderfully playful are also deeply caring and sensitive, and in the same way, those who are most effective with their stewardship seem to have a lightness about them. What emerges for me is the sense that, rather than being in conflict, play and stewardship form a powerful synergetic team. Adrift on its own, play is vulnerable to becoming trivial and irresponsible, while stewardship without play is grim and heavy. Together, they support the most vibrant of lives.

This is especially important now, as the seriousness of the world situation becomes more evident, with nuclear meltdowns, terrorism and counter-terrorism erupting, and economic and ecological mis-management continuing unabated. It is precisely because we are in the midst of deep cultural change and challenge that the need for caring play and humor is so great, for they are some of the best lubricants of graceful change. In the gentlest possible way, they enable us to slough off the no-longer-needed habits of the past, to open freshly to the wisdom of our hearts and of the present, and to experiment with new ways of being for the future.

The rest of the articles in this section explore play and humor, in themselves, with this spirit of combined caring and delight. The articles in the second section then illustrate how this kind of play and humor can have a positive impact on many of our most pressing challenges, transforming them into opportunities for love and laughter.