Laughing Matters

Reflections from a humor educator

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 10
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Joel Goodman is the Director of the Humor Project (480 Broadway, Suite 210, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, or 518/587-8770), the editor of Laughing Matters magazine ($15 for 4 issues per year), and an author and workshop leader.

What is play? What characterizes play activities?

Joel: Like most people, I have a lot of associations between play and childhood. Yet one of the things I’ve learned is that there’s a very important difference between behavior that is childish and perspectives that are childlike. I’ve learned that best from my son Adam, who’s now 41/2. He’s taught me that having some childlike playful perspectives on our sometimes serious adult world can be a very mature coping skill. So one of the ways I look at play is as the ability to take the world with a grain of salt, to allow your creativity and sense of humor to come out to play and work for you.

Diane: Not to get bogged down?

Joel: Yes. I think that play is one way of helping us balance ourselves. "Balance" is a very important word in my life and work; I see life as one big balance beam. My sense is that it’s quite appropriate for us as adults, and for young people, too, at times, to take our work seriously and ourselves lightly. For me play is the fulcrum that helps me walk that fine line. It’s what takes the solemnity out of it. I know a lot of adults who are very solemn professionals. I also know a lot of adults who are serious professionals yet at the same time have some lightness to balance it.

Diane: What does play do for people? What are the benefits?

Joel: I don’t know which is the larger fish bowl but I see play and humor as being intimately involved in and related to each other. Some of the benefits of humor and play are, first of all, health benefits. In my workshops and speeches I often talk about the notion of "jest for the health of it" – the whole idea given prominence by Norman Cousins in his Anatomy of an Illness, that we can marshall, we can tap the power of our positive emotions. Play is certainly one way of doing that, of developing health through a sense of playfulness, hope, optimism, love, joy, laughter, and a will to live. There is an emerging body of clinical research suggesting that, in fact, the old Reader’s Digest notion, that laughter is the best medicine, might just be right.

I think people are now coming back to their senses of humor and play in realizing, yes, this can be of benefit to us. On a bottom line level of health, internal organs are massaged when we laugh and play, and it seems that respiration and circulation are enhanced. I am especially excited about the emerging research indicating that laughter and play activate the endorphin system in our brains – the endorphins being the body’s natural pain killer. So it may, in fact, be possible to get high through laughter and play – naturally.

Diane: Do you see other social benefits?

Joel: Very definitely. A second area is helping people deal with stress. Play can be a very important ingredient in helping people not only prevent the build up of stress but also helping people play with stress when it’s staring them in the face. I like one of the quotes from George Burns, who talks about the notion that you can’t help getting older but you can help getting old. In my work I make the point that we can’t stop the hands of the clock but we can stop what I call "a hardening of the attitudes." Play can keep us fresh, young at heart, young in spirit, young in mind and even young in body to some extent. I often ask people at my workshops and speeches how many of them think that they’ll outlive George Burns. I get an interesting response. A lot of people are betting on George.

One way of playing with stress and heading it off is to hold up the mirror to reality. People like Art Buchwald, Mark Russell, Will Rodgers, Erma Bombeck and others basically just tell it like it is. One way I suggest people can play around with their reality is to come up with a definition of their job that mirrors reality in a playful way. I’ll give you a couple of examples. A teacher in Michigan who attended one of my programs a number of years ago came up to me during a break and said, "I’ve got a great definition of a teacher. A teacher is somebody who can drink 3 cups of coffee before 8 o’clock and hold them until 3 o’clock." By playing with her reality she was laughing about it instead of letting it get her down. Another example that I like is from Casey Stengel, a former manager of the New York Yankees Baseball Club. He was incredibly successful, winning more world championships than anybody else. Somebody once asked him what’s the secret of managing a ball club? Casey’s response was, "To keep the five guys who hate you away from the 4 who are undecided." With tongue in cheek, he was playing with stress that came with being a manager. So stress management and preventing burnout is another important thing that play can give us.

A third is learning. There’s a direct relationship between laughter and learning. Now that flies in the face of what a lot of people have been taught. In fact, many teachers give out the messages in no uncertain terms: don’t smile until Christmas. The notion being that, if you crack a smile, if you show your humanness, if you play in the classroom, the kids aren’t going to take you seriously. They’ll be off the wall and you’ll never get them back. That’s been taken to an extreme where a lot of people see laughter and learning as mutually exclusive. Yet in fact, what emerging research is suggesting is that they can go hand in hand. When used appropriately, laughter and play can maximize learning, can invite learning, can motivate students, and can make learning more enjoyable. How else could people enjoy learning other than playing with learning?

A fourth is that I think humor and play are wonderful ways of building relationships. Victor Borge talks about the notion that laughter is "the shorter distance between two people." When people are playing together, especially if they’re enjoying what they’re playing, laughter is certainly one of the side effects or outgrowths of that, and it can be a wonderful way of building bonds, strengthening and improving a relationship.

The fifth reason is that play leads to creativity. Many great ideas have emerged over the centuries as well as now from people who are playing with ideas. When I interviewed Norman Cousins for Laughing Matters magazine, I asked him at one point, "Who do you consider a humorous person?" His response really intrigued me. His first answer was Buckminster Fuller. And his second answer was Albert Einstein. Two people I would initially associate more directly with creativity than with humor. And yet his sense of those people, whom he knew, was that their ability to play with reality, play with ideas, play with their creativity, certainly was related to humor as well.

Diane: That probably was what led them to their great discoveries.

Joel: Yes. One of the things about play, in some of its forms, is that there’s not necessarily a predetermined outcome. Whether it’s playing a competitive game or cooperative game, you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to lead or what the final results will be. The ability to enter into an open-ended piece of reality, to deal with ambiguity, to keep an open mind to the possibilities, is important in play, and in creativity.

Diane: What would you see as the difference between sick and healthy humor?

Joel: That’s very important to me. I make a conscious effort in my programs and in Laughing Matters magazine to highlight that. I talk about the difference between laughing at other people and laughing with them. It’s a simple switch in words, but a profound difference in impact. And yet it’s sometimes a very fuzzy gray area. Which side of the fence you’re on may depend on either the context, the timing or the people involved. Basically, I try to suggest that, contrary to most of the models people have had, humor doesn’t have to be at somebody’s expense. Some of the theories of humor being an outlet for aggression or hostility may be true to some extent, but I don’t think we have to buy into that as a cultural, individual or interpersonal model. I make some distinctions. For instance, laughing at others can be based on contempt and insensitivity, while laughing with others is based on caring and empathy. By laughing at others, a person doesn’t choose to become the butt of a joke. In laughing with others, people often choose to make themselves the butt of a joke and invite others to laugh with them at their foibles. Look at the end result. Does it offend people? Does it divide people? Does it lead to a one downmanship cycle? Or does it invite people to laugh? Does it bring people closer? Does it lead to positive repartee? Laughing at others reinforces stereotypes by singling out a particular group as a butt of a joke, whereas in laughing with others we poke fun at universal human foibles of which there are many. In spite of the predominant models we have around us, humor doesn’t have to be toxic.

Diane: How might you use play in measuring the social health of a society?

Joel: One of my feelings is that a society that can laugh at itself, that can play with reality on a more global scale, is more advanced or progressive in general. There may be some cultures that we would normally think of as primitive that have a great sense of humor and play throughout their whole everyday existence, and to me that’s a sign of real health. Americans also appreciate humor; and certainly political humorists have been given pretty much free rein in our culture and our society. I think that’s a positive sign. Certainly there are some cultures where humor has to go underground or show up in ways we don’t immediately understand. People have a stereotype of Russians as being a humorless, gray, drab people, but I’ve met many people who say that their individual contact with the Soviets have been very delightful and that there’s a great deal of active underground humor trying to deal with some of the political realities there.

Diane: This matches what I found when I travelled there a year ago.

Joel: When I interviewed Norman Cousins, he told me that whenever he met Khrushchev, the first thing Khrushchev would ask him was, "Have you heard any good jokes?" It’s an interesting behind the scenes look at our stereotypes and images.

Diane: What do you think are common misconceptions about play?

Joel: One is that play is for kids only. Even kids’ play, quite interestingly, is in jeopardy. I attended a speech the other night at the annual dinner for our local task force on child abuse and neglect. The speaker talked about the way younger and younger ages of children are being asked to assume adult roles. You have to do well in nursery school in order to get into a good kindergarten. It’s so absurd, and yet evidently some of that’s happening. Look at the little league syndrome where six-year-olds are being berated by adults for not doing well. It’s just bizarre!

A second misconception is that if you play or engage in play, people won’t take you seriously. My guess is that, if taken to an extreme, that could certainly be the case. If somebody always plays the class clown, is always playful and doesn’t exhibit any other dimensions, then sure, people would respond to you accordingly.

But my sense is that most people, especially adults, could go far more in the direction of being playful without running the risk of people not taking them seriously.

The third misconception might be that play is just for fun, that those 5 reasons I gave you earlier don’t exist. One of the things I value in my life, and you don’t have to be a humor educator to do this, is that I’ve evolved a lifestyle and workstyle where my play is my work and my work is my play, which isn’t to say that I don’t play in other ways, too. The whole issue is that we can be congruent, that it doesn’t have to be work hard now in order to play later.

Diane: What can people do to bring more humor and play into their lives?

Joel: There are literally thousands of ways that people can invite laughter, humor and playfulness into their own lives and jobs everyday. I try to help broaden people’s idea of what humor is and what playfulness is – that it’s not just a matter of standing up and telling jokes.

Diane: Could you give a few examples?

Joel: I suggest to people that in order to seize the opportunity for using humor in a situation you have to first be able to see the opportunity. So I ask people to develop their comic vision. One way to do this is the "candid camera" approach. For five minutes a day, make believe you’re Allan Funt without the hidden camera. Call a mental time out, step off your treadmill and look for the humor around you. What people have reported back is that it’s simple but not simplistic. If you start looking for humor, humor finds you. I encourage people to look everywhere, even in the "serious" places. For instance one of the issues of Laughing Matters magazine has examples of things that actually appeared on church bulletin boards:

  • This afternoon there will be meetings in the north and south ends of the church. Children will be baptized on both ends.
  • Thursday at 8 p.m. there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers Club. All those wishing to become Little Mothers will please meet the Minister in his study.

My sense is that humor is all around us. Collecting bloopers or boners that you’ve done or heard can be fun. Another technique is the fill-in- the-blank game. You start with something like, "You know you are suffering from job burnout when . . . " and fill it in with things like, " . . . your idea of an exotic drink is a glass of Milk of Magnesia with a little paper umbrella stuck in it."

Diane: What have been some personal surprises or insights that have come through these years of playing?

Joel: I certainly never expected to be able to have a fulltime career doing what I’m doing. It’s not in the career handbook as far as I know. Being a more than fulltime humor educator has been a joy and a delight. I’ve been surprised by people’s openness and response to what I’ve been doing. For instance, when I first started working with corporations on this subject, I thought there’s no way the corporate market would be interested in programs like humor. But in fact I’ve been finding that there’s been quite a good deal of interest. I’ve done many programs for major corporations looking at how managers and executives can use humor in minimizing conflict and in building a more positive morale. The response has been good, and some of them are even having me return a year later with a follow-up program.

I’m delighted now with the response of other sectors as well. I’ve done a lot of work with health care agencies, hospitals, and I have just received a grant from Humana Hospital in Orlando. It’s a grant to focus on the implications and applications of humor in medicine and health care. That was a surprise! Five years ago, two years ago even, I wouldn’t have thought there was a major hospital corporation out there that would be interested in funding work on humor.

On a personal level one of the things that I’ve been surprised and delighted by is my own experience with my kids. Although it’s not a surprise anymore, on one level, I’m always surprised by them. I’ve reexperienced joy and a deep sense of playfulness with them more than at any other time in my life. When I need to get grounded or find out what’s really important, I literally get down with my kids, ages 41/2 and 4 months, and hang out with them. That very quickly brings into focus what’s really important.