Laughter and Comedy: Breaking the Rules?

This is an excerpt from my paper ‘ How Effective is Laughter and Comedy in Creating an Atmosphere of Positive Peace?’

Breaking the Rules

The messengers of humour have been characterised by the fool, clown, trickster, joker, buffoon and jester. They operate outside the norms of society and simultaneously are near the centre of human experience.48 These provocateurs are disorderly in their behaviour and their roles are designed to break rules, upset law and order, challenge conventions and taboos. They are agents of comic chaos, shape changers, uninhibited, wild, and are both nothing and everything. Through jokes and humour distinctions are broken down between wisdom and folly, sanity and insanity and rules and disorder.49 The fool, clown, jester and trickster exist on the borderline of humanity marking out the limits.50 The sound of laughter provides the audible boundary of having stepped over or having ‘gone too far’.51
The fool, clown and comedians exhibit powerful characteristics, which enable them to be ‘allowed’ to step over conventional boundaries. The fool was common in the courts of Medievil Europe. The fool is a fun character playing the role of someone who is foolish or intellectually insufficient. There are a range of up to 10 variations or types of fool. The fool’s image is symbolic and revealing national character. The fool has a licensed freedom and exhibits a willingness to be the butt of jokes or the object of laughter. He is admired for what he can get away with and embodies the deeper wishes of others to escape from responsibility. Thus he has a special position and power.52 The clown is a reminder of how far civilisation has come from its animal origins. The clown is more deliberate in action, he feins incompetence and is reknowned for a basic sadness. The clown utilising a range of up to 27 personality types. Carl Jung and Radin value the mythic and psychic qualities of clowns. The laughter at modern clowns is of great antiquity and modern comedians unconsciously reproduce the actions of this achetype. The lid is removed from the conscious every day life and as if in a dream, an insight into the infantile, primitive Self is revealed.53 The comedians use jokes and puns aimed to escape from the weight of tradition. The comedian is strategic and uses jokes to define situations and selves.54

The laugh makers serve an important function as a safety valve for society. They liberate hidden and inhibited wishes such as issues of sex, excretion or aggression. It provides a sense of empowerment to the majority and upholds social order. 55

These laughable characters are in a unique position of power to be able to tell the truth through the eyes of children, poets and the insane. The laugh makers are the catalyst of laughter in society.56 There is a hidden power with a secret sense and an ability to call forth a laugh at will and by timing.57

Challenging Authority

Humour is an agent for social change and reform of the system. The content of humour reflects societal anxieties, values and the need to change.68

In feudal Europe those who felt powerless to directly condemn or fight joined together as merrymen directing their revolution at hypocrisy and tyranny through humour. These groups made up the joyous societies of England. They pretended to be hopeless fools holding up the mighty and holy to derision in speech and song and showing up their falsehood.69 The image of the fool has been equated to the warrior. The symbol of power is a bladder not a spear or a sword, the armour is to look the fool, the weapon is laughter and fighting for freedom.70 Like the clown, the fool satirises existing authority.71 In addition, the image of the fool has been compared to Jesus by American theologian Harvy Cox. The fool defies custom and scorns crownded heads, takes blame on himself, performs miracles (conjures tricks), the parables have a joke structure, and has a belief in defence against evil.72 The depiction of the sad faced clown and the saviour are blurred 73

To laugh at power is to deflate and empty it of rule, which gives a sense of empowerment to the powerless majority. The spread of liberty advances with the spread of laughter. There is nothing that the powerful fear more than laughter. There is no despot or authoritarian who does not work at suppressing laughter and punishing it. The princes of state and church maintained a police force of the spirit to censor, ban books and install programs of thought-control to protect those in authority.74
Political jokes circulating throughout history provide the masses with the means to cope with stress and hardship, particularly in authoritarian regimes, which suppress freedom of speech. A typical joke widely circulating in Russia is reproduced below.

Ivan is sitting on the Kremlin wall. His friend asks him what he is doing. He replies ‘it is my new job. I’m waiting for the world revolution. When it comes I have to announce the good news by blowing my trumphet.’ ‘And how much do they pay you?’ ‘One rouble for each day I have to sit here.’ ‘that’s very little Ivan’, ‘I know Sergei, but it’s a job for life.’75

Similar variations to the above joke circulated during the French Revolution, the Hitler regime and  The jokes are passed mouth to mouth by the silent majority who are deprived of expression. Henri Bergson states that society avenges itself for the liberties taken. Political humour has an underlying motive of aggression, it is not resignation it is rebellious. It works against the unkindness of the situation. It aims to minimise the enemy and achieve a sense of enjoyment at overcoming him. The jokes are a vehicle which make criticism possible against authority, hence a liberation from pressure. In effect acting as a safety valve and a means to preserve sanity. The jokes are unlikely to topple the dictator but they are effective in as far as the oppressor has no defence against them.77

During the rising tide of Nazism, cabaret was a mouthpiece of resistance. Lyrics, jokes and humourous stories were picked up by cabaretists and conveyed through their programmes. In an attempt to suppress humour, the Nazi’s conducted joke courts set up to punish people naming horses and dogs Adolf.78

Mohandas Gandhi

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”


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