The recent death by suicide of Robin Williams, one of America’s most beloved comedians, has sparked a wave of commentary about whether there is a connection between humour and depression, or between humour and desperation. Others question whether it is proper to laugh at memorial services as many did for Williams (and as many have been doing for centuries at Irish wakes, for example).
One of the world’s leading humour experts, Austrian Professor Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich, believes that although “some might object to telling jokes about the deceased in a funeral context, in fact this is precisely the place where it is therapeutic to laugh and remember the funny things about the deceased.”
Ruch has focused his studies on the serious side of humour, in particular the psychological aspects of why we tell jokes. When is laughter cathartic; when does it mask deeper problems; and can humour be learned? Ruch said his research indicates that, “Humour is the ability of a person to compensate for the inadequacies perceived in the world and to deal positively with adversity”.
Popular wisdom holds that sometimes humour is not translatable and is, in fact, culturally specific. British self-deprecating irony and the broader slip-on-a-banana-peel type more common to Americans and Australians both serve as examples, as well as the highly political type of jokes famous among European Jewry and throughout Eastern Europe under Communism.
The Zurich psychologist agrees that humour may be culturally diverse in content but insists it is common to all mankind, however well buried or neglected since childhood. Ruch said it can even be taught. Zurich University has training courses to help people reconnect with their playful nature and learn to laugh again. “Humour in academia or in the workplace is not a contradiction,” said Ruch. “It reduces stress, helps with team work and creates a more efficient and productive environment.”
Pamela Taylor is a Geneva-based writer with a long career as a journalist for National Public Radio, Voice of America, AFP’s English Service and others, in Central Europe, Bosnia and Kosovo.