Humor is an essential part of the human experience. We tend to think of comedy as frivolous, a side show to the miseries of hunger, disease, and poverty that visit the vast majority of the global population. In the face of humanity's enduring travails, humor is often seen as a prerogative of the privileged. But that is not quite right: Humor can ease even the greatest suffering; without the ability to laugh, in the face of tragedy and depravation, our human experience would be terribly diminished. What often strikes me when we see the aftermath of war, or scenes of desperate hunger, are the sounds of children laughing and playing in the rubble and devastation. Humor is embedded in our DNA.
We are reminded of the important role of comedy in our lives when a titan of that genre dies unexpectedly. Robin Williams' suicide hit hard because he was our national court jester. That term is often used pejoratively to dismiss someone as buffoonish or unworthy of serious attention, but that too is wrong. Court jesters have a noble history that can be traced back to ancient Chinese dynasties, although the role only really flourished during the European Renaissance. Jesters with their comedy played an important and serous role. Jester often developed deep friendships with ruling royalty, who tired of false compliments and unearned praise from yes-men. More importantly, the performers could share valuable insights into court affairs delivered inoffensively through wit. We all know that truth is spoken in jest. We learn in B. Otto's Fools Are Everywhere that some Royal Courts consulted Jesters before going to battle. In 1386, the Duke of Austria, Lepold the Pious, asked his jester for his opinion on his plans to attack the Swiss. His jester, Jenny von Stockach reportedly bluntly said, "You fools, you're all debating how to get into the country, but none of you have thought how you're going to get out again." Ah, if only George Bush and Dick Cheney had a court jester on hand to reign in the madness.
Humor is also a unifying emotion; people from diverse backgrounds and political perspectives can laugh at the same joke. Robin Williams' death is national news precisely because his clowning and personality as our country's court jester were appreciated across social and political divides; he was our collective voice of comedy. Sure, as always we have the odd exception of a few outliers like Rush Limbaugh, who says Williams killed himself because liberals are never happy. He said of the left, "They're always angry about something. No matter what they get, they're always angry." Which itself is a bit funny because nobody is a bigger curmudgeon who specializes in ceaseless unhappy rants. Irony is an important form of comedy too.
In appreciating the serious role of comedy in human life (an oxymoron like "serious comedy" can also be funny -- in the right hands; I'm here all week) we need to understand how laughter is deeply embedded in our evolutionary history. As odd as the concept may seem, laughter and joy are not uniquely human, and in fact are relatively ancient in animal history. Researchers like Jaak Panksepp at Bowling Green State University in Ohio are exploring the neural basis of humor and laughter and finding the phenomenon widespread. Scientists in this field have completed recent studies with rats, dogs and chimps demonstrating that the source of play behavior and laughter is subcortical, embedded in the ancient portions of the mammalian brain. Chimps that are play-chasing and tickling each other vocalize with "play panting," which scientists believe is the equivalent of human laughter. Even rats laugh when tickled playfully, emitting a distinct chirp that researchers believe to be real laughter. Rats tickled playfully socially bond with the tickler, seek out tickles, and always "laugh" when successful. Human infants laugh and shriek with delight long before they have mastered any language, an indication of laughter's primitive origins. Chimps will not be headlining at the Comedy Club any time soon, but they have their own brand of humor even if the joke is lost on us.
As a tangential aside, surprisingly, getting a handle on smiling in other species is somewhat more difficult. All primates share common neuromuscular control over facial expressions, so one would think that we could make a nice claim about smiling as a behavior seen across many animals. In fact, the "silent bared teeth display" seen in non-human primates is considered by some researches to be similar to a human smile. But most scientists dispute that conclusion. The meaning of displaying our pearly whites seems to have been lost in translation. A human smile typically conveys joy, but signals appeasement and fear in non-human primates. For other species we simply have to conclude that smiling is tough if you have no lips. I hope Robin Williams would have found that funny.