Monday, April 11, 2011

Therapeutic Humor

I've just returned from the AATH conference. AATH stands for Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.

You'll note by the name that, yes, they promote humor, but they also specify that it be therapeutic. Meaning it helps, not harms. Anyone who spent any time on the school playground knows that humor can be harmful and even cruel. But humor can also uplift and even break the spell of sadness and despair.

Humor was a tremendous help to me at the worst points in my illness, and continues to be that spice that makes every day a little better, and every person I meet easier to get to know.

So how do we use humor in a way that is safe and helpful? My thoughts at the moment are these:

- Create distance. Comedy is pain plus distance. The distance can be time or just gaining a new perspective on things; looking at things from a distance, even though they are recent or even ongoing. You may have heard that comedian Gilbert Gottfried was fired from his gig as voice of the AFLAC duck because he made jokes about the Japan Tsunami very shortly after it happened. As they say in the comedy clubs " Too soon!" There wasn't any distance yet. And some things are never funny. Which brings us to:

- Stick to what you know personally. Do not make fun of other people's problems if you have not been there. I don't make jokes about being black (because I'm not), or Jewish (I'm also not), or even any illnesses I haven't been through. it's very important to me that I stick to my own experiences so that the audience knows I am not mocking their pain. I can make fun of my pain, or of situations, or of groups that I belong to (Southerners, insomniacs, women, musicians, people with lupus)- as long as I'm speaking in terms of "we." Look, we've all done enough stupid stuff in our lifetimes to write hours of comedy. We don't need to make things up.

- Use comedy to build up and unite, not to tear down and make one person or group superior to another. Put-down comedy (Don Rickles, Lisa Lampanelli) can be undeniably funny, but it makes me feel icky afterwards. I think some comedy is just kind of neutral, like Seinfeld and Jeff Foxworthy (observational comedy that points out the absurdities in life)- it doesn't harm anyone, but it isn't particularly view-changing. Making people laugh has enough value in itself, especially when you can do so without harming anyone. But then there is humor that is not only funny, but therapeutic. It actually makes you see things differently (Christopher Titus). I hope I can become one of those people. Someone who makes a point with their comedy- educates, enlightens, gives hope.

Who are some comedians who you think are making a positive difference with their humor?

Carla Ulbrich, The Singing Patient,
is the author of "How Can You *Not* Laugh at a Time Like This?"
Get Carla's Book at
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