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Laughter in an Age of Pandemics

In the 1941 movie classic Sullivan’s Travels, successful movie director John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea, laments the fact that in the midst of the misery caused by the Depression and War, he is making frivolous films such as Ants In Your Pants, 1939. Sullivan rebels.  He decides to pose as an average citizen and go out among the people to see what they are like, what they want, and how he can be of service to humanity. After a series of troubles along the way, Sullivan happens upon the sound of laughter. He searches for the source and finds a group of down and out men hysterically laughing at a silly cartoon. Eureka! Sullivan realizes the error of his ways. The people don’t want serious, ponderous social criticism, they want to laugh, escape, lose themselves for just a few moments, forget about the troubles they face and have a good time. The movie’s point is driven home by Sullivan in the final lines of the film: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

During World War II, the commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt a letter offering to cancel the baseball season if the President so wished. Roosevelt, in a January 15, 1942 letter, told the commissioner that baseball must go on. The people needed it in the midst of the troubles of the war. Baseball brought joy to millions of anxious Americans. The game had to go on.

When things go from bad to worse, we have essentially two choices: let it defeat us or rage against the madness and laugh. Laughter is good medicine for virtually anything that ails us.  And in this age of pandemics, where social distancing removes the tactile from our daily lives, and forces us to hibernate in isolation, we social animals hunger for the embrace of others. Stripped of the direct contact with others, we search to fill the void. Laughter helps. True, things aren’t very funny just now, but life remains ironic, silly, discombobulated, and downright hysterical – if you wish to see things that way. And if you do, it will help see you through this insanity. In a world where the Trump Covfefe Panic Index has exploded off the charts, we all need distractions from the misery that surrounds us. And speaking of distractions, I find myself suffering from Kardashian Withdrawal Syndrome. My social grounding has been torn out from under me. 

As our politicians inadvertently spread fear and anxiety, we search for security and hope. There was a time when FDR could remind us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. But today, watching Donald Trump bumble and fumble his way through a press briefing on the coronavirus, we are left dumbfounded and with a feeling of “Oh Dear Lord, all is lost if this guy is in charge.” Yes, we get the occasional chuckle, as when Dr. Fauci stands behind as the daily press briefing while the President is speaking, shakes his head, looks down at this feet and invites us to imagine the thought bubble over his head that reads “What the [bleep] is wrong with this moron?” But that is little consolation. Trump, who is wrapped tighter than an airport sandwich, actually inspires fear and anxiety every time he opens his mouth. His credibility has disappeared faster than cupcakes at a pot party, and as each member of Team Trump – crammed together in a very non-socially distanced way – goes up to the microphone, bows and makes the ritual “You are doing a wonderful job, Dear Leader” before delivering the bad news about a pandemic out of control, we cringe and think, “Life under Trump is like running through hell wearing a gasoline bathing suit.” Trump’s disappointing response to the coronavirus has been as welcome as an ingrown toenail. Our president who used to say “I alone can fix it” has been revealed as a fraud. He does however have the Midas Touch… everything he touches turns to mufflers. 

This president may be a joke, but it is no laughing matter. In this, Marx was right. Of course I refer to Groucho Marx, who said that the problem with political jokes is that they keep getting elected. Can President Trump lead us out of this crisis? That’s about as likely as Mike Pence marrying Cardi B. And while the President says that he is doing a tremendous job (and that is why I do not let my students grade their own exams), and that he would give himself an “A” grade for his handling of the crisis, in reality the case for Trump handling this crisis well has fallen apart faster than a third-grade science project. 

If President Trump cannot provide decisive leadership in this crisis, at least we can laugh, and at this time, laughing at and not with President Trump is a tiny bit comforting. Our hope is that governors and mayors can lead us through the crisis. President Trump is AWOL on this, and perhaps we are all the better for that (OK, we aren’t better off for that, but if he can’t lead the least he can do is get out of the way). 

We are all struggling, and we all need the distractions that only absurdity can provide. If we take President Trump seriously, we are lost. And so our only option is to turn away from our president and turn to each other for comfort, solace, and hope.  Social distancing makes that a bit harder but we are a strong, resilient people. We have been through worse than this. So laugh now and then; see the silly, the absurd and the comic in life. And remember, always remember, we are all in this together and we can get through this together. Reach out to your friends, your neighbors (at a safe distance, of course) and spread hope. It is better than despair.