The Laughter and Humor of Resistance

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Faced with insults, threats, and the fearsome aggressive imposing of the power of one group or person over another, human beings often react with a mix of indignation and mirth.


It seems that almost from the dawn of time, humor has been used to mitigate the onslaught of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I imagine that when homo sapiens lived in caves, we might have used some pre-verbal snappy grunts as zingers and comebacks (a pre-historic Bronx cheer?) to make ourselves feel better when larger, more fierce, hairier ape-like men would plunder our rock shelters and run off with their misappropriated food, tools, and our women.

More than merely comic relief, humor is a way of fighting back. John Morreall cites this as “another reason to take humor seriously, and so appreciate its value.

The Humor of Resistance & Oppression is a continuum. At one end, which can be documented historically, is the comedy and humor created as ways of fighting back against major issues like slavery, war, dictatorship, and diaspora. At the other end of the continuum is the humorous way of coping with minor irritations. Somewhere in the middle, perhaps, are the Court Jesters.

The word Jester originally meant somebody who would use humor to outspokenly mock and joke, who could speak truth to power without causing offense (and who also had the ability to sing or dance). The Royal Shakespeare Company provides historical context for the role of the fool: According to Wikipedia “In ancient times, courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure.”

Jestering may have been a form of resistance, but at times it was a risky business. “Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticize their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool.” (The reader has been warned.)

For centuries, and right up to the present day, groups who are oppressed, under attack, or otherwise feeling threatened, have created humor about the crises circumstances and about the enemy, the oppressor. The humor may have to be submerged, only to be release under guarded circumstances, but it is there. It serves the purpose of cutting the enemy down to size psychologically while bolstering the spirits of the oppressed to not feel helpless or hopeless.
In the USA, during the period of slavery, slaves coped with their hardships behind the guise of humor that was directed at their masters without their masters ever catching onto it. One place this has been documented is in the book, “African American Humor: The Best Black Comedy from Slavery to Today”, (The Library of Black America series,  Paperback – 2002).
The description calls this book a “collection of anecdotes, tales, jokes, toasts, rhymes, satire, riffs, poems, stand-up sketches, and snaps documents the evolution of African American humor over the past two centuries.” One thing it shows is that even under extreme stresses there seems to be no end of ways that people creatively invoke humor and comedy in order to cope and resist.
In the foreword to the book, comedian Dick Gregory says, “Our ancestors’ expressions have brought laughter to our own neighborhoods in the midst of all the racism and injustice we’ve endured.” He points out that this book “is not only about a people and their comedy, but about how a people survived segregation and discrimination.”

Author Mel Watkins observes that African American humor and comedy is “a distinctive expressive treasure, a potent and dynamic expressive form.” Varied and multifaceted, “it has functioned not only as a survival tactic and buffer to social inequality but also has an exuberant expression of the joy and humanity of the black folks who have created and continue to create it.” Among the types of humor that emerged from these stressful conditions, Watkins includes animal stories, rhymes, work songs, riddles, plantation sayings, jokes, and tall tales or lies.

Mocking the enemy is a historic tradition. When I was just a lad I often saw posters and other images that portrayed our wartime enemies in exaggerated caricature.

1942-patriotic-webster-st-crMy sister and I being patriotic (circa 1942).

Below are two examples of those posters. They delivered messages using a particular kind of visual humor. Hitler was portrayed as an inept clownish figure, falling over backwards (unbalanced?), wearing an ill-fitting uniform (a fool?); his facial expression is perplexed and weak.
We get the message, and we draw confidence from the humor, from our own audacity to mock and poke fun at the bully, the tyrant. Psychologically, we feel encouraged, and our patriotism is strengthened in our resolve to achieve victory.
In “Humor in the Holocaust: Its Critical, Cohesive, and Coping Functions” (1997), John Morreall, Ph.D., described this kind of humor as giving Concentration Camp inmates “strength to endure their situation”.

“Because humor interfered with their propaganda and revealed the awful truth about the Nazis, they were quite afraid of humor. Hitler, wrote one biographer, had ‘a horror of being laughed at.’ When well-known figures made fun of him, Hitler viciously attacked them. Bertold Brecht, for example, was declared an enemy of the Reich, stripped of his citizenship, and forced to flee Germany.

“One of the first actions of the new Nazi government was the creation of a ‘Law against treacherous attacks on the state and party and for the protection of the party uniform.’ As Hermann Goering reminded the Academy of German Law, telling a joke could be an act against the Führer and the state. Under this law, telling and listening to anti-Nazi jokes were acts of treason. Several people were even put on trial for naming dogs and horses ‘Adolf.’ Between 1933 and 1945, five thousand death sentences were handed down by the ‘People’s Court’ for treason, a large number of them for anti-Nazi humor.”

Undeterred by this retaliation against humor, a creative musical manifestation of WWII resistance came in the form of a British song that I learned in childhood. It mocks Nazi leaders using blue comedy in reference to their testicles. Multiple variants of the lyrics exist, generally sung as four-line verses to the tune of the “Colonel Bogey March”. The Yogscast sings “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball”. There are many variations, but the lyrics I learned go like this:

Hitler has only got one ball,
Goering has two but very small,
Himmler has something similar,
But Goebbels has no balls at all!

Morreall, points out the effect that this kind of humor has on camaraderie and cohesion. “The Jews of Europe were the most obvious group in which this humor produced solidarity, as illustrated by this story.”

As Hitler’s armies faced more and more setbacks, he asked his astrologer, “Am I going to lose the war?”
“Yes,” the astrologer said.
“Then, am I going to die?” Hitler asked.
“When am I going to die?”
“On a Jewish holiday.”
“But on what holiday?”
“Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.”

For more on the topic of WWII resistance, en Francaise, the reader is encouraged to follow Etienne Moulron,

In response to Donald Trump’s comments about Mexicans came the Trump piñata. This is not a tribute to hero. We know what happens to piñatas. They are hollow figures full of sweet stuff that has almost no nutritional value.

According to an L.A. Times online headline (July 29,2015) Trump’s “remarks last month characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists who bring drugs and crime to the U.S. …Trump is by no means the first political figure to be portrayed in a piñata. Mexican protesters for years have used the figures to lampoon their country’s politicians. And a few piñata makers have been creating likenesses of drug cartel leader Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán since his escape this month from a Mexican prison.”

An August 14, 2015 punny NPR online headline trumpeted, “New Piñata Trumps Usual Party Props For Mexican Entrepreneur”. Foreseeing an entrepreneurial bonanza, “Thrilled at the success of his now-widely-copied Donald Trump piñata, Dalton Ramirez has decided to stay with the theme of American politics.”

pinata-of-trump-2 Dalton Javier Ramirez, who lives in Mexico, created a Donald Trump piñata!

An August 22, 2015 online TIME headline announced “The Rise of Donald Trump Sparks Anger and Laughter in Mexico”. Artisan and piñata maker, Dalton Avalos, said, “They show how many here are angry at Trump for his discourse, but also see him as a joke. We like to laugh at people like him and the nonsense that comes out of his mouth.”

In a contemporary use of humor to resist aggression, Iraq has its own version of The Daily Show to “Iraqi Comedian Ahmed Basheer is the host of Iraq’s number one political comedy show says, “People need comedy, people need to laugh about their situation. ISIS is the most dangerous group in Iraq right now. Our part is to fight them with comedy. Our show is unique because we criticize every corrupt official in the government. And also every armed group. When you criticize powerful people in Iraq of course there are consequences…I believe that we are hoping to improve the situation in Iraq. The show is changing minds especially among the youth.”

Have you attended a laughter circle, laughter club, or similar laughter activities? They are excellent places to let off steam and cultivate humor habits and other peace-of-mind strategies such as forgiveness and kindness. Until you are readily able to reach a more blissful serenity – and, even after that—you may want to consider using thoughts to ease your mind; a few quiet, light, sharp thoughts.

Beyond these examples from major social crises, let’s consider the use of humor and laughter in smaller irritations and coping with and managing the little frustrations of life that can add up to big stresses if we don’t manage them while they’re still minor. In acute, stressful, dangerous, or threatening situations, humor might not be readily available to most of us. The examples I have already cited took time for people to think through, create, and construct. I think it’s a lot easier to reach for some humor to help you cope when irritations are small. We run into them all day long.
Rude, obnoxious people and situations –family dinner, rude store clerks, loud-talkers on cell phones, to name a few- can be anywhere, often catching us off guard, at a loss for words.


They can get your goat very easily, but what if you could inject that situation with some humor, say a snappy comeback? Even if you don’t express it aloud, but only think it, even if you have an inner chuckle and not a loud guffaw at a snappy comeback that you think about but never say out loud, you’ll be coping a whole lot better. Here are some examples of snappy comebacks that you might never say out loud, but in the act of remembering the line and saying it silently to yourself, you are deploying a psychological anchor to help you hang on to your serenity and sanity.


Silent or not, using light humor to give someone a piece of your mind might make you feel better, and it puts you in good company. Here are a dozen examples of famous humorous comebacks and insults, plus a dozen street-corner zingers, and six additional bonus ripostes and wisecracks that just might make you feel better, stronger, and energized to fight back.

(1) “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” Mae West
(2) “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception.” Groucho Marx
(3) “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” Oscar Wilde
(4) “If your brains were dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough to blow your hat off.” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
(5) “Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses.” Elizabeth Taylor
(6) “Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not so sure about the former.” Albert Einstein
(7) “We were trying to get pregnant, but I forgot one of us had to have a penis.” Roseanne Barr
(8) “My opponent is a glob of snot.” Kierkegaard
(9) “We were happily married for eight months. Unfortunately, the marriage lasted four-and-a-half years.” Nick Faldo
(10) “I can’t bear fools. Apparently your mother could.” Dorothy Parker
(11) “”You can lead a man to Congress, but you can’t make him think.” Milton Berle
(12) “If you gave Jerry Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox.” Christopher Hitchens

(13) You are like a candy bar: half sweet and half nuts.
(14) Your inappropriateness knows no boundaries.
(15) I’m sorry but I didn’t order a glass of your opinion.
(16) I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed person!
(17) There are 7 trillion nerves in the human body, and you are capable of getting on every one of them.
(18) If you’re going to be close minded… do you mind being closed mouthed as well?
(19) Some people are like clouds. When they disappear it’s a brighter day.
(20) Where’s your off button?
(21) If I give you a nice big straw will you go suck the fun out of someone else’s day?
(22) Unless your name is Google, stop acting like you know everything.
(23) Grab a straw because you suck.
(24) I guess if you spoke your mind, you’d be speechless.

BONUS: Famous Retorts
Mahatma Gandhi: “What do you think of Western Civilization?” “I think it would be a good idea.”
William Shakespeare: “The tautness of his face sours ripe grapes.”
Muhammad Ali: “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, then they can sure make something out of you.”
John Adams: “In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.”
Charlotte Whitton: “Whatever women must do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

An exchange of snappy comebacks and witty zingers may provide a sense of ‘getting even’ in the short run.  Many wags have reported that being funny kept them from being picked on or beaten up if they could make the bullies laugh, but it might escalate to something far more distasteful –even violent—rather quickly (Again, the reader is warned.)
It has been said that to be kind is more important than to be right; many times what people need is not a brilliant mind that speaks but a special heart that listens. Perhaps you aspire to a more tranquil state of mind, which would neither be upset nor need to retaliate with quips and witty zingers. Perhaps you seek to elevate yourself to a more blissful and less reactive contemplation, a state of calm mind in which you would not be distressed or feel wounded by other people’s actions toward you. Instead, you would be serene, peaceful, cool, composed, and unruffled.
Yogi Bhajan teaches, “If you are willing to look at another person’s behavior toward you a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all.”

That is a topic for another time.