Comedy Vs Mortality

A few days ago, while researching for my chat with Manjula Padmanabhan, I came across an excellent speech she delivered at a Cartoon Congress held last month in Kathmandu. I especially liked this bit:

The common explanation for why humans laugh is that laughing and smiling relieve stress. But this only leads to another question: Why do humans have such a disproportionate need for stress-relief? My own view is that we, unlike other animals, are conscious of the inevitability of death. That knowledge places such a terrible burden of fear on our nervous systems that evolution has provided us with a solution – a hyperactive funny bone. I am sure that, given the option, most of us would have preferred something more substantial − immortality, for instance! But we were not given such a choice. So, this is what we are stuck with: jokes, cartoons, comedians and cartoonists, in exchange for being conscious of our mortality.

Some years ago, neurologists in the UK discovered that smiling had such a beneficial effect on the human nervous system that even a false smile − that is, merely stretching the mouth with the corners turned up – could have the same positive effect on our nervous system as a real smile. This works even when we are feeling gloomy. The point here is that political cartooning is a serious business, one that has a seriously positive role to play in human society. This may also explain why those of us who are employed by newspapers to make other people chuckle are quite often grumpy and bad-tempered in real life. Unlike many of our readers and employers, we are unusually conscious of the nastier facts of life. Our job is to make people smile in the face of the things that make all of us cry − death, destruction, disasters and ugly politicians.

This makes a cartoonist similar to a lion tamer − or, as I would put it, a demon tamer. Our profession requires us to live with the demon of mortality chained to our drawing boards. And every morning, we give it a poke in the ribs, make it stand up on the dining table and sing a silly song for our readers. But the demon does not much like this treatment, so it snarls, claws at us, and in general reminds us that in the end it will win.

I’d blogged four years ago, in the context of cricket, about the phenomenon of false smiles changing the way we actually feel—but in the long run, it’s surely just a temporary palliative. That demon isn’t going anywhere.

On that note, because I like my readers so very much, let me leave you with this beautiful song: