Why Do We Laugh at Death?

Check out these jokes:

Mother-in-law: I’ve decided to be cremated
Daughter-in-law: That’s great! Get your coat on, I’ll be right over to pick you up.

***

Little Joey is visiting the zoo with his father. As they are standing by the lion’s cage, Joey suddenly seems worried.

What’s bothering you, Joey? asks his father.

“If the lion gets out of its cage right now and attacks you, what bus do I take home?”

***

Q. “I hear Murphy died, ” said Pat. “Was he ill long?”
A. “No,” said Mick. “He died in the best of health.”

***

“Gathering the ashes of the dead together,
Weeping, weeping
She looks for the gold teeth”

(Classical Senryu Verse, Yanagidaru)

I grew up listening to my dad tell Irish-wake jokes so the death-related stories in Japanese comedy had a ring of familiarity to me. I remember one joke dad told when I was still pretty young. Can’t recall all the details, but here’s the gist:

Some friends mourning the passing of Finnegan have a little too much to drink and are the last to leave the wake. In their tipsy state they decide to take their dead friend out for his last drink at a local pub. The friends proceed to get hammered at the pub while dead Finnegan stays propped up against the bar with a drink in front of him. When the friends realize they’ve run up the tab, they tell the bartender that Finnegan is paying the bill. The bartender tries collecting the money from Finnegan but gets no response. Thinking Finnegan is ignoring him, he loses his temper, slugs him and knocks Finnegan off his stool. The friends run over to Finnegan, pretend to take his pulse, then turn to the bartender and say, “You killed poor Finnegan!”

The punch line escapes me, but the friends use the fortuitous turn of events to get out of paying the tab, something dad found hilarious.

Interestingly I see lots of parallels between Irish and Japanese cultures when it comes to mocking death. For example both cultures–and I imagine many other cultures–find the tragedy of a funeral ripe with humor (See Itami Juzo’s movie masterpiece, “Ososhiki” for the blackest of Japanese humor). And the very existence of this common ground leads me to believe that the Irish and Japanese would get along swimmingly at a wake, preferably stocked with ample amounts of alcohol to neutralize the language barrier. I would expect nothing less than a magical mix of melodrama and mirth.

It goes without saying that the Japanese don’t understand all of our black humor, but they certainly understand the concept. Their comedy is in fact rich in death-related themes. Some themes cross over while others fall quietly into the cultural abyss. Here’s some Irish-flavored black humor I tried on my wife:

The Irishman’s wife had just been killed in an accident and the police were questioning poor Finnegan.

“Did she say anything before she died?” asked the sergeant.

“She spoke without interruption for about forty years,” said Finnegan.

Nope, honorable Japanese wife didn’t think that was funny at all. And yet she gave a nod to this one (from the late George Carlin):

“I’m desperately trying to figure out why kamikaze pilots wore helmets.”

In the interest of accuracy, my wife’s reaction was closer to a frown than a laugh. But I distinctly heard a soft, dark chuckle before she murmured, omoshiroi ne (“That’s interesting”).

As I type this, she is googling “kamikaze” and “helmets”…

Black Humor as a Defense Mechanism

Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly

Woody Allen, Annie Hall

Why do we find this funny?

We’re right back to Nietzsche and our existential loneliness; to the idea that we only laugh to make our pain go away.

Looking at Nietzsche’s take from an inverse angle, we could extrapolate that in a perfect world free of pain, loneliness and mortality, there would be no laughter. In this sense, we might say that all humor, all laughter, is black to its core.

Actively coping with something we can’t change is what psychologists call a “defense mechanism”. And if humans need a defense mechanism against anything it’s death, that 800-pound gorilla that lives in our subconscious from the moment we experience the passing of a loved one.

Laughter gives us, just for a brief moment, a sense of victory and control over tragedy; we can’t change the reality of human mortality, but we can change how we choose to look at it.

Scholar Ziv Avner explains the tragic nature of laughter in his book Personality & Sense of Humor:

“In an article entitled “The nature of Laughter,” McDougall (1903), a well-known American psychologist wrote that humor is not an expression of pleasure. Situations that give rise to laughter are in fact unpleasant, and if we do not laugh at them they will cause us suffering. Laughter is nothing but an immunization that nature kindly provides for us against feelings of over-identification and sympathy.”

Black Humor and Feeling Superior

Why is the concept of The Darwin Awards so funny? For those not familiar with this dubious honor here’s what it stands for:

“In honor of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate those who improve our gene pool…by accidentally removing themselves from it. The Award is usually, by necessity, bestowed posthumously.”

It’s funny when an anonymous person dies like an idiot; not so funny when it’s you or someone you know. Can’t help but think that if a couple things had not gone my way back in the dumb-ass phase of my life (all through my teens), I might very well have a Darwin Award on my trophy shelf today. Damn I’m lucky.

So naturally I feel superior to all the poor schmucks who weren’t as lucky as I was. How absurd is that?

Death Themes in Japanese Comedy

While doing research for my thesis back in college, I reviewed some 1260 classical Rakugo stories to identify death-related themes, and also get a sense of how the themes lined up on a Pareto chart. The story that I translated in a previous post (“Okechimyaku”) dealt with the Buddhist afterlife. But the afterlife is just one of many death-related themes.

Interestingly about 10% of the all the stories are at least indirectly related to death. A total of 46 stories deal with death directly. Here’s how the themes line up:

The most popular death theme is suicide, leading the pack with 11 stories. This category includes “shinju”, the famous “double love suicides” made popular by Kabuki theater. (No surprise here as humor loves to mock that which we romanticize.)

Murder is a close 2nd with 10 stories, followed by funerals at 7. Another 5 are about ghosts, 4 about the afterworld, and the remaining 9 are square pegs that refused to fit into my pre-conceived pigeonholes.

I find it fascinating that suicide jokes are so popular in Japan, but it makes perfect sense. In a previous post Darren shared a joke he heard from a Japanese coworker years ago (we think originally told by comedian Beat Takeshi). It’s exactly the kind of joke you’d hear in a Rakugo story:

This guy decides to commit suicide, so he tries to end his life by jumping off a bridge into a river.

He jumps into the water, survives, and shortly after, gets his shirt collar snagged on a tree limb lying in the midst of the river.

So the guy starts yelling for help…

Yeah, if anything de-romanticizes suicide it’s getting your shirt snagged on a branch in the middle of a botched attempt–then begging to be saved.

It’s worth sharing a dark chuckle my classmates shared in a Japanese writing class back in my 3rd year of college. An American student was discussing a paper he wrote about his experience on the Chuo line while waiting for the police to process a suicide scene that had stopped all trains. Another student commented how sad it was to end one’s life jumping in front of a train. The Japanese professor surprised everyone with this remark: “It makes me angry that the guy inconvenienced so many people. If he’s going to kill himself, he should at least have the common courtesy not to inconvenience others!” (Meiwaku wo kakenai yo ni shite moraitai!) We all laughed. But the professor was dead serious.

Speaking of dead, murder is another theme that’s found in the comedy of both our cultures. In the aforementioned Okechimyaku story, Koasa jokes that two famous Japanese mass-murderers in the news were seen loitering near a sacred relic in Zenkoji Temple, a metal key said to guarantee entrance into Paradise to those who merely touch it. The two murderers greet each other courteously, much like two awkward tourists in a random encounter. (This elicits a roar from the audience.)

George Carlin was never shy about laughing at murder either:

A lot of times when they catch a guy who killed twenty-seven people, they say, ‘He was a loner.’ Well, of course he was a loner; he killed everyone he came in contact with!

Of course most normal folks don’t like killers. We are in fact very scared of them. So what do we do? We mock them, cast them as awkward tourists greeting each other in a random encounter at a temple–or hapless loners who just can’t quite help themselves. They become bumbling idiots just like the rest of us, not quite as scary.

Ditto that for death.

A careful analysis of each theme can tell us much about culture. I’m interested in the afterlife theme because it reveals so much about both culture and humanity. In the next post we’ll revisit Okechimyaku (Japan’s humorous afterlife) and compare it to similar humor found in the West.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2010

One response to “Why Do We Laugh at Death?

  1. heh…

    Thanks for the humor Tim — good stuff.
    Apropos of what, I’m not sure but W.C. Fields referred to death as:

    “The Man in the Bright Nightgown”

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