“Do you hear laughter, Ramses?” The Ten Commandments
Ramses didn’t like the idea that the other royals and former slaves of the ancient world were laughing at him. It was a taunt strong enough to set him on the chase that would eventually land all his soldiers on the bottom of the Red Sea. At least that’s how it happens in the movie. The scene, however, is plausible. Laughter has always been a two-edged sword, with the ability to both oppress people or defeat the oppressors. In the ancient world, the wrong joke at the wrong time might get you in serious trouble.
A lawyer might say, “you use humor at your peril.”
Yet, we see in history the role of the court jester, the King’s Fool, who could usually make the crowned head the target of just about any joke. This was because, either purposefully, or instinctively, court jesters provided the necessary “comic relief” to defuse tense situations, castle intrigue, and general grumblings. It allowed everyone to laugh without risk — at least most of the time.
Laughter has helped people survive through horrible situations, providing sometimes just a fleeting respite. Still, as humans we crave laughter — for social bonding, for stress relief, for temporarily feeling in control of the unmanageable, for pain relief and so much more.
Of course, a jester could push things too far.
Nicolas “Triboulet” Ferrial was scheduled for death at least three times, each time managing to joke his way out of it.
In more recent times, comedians continue to be a source not only of mirth and entertainment, but as reflections of current society — which is not always considered “funny.” The list of those who have been arrested, castigated, criticized, mocked, and shut down grows longer every year. And while “I was only joking,” is a poor excuse for something hurtful, harmful, tasteless, or cruel, the lines being crossed are never clear. In his Netflix special, 23 Hours to Kill, Jerry Seinfeld explains that certain aspects of personal relationships are “like playing chess, but the board is flowing water and all the pieces are made of smoke.” This description can apply to many situations that are hard to grasp, including the definition of “funny” and who gets to decide.
The recent physical attacks on Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle demonstrate the power of humor to invoke high emotions on both sides of the spectrum, from sheer delight to dangerous anger.
The lines between them are made of smoke, and the wind is blowing.
Stephen Colbert may have said it best. “It’s never okay to punch a comedian… If you really want to hurt a comedian, don’t laugh. That hurts way more than a punch.”