Hard times could be a laughing matter


"Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation."- Viktor E. Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning

It's a funny thing about cancer wards, or the scenes of natural disasters, plane crashes, terrorist attacks, war or even mass extermination. Amid the deepest imaginable despair there arises the peculiar sound of human laughter.

The spirit requires it, as experience shows. Sometimes it's all you can do when you must do something.

So goes the theme of the weekend at the Marriott Inner Harbor hotel, where folks have gathered from around the country for the annual conference of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. The group was founded in 1988 to consider the beneficial effects of humor - sometimes, or perhaps particularly, in situations that seem the least humorous of all.

It was clear enough on Thursday afternoon, even before the conference officially began, that something was up. A man strolled through the Marriott lobby wearing a dark blue business suit, a red tie nearly down to his knees and a Brillo-hair wig roughly the color of Hawaiian Punch. These folks advocate a particular brand of humor, more Bill Cosby than Richard Pryor, more Patch Adams than Sam Kinison. This is humor as affirmation, not cultural critique, and certainly not as personal put-down.

Along with the program of discussions and lectures for paying participants is a free public forum at 12:15 Sunday afternoon on "Tragedy, Laughter and Survival," featuring three speakers who will talk about humor in dire circumstances: in Israel during the Persian Gulf War, during natural disasters, and in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

"I'm a firm believer that some higher power has given us a sense of humor to get through these hard times," says Allen Klein. His talk on humor after Sept. 11 is called "How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?" which also happens to be the working title of a book he's hoping to publish on the subject.

The author of two other books on laughter and coping, Klein was a scene designer for theater and television when his wife died of liver disease in 1974 at the age of 34. To the end, he says, she kept her sense of humor.

"I realized how valuable that was for her and everyone around her," says Klein. The experience prompted him to give up scene design and return to school to study for a graduate degree in human development. Klein now calls himself a "Jollyologist."

He lives in northern California, but no geographic expanse seemed quite enough to render the events of Sept. 11 emotionally distant. Television saw to that.

"The images brought us so close to it," he says. In the first few days after, he says, it seemed a kind of "humor blackout" prevailed. News reports included sundry stories about how life had changed, including predictions of the "end of irony" or the death of humor.

Such predictions "don't understand human nature," says Steve Lipman, who will speak on humor in Israel during the Gulf War and a separate session on humor during the Holocaust. "It's a way people deal with things."

Within a week after Sept. 11, David Letterman and Jay Leno returned to late night. The Internet cranked up with such offerings as the "Taliban Singles" home page. The New Yorker cartoonists got back to work. In one cartoon, a woman seated at a bar speaks to a man wearing a particularly hideous sports jacket. She thought she'd never laugh again, she says, but then she saw that jacket.

Klein was watching all this unfold, taking notes, collecting samples. So were Lipman and Sandy Ritz, a nurse with a doctorate in public health who has spent years studying how humor emerges in disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires and air crashes.

"I have always used humor in everything I've done," says Ritz, who flew in from Honolulu to speak at tomorrow's public forum. "In my family, that's one of our coping mechanisms."

It's a way to gain a different perspective on the situation, perhaps find some sense of power over suffering, says Ritz. "Humor bonds us, so it brings back a sense of community" when a catastrophe has shattered much of community's evident structure.

As in the hurricane that devastated the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1992, and Ritz pitched in to help in the recovery. The date happened to be Sept. 11. Eventually, Ritz wrote her doctoral dissertation on survivor humor in that hurricane. She collected cartoons and wrote some of her own. She took notes on remarks people made and funny things they did.

If all humor is contextual, "survivor humor" is deeply so, says Ritz. This may not be the most hilarious material for those who have not experienced the disaster. It's "you had to be there" humor; "it laughs with the survivors at shared situations."

On Kauai, she says "for three weeks every joke was about ice. One thing they wanted was ice." A story went around about a man who, after losing his office in the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 and his house in the Oakland firestorm of 1991, decided to escape to safe terrain. He bought a condo on Kauai.

Steve Lipman, a writer for The Jewish Week in New York, has mined even more grim terrain. The son of a refugee from Hitler's Germany, Lipman spent years compiling a book of humor shared by Jews during the Holocaust called Laughter in Hell.

Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankl has written about the power of humor, even in extermination camps, to "afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds." Lipman says once he started looking through journals, letters and newspaper accounts, he found a surprising wealth of material.

As one might imagine, the grimmest humor seemed to emerge in the death camps. More typically, though, Lipman says "it's very optimistic humor" focused less on the immediate circumstances than on the day when the horror would end. For example:

Hitler goes to a fortune teller, wanting to know the day he would die.

Says the fortune teller: On a Jewish holiday.

Asks Hitler: Which holiday?

Says the fortune teller: Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.

Beyond the research recommending laughter as a healthy stimulator of the immune system and as a lung exerciser, there's the psychological edge, says Lipman.

"It's an escape, it's a release. It gives you a feeling of control. If you can joke about something it can't be that threatening."

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