Friday, August 15, 2014

The value of silliness

At a time when I have been overwhelmed by sad news--from the depression and suicide of Robin Williams to the racial turmoil in St. Louis to the major crises in the Mideast--I was glad yesterday to have lunch with a friend who reminded me of the importance of comedy and laughter, even silliness.

My friend likes puns and the Three Stooges more than I do.  He shares my enthusiasm for silly cat videos and felines dressed up in ridiculous outfits on birthday cards.  He shares my interest in funny names of real people, which I collect as an exercise in trivia. And he joins me in presenting programs in our community that involve humor.

One of these, going back to 2005, is Historical Humor and Wit, in which we quote notable people saying ridiculous or witty things, from Mark Twain and Winston Churchill to more recent American politicians. Our theme: history is never dull since it is the story of people who often say wacky things.

The other program I have created is called Fractured English, indebted to people like Richard Lederer, who collect the blunders and bloopers of students, sign makers, editors of church bulletins, among others. The unintentional misuse of our language is a constant delight, and even more valuable for us is hearing a crowded room ripple with laughter when my friend and I take turns reciting some of the many funny or silly things we have unearthed.

My most recent research has been into church-related humor, where the sacred and serious context of religion makes the blooper especially funny. One example from a church bulletin: "The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of all kinds and can be seen in the church basement."

The use of a simple hyphen between 'cast' and 'off' would prevent the misreading, but I am grateful to the person who left it out.  Things like this, even cat-related stories, bring a needed smile to my face, reduce tension, and provide some distance from the tragic news of the week.

Human nature cannot bear too much reality, T. S. Eliot wrote. He was thinking of reality in a different context, but the basic idea fits here: we need as much silliness and childish humor as we can handle. Thank God for the people who send me cartoons and jokes via email--and for the puns and other bits of humor, however silly, that feed the soul by keeping us in balance.

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