Loyola professor Al Gini calls jokes “weapons made of words” and says we should look at laughter as a coping mechanism — but not a cure — when life gets rough.
“It’s a way we assault reality when reality assaults us,” Gini said Tuesday on Morning Shift.
Gini discussed his new book, The Importance of Being Funny: Why We Need More Jokes in Our Lives, the history of humor, and the importance of laughter with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia. Below are highlights from their conversation.
On using a joke to cut the tension
Al Gini: Years ago, when I was kind of a young guy, about mid-40s and playing handball with the same group of guys I’m playing with now, on the next court I hear, “Help, help!”
And we run over there and the guy’s had a heart attack. He’s down on the ground and he is blue. The autopsy — he was dead before he hit the ground. So I’m on top of him doing CPR because they asked and I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” I’m working on him for about five minutes. The medical people show up and say, “Keep going, keep going, you’re doing fine.” And then after about 15 minutes they said no, stop.
The room — you could cut the air with a knife. It was horrible. People were frightened and had fear sweats etcetera etcetera. And I looked up and I looked at his partner and I said, “Did he make the shot?”
Boom. Changed everything.
I think comedy can change the current of a conversation, can change our attitude towards things, can make us see the frivolous side as well as the serious side.
What he won’t make jokes about
Gini: I think comedy can be tragedy plus time — and a way to look back and say, “Ha ha ha ha ha, we survived that” — but I think there are certain tragedies that simply can’t be made fun of.
I just came back from Africa this summer where I was working. I got to go on safari. We went to Rwanda to follow the great gorillas — and, as my wife said, some of my relatives, but we’ll leave that alone for another time — and I will never make Rwanda genocide jokes. It’s not possible. I don’t tell AIDS jokes. I don’t like 9/11 jokes.
Rick Kogan asked today, “Will there be jokes about Las Vegas?” Not from me. I can’t see that tragedy is really going to be funny. So I don’t think we can laugh at everything, because when we laugh at certain things it does become sacrilegious. But I think we have to be open to laughter about many things.
How he knows what was funny thousands of years ago
Gini: When you’re in doubt, quote the Bible, of course. So in Genesis we have Abraham and Sarah, and they’re aged at this point — really aged. I think we’re talking about 90 or 120. And a group of angels just stopped by, as usually happens. And these angels are having dinner here and one of the angels is God, but they don’t know that yet. And the angel says, “Sarah will be with child.”
And she laughs! She says, “This is hysterical are you kidding? We haven’t done the dreaded deed in ages! This is not possible! I’m beyond fertility!” And the angel stands up and says, “I am the Lord. Are you laughing at the Lord?”
“Oh God, I’m really sorry.”
“Yes, you are laughing at me.”
She winds up being pregnant — the joke that God gives us that we sometimes don’t want — and they have a child and call him Isaac, and Isaac in Hebrew means laughter.
So I think it’s part of this tradition of human beings: We need to laugh. We’re not talking psychology here. I think we need to expunge certain things in our lives. I think we need to take a breath. I think we need to step back. I think we need to look at things differently. Because without it, it’s too difficult.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was adapted for the web by producer Justin Bull.