If We Can Laugh at It, We Can Live With It

Al Gini
Professor Al Gini, comic and author of “The Importance of Being Funny: Why We Need More Jokes in Our Lives.” Photo credit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers and Al Coni

With the world feeling like it’s spinning out of control, with a new crisis happening every day at a speed beyond our ability to process, humor may be the only thing that can get us through. For this holiday weekend, WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman sits down with Chicago comic and professor Al Gini to talk about humor, satire and why we need both to fend off our fear of the world.

Certainly there is no algorithm for what’s funny. Time, place, context, language and audience all matter a lot. But what’s clear is that humor is an essential part of the human experience, and vital for coping with the daily onslaught of the unthinkable and unimaginable.

Gini and Schechtman talk about the evolution of humor. From the simple jokes of Henny Youngman and the early satire of Will Rogers to the more sophisticated satire of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and today, Jon Stewart. Gini reminds us that we need satire in order not to die of the truth. Also, when very little seems to bind us together anymore, even the right and left can sometimes bond over the same punchline.

At the very least, the primal aspect of humor might help get us through the holidays.

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Jeff Schechtman:Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
I remember when the Challenger blew up, it wasn’t more than eight hours before I heard the first joke about it. Right then, at that moment, I understood viscerally what I had long known from the works of comedians I had grown up with, like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, that it’s humor more than anything else that gives us the context and the strength to understand the incomprehensible, that is all around us. After 9/11, I think it was David Letterman, who wondered if we’d ever laugh again.
Today, it’s SNL and some of the late night comics, that put into perspective the absurdity coming out of Washington, each and every day.
We’re going to talk about comedy, the importance of laughter and humor today with my guest, Al Gini. He’s a Chicago Public Radio personality. He’s a professor, and author of numerous books. And it is my pleasure to welcome Al Gini to the program, to talk about the importance of being funny. Why we need more jokes in our lives.
Al, thanks so much for joining us on radio WhoWhatWhy.
Al Gini:It’s a pleasure to be with you. I found your intro fascinating, and I agree with your entire thesis. Frankly, I applaud it. And I want to suggest that I tell jokes in self-defense against reality. And I think that’s what you’re suggesting as well.
Jeff Schechtman:It is humor that really does often give us context to better understand, not only to understand, but to cope with horrible things that are going on.
Al Gini:Oh, I absolutely agree with you. In fact, you brought up two issues. It is about timing, but I think in point of fact you’re right. Humor itself disarms a situation, de-fangs a situation, helps domesticate a situation. Takes the absurd, the illogical, the unavoidable, the unanswerable, the unbelievable, and allows us to put in perspective that whole notion that, “tragedy plus time equals humor.”
Not always, not always. But in a situation where tragedy plus time can equal humor, it’s important to laugh. In fact, let me give the best analysis of that. It’s from Mark Twain, when he said, “Never enter a funeral laughing, but never leave a funeral without telling a joke about that.” And I think you’re spot on. Humor isn’t always a cure, but it’s an anesthesia that helps us deal with that problem, and perhaps get over it, or offer a different perspective on it.
Jeff Schechtman:And it’s … why sometimes when we look into the history or hear about the life of comedians, people that are really funny, that often their lives were not funny, they were tragic in many cases.
Al Gini:Yeah. Really, Pagliacci, the famous opera, is part of that. But I think there’s an analogy here for years and years, now, they have a different process. People went into psychology or psychiatry to cure themselves, teachers who became teachers because they never had good teachers, that’s always a phenomenon. But I do think, and my study of lots of comics, there is a dark side, and the humor set them free. And certainly, a case in point would be Robin Williams, manic-depressive, and his life vacillated back and forth between drugs and alcohol. And by the way, I had the great privilege of seeing him three times, once straight, once stoned, and once drunk. And he was brilliant every time. But the dark side of him all the time, then one dark moment led to death. His unfortunate demise.
But I do think, comics very often use humor the way doctors self-medicate, and hoping to make life better. I agree with you.
Jeff Schechtman:One of the things about humor that it’s so interesting, I was thinking about this in the context of your book, The Importance of Being Funny is there something about humor that is very primal. We talk about when or what it is that makes babies laugh. And yet as primal as it is, as people grow older, everybody’s idea of what’s funny is different.
Al Gini:Yeah. My study of humor … and I tried to write this book in a humorous fashion about humor. I mean, none drôle fashion about humor is, there is no algorithm to what’s funny, and you never can figure out what’s funny. Humor changes, it is cultural, it is tied to language, it’s tied to time-place, it is tied to your immediate colleagues, etc., etc.
So humor becomes, sometimes very, very parochial. And the humor that transcends sometimes is what I would call ethnic humor. Now I want to be careful here, ethnic humor has a very, very bad reputation in some circles and you can’t tell this, you can’t tell that. I’m not talking about the vicious ethnic humor. I’m talking about the kind of ethnic humor that transcends the particular ethnicity you’re talking about. And there’s really a little myth about every ethnic group. And the example for me is always mother jokes.
I think a mother joke about a Greek, or Italian, or a Jewish mother, is a joke about all mothers or most mothers etc., etc. And I love those, that shows our commonality. But I think there’s a real danger in jokes … You get why children tell you the silliest scatological jokes, and they’re not very funny. And you wonder where does that come from? That’s where they are. And you have to recognize that.
Jeff Schechtman:There is also a contextual nature of jokes that are important. You to talk about humor in terms of comedians, or movies, or television, and what holds up. Things that might have been funny. How many times have you seen a movie that was funny 20 years ago, when you look at it now … What’s funny about that?
Al Gini:Yeah. What’s funny about that, it doesn’t have legs as they say. Well, I think I try, again, there’s no algorithm but I try to lay out some steps here. I think humor depends, first of all, on the teller, the jokester. Does the jokester have skills? You know this. Whether you’re telling a joke at your family table, or a dinner party, or behind a microphone. You’ve got to have some talent in it, you’ve got to deliver, right? That’s part of it. That’s why grandpa who never tells a joke is like, “I heard this really funny one day …” Then he blows it, because he doesn’t know how to tell it along the way.
Secondly, it’s a tale itself. There is a rhyme, there’s a rhythm to it, is it any good, and so on and so forth. And of course is it appropriate? Do you ever tell your mother really naughty sex jokes? I hope not. I don’t think so. And so we have to worry about that.
And then it’s the toll that is, who are you telling it to? Connect it to the tale. Who are you telling this joke to? My wonderful grandson now wants to be a comic because of my research last couple of years, and I’ve talked to him about jokes, and so on and so forth. But he wants to be a stand-up comic, so we’ve been exchanging jokes. And I would tell little jokes like, “Hey, what did the grape say when the rhinoceros stepped on it?” And then he said, “Well, not much, just let out a little wine. Boom-telah boom, boom boom.” Totally appropriate joke for a 9-year old, or a 10-year old, right? But then he’s coming back and he wants the naughty jokes. I say, “No, no. You can’t tell grandpa those, you could tell your friends those. You just can’t tell grandpa those.” Jokes are contextual. Who’s your audience? Who’s your audience? Who’s your audience?
And then, finally, timing. And you alluded to this already, both the timing of the delivery. Do you have good shtick? But most of all, the timing of the joke. And that is … are there 9/11 jokes? Very few. I don’t tell AIDS jokes ever. I just came back from Africa and Rwanda, I would never tell Rwanda genocide joke, etc., etc. I don’t think time blurs, gives us permission to say anything.
However, saying that, certainly, Mel Brooks has made a career, right? The Producers in World War Two, and making fun of Adolf Hitler, etc., etc. But that’s big time satire, and that’s a little different from our tragedies that are just down the block, in just last week.
Jeff Schechtman:Talk a little bit about the difference between jokes and satire, between humor and satire.
Al Gini:Yeah. That’s a very perceptive question, and I think there is a difference. I make a distinction in the book between show business people, the Milton Berles, the Henny Youngmans of the world, the Bob Hopes of the world, who had people writing jokes for them, and they stood up with the tuxedo in a nightclub and told  jokes. I loved Henny Youngman, I loved Henny Youngman, is just that … Secret to a happy marriage. Simple, simple. Dinner and dancing, two nights a week. I go on Tuesday. She goes on Thursday. Beautiful kind of stuff.
And then something that happened along the way, as a guy called Mort Sahl … And I think Mort Sahl transmogrified comedy — from just telling “the Minister, the Rabbi, and a Priest walk into a bar”, boom jokes, or “The dumb blonde said …” A joke no man would tell again – to social commentary, and to walk in on stage dressed as an affluent professor in the costume of the V-neck red sweater, and khakis, and loafers, with The New York Times under his arm, and make comments about the day. In some sense he was putting together Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Mark Twain’s perception of reality you know … “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s talk about Congress” etc., etc., and Twain would say something really nasty, and of course Mark Twain would say, I don’t write comedy, I just read the papers.
So he brought that together to the stage, and as Time Magazine said, “Mort Sahl is the new comedian. He’s funny without being funny.” And that transmogrified into, of course, “Saturday Night Live,” this wonderful thing that happened. But the more serious satire, I think, is seen in Jon Stewart, and Bill Maher, who have changed the face of satire in America. That is, it’s not jokes, it’s probing detailed analysis of the news. It’s not fake news, it maybe fake commentary, but they’re really at it. They’re doing exactly what the jesters of the Middle Ages did, they are speaking truth to power.
Jeff Schechtman:Talk about Will Rogers, because in many ways, that’s where it all begins, in terms of this satire that we’re talking about, even more than Twain.
Al Gini:Yeah. It does start with him. I’m not sure that … You can name a couple other people in there, but you have to pick out the notables. And I think Twain was there, as a social commentator across the board, and got more specific as he went along. But I think Will Rogers, and modern people don’t realize, he wrote 17 books I believe. He had the most listened to radio show on Sunday night, and had a column in The New York Times of all places. And was the second most popular movie personality in America, next to… Shirley Temple. He was really followed and loved. He was also a progressive, he had an agenda. There’s no question about that at all. He would be closer to Stephen Colbert than he would … Stephen Colbert, in his present form, versus Stephen Colbert when he was doing that other show. And he really tried to use humor as he said, I don’t write them, I just comment on it.
Now, interestingly enough, Lewis Black recently said, in a set that he did in Chicago, he says … in “Tongue-in-cheek” of course, “I think I’m giving up comedy, it’s not fun to be a comic anymore. I don’t have to sit around all day and come up with whimsical things. I just have to read the headlines, and say the word Trump, and I get a laugh.”
But I do think that satire in America is much different. And I think it’s progressed to, again, these people out on the street corners, the town criers saying, beware, beware. In fact, I think the modern satirist is closer to what Nietzsche meant. And he once said, “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” And I think we have satire in order to not to die of the truth. And our present practitioners do it fairly well.
Jeff Schechtman:Where does impersonation and impressions fit into this mix?
Al Gini:Wow. I’ve never had that question. You’re going to get an A-plus on this quiz. I think impersonation is more clownish. You’re making fun of a personality.
Jeff Schechtman:My first memories of impressions as comedy is Vaughn Meader.
Al Gini:Yeah. But who is he making fun of? Kennedy. And from day one, on Saturday Night Live, 43 years ago, Chevy Chase is making fun of Gerald Ford tripping. And then Daniel Aykroyd was making fun of Jimmy Carter. And every president has been satired by … Put up to satire by, or imitated by one of the comics there.
I think impressionist, and certainly … I’m forgetting that … not sure. I can’t remember his name right now. The guy was a little-
Jeff Schechtman:Rich Little.
Al Gini:Thank you very much. Thank you very, very much. Rich Little, Exactly. He was marvelous. He was wonderful.
And again, I think that comedy, because we’re telling jokes along the way, it’s both blending clownishness, changing one’s face, changing one’s persona, and delivery together. And I think it still ends up in equals joke or fun. And I think they too are belittling, or taking potshots at that personality, and what they represent.
Jeff Schechtman:Why is it, in your view, having looked at this, that there were certain cultural similarities to comedians. I mean, we have Jewish comedians, we have black comedians. What is it about certain cultural and, or ethnic groups, that lend themselves to this skill?
Al Gini:I don’t know if I entirely agree with your question. I do think there are different kinds of comics, in different kinds of racial groups, or ethnic groups. I think there is a lot of black comics who are just going up there and doing standup. And then there are a lot of black comics who identify themselves as black comics, and speak to mostly all-black audiences. And I guess, I’m not sure that every white comic says, I only speak to a white audience.
I think humor is larger than ethnicity. I think humor, and maybe Garrison Keillor said it best. I think humor is an attempt to take potshots at ourselves, that we need to laugh at ourselves. And so Garrison Keillor always loved the Ole and Lena jokes about the Scandinavians. He says, “They still had an accent but they have been here for three generations.” But they try to maintain that ethnicity, and even while they were in America. He said, “These weren’t simple folks. These are people who are simple in their lifestyles.” And in his jokes, they were an attempt to make fun of their lifestyles, that also transcended their lifestyles a little bit.
So I’m not sure about the exactness of your question. I think humor … again Nietzsche, “that we create humor in order to not die of truth.” I think that’s pandemic in the human experience. But I think there are some groups … There’s a book a wonderful book out there on Jewish humor right now. And he’s does a great job in it. Michael Krasny, who says that the Jews are the best humorous because they’ve suffered so much. I think there’s a real argument there. I’m not sure if they’re the best, but I think, pain and suffering necessitated humor.
But I think humor is part of the human experience. I think we need to laugh. Psychologists are telling us now, that animals laugh, dogs laugh. I’ve seen elephants laugh, porpoises laugh. So that’s part of the need for us as species.
Jeff Schechtman:It’s interesting when you talk about suffering so much, because the flip side of that is that, there isn’t a lot of humor in comfort, in people that are too comfortable.
Al Gini:Yeah. There are not a lot of rich jokes. My goodness, I couldn’t make up my mind between a Mercedes 778 and the Bentley 444. Haha, haha, very funny. No, I think humor is always counterpointal, you’re showing the other point, right? You’re always doing it. For example, they observe … Comedy no longer is … a group of comics going out there and doing the Henny Youngman shtick, or one hour of … Bob Hope went from joke, to joke, to joke, to joke, to joke. Whether there was connection or not. Comedy is now, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K, and the whole experience. It’s observational.
So when Jerry Seinfeld, one of my favorite Jerry Seinfeld jokes is, “You know, I didn’t realize my voice had a tone … until I got married.” Is that an ethnic joke? That’s a joke about the human experience, right? What marital situation hasn’t heard some version of that, go either way, the wife could say that as well, all right? Etc., etc.
Jeff Schechtman:It’s interesting that you could almost tell … I mean, in the history of humor, somebody could do the story of American history through humor, through comedians, through jokes.
Al Gini:Yeah, I think so. And maybe Joan Rivers captured it best when she said, “If you could laugh at it, you could live with it,” Right? I think we need humor as an escape valve. I think, you can see … it’s like reading editorials of papers. One of the chapters I was going to do and didn’t do, because I realized there’s a whole other book and there’s a lot out there, is political cartoons. And if you go back through history, we made fun of … Jefferson the great icon was made fun of. Adams the great icon was made fun of. Not so much Washington, because we didn’t know how to do it yet. Lincoln was just salacious stuff in the cartoons. I mean, depicted as a gorilla, I mean, libelous stuff by today’s standards.
We’ve used humor as a way to deal with politics, because politics is fundamental to the human situation, and we always have comments about it. And you can’t always yell at the king, but if you make the king laugh, perhaps you can make your point. And that’s what jesters did, and jesters by the way, were pandemic in the world. It wasn’t just King Edward the Eighth of England who had his favorite jester.

Jesters were part of the Cheyenne tradition, part of the Indian tradition, part of the Chinese tradition, part of the European tradition, part of the African tradition. That there was someone designated who had extra potential powers, okay? Plenary powers, and could say truth to power. But they had to be in, if you will, in costume, they had to be playing the role.

It’s almost what Mel Brooks says, for the jester jokes were a defense against reality, right? So they told jokes as a defense against reality, also as a question mark, you want to think that through again, Your Highness, or do you really want to do this, Your Highness? Etc., etc.
This need to laugh, if we can laugh with it, maybe we could live with it, and maybe along the way if it isn’t perfect, we can amend it a bit.
Jeff Schechtman:There’s also this interesting nexus in terms of the evolution of humor, between humor and language, and the way language is used.
Al Gini:Yeah. And if you mean accents, that applies and the nuance of language. I get a little lost in linguistic jokes but I do understand … I think … help me if I’m going the wrong way here, I think, jokes that play on ethnic accents are really, really, central to humor, because I am Italian and Jewish, I could do a little bit of this, I always had guilt coming in and going by the way. I always tell my universal mothers joke is, fill in the blank. You could fill in the blank on these, but it comes out better if it has a little bit of a Yiddish accent or Italian accent. For example, how many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? And the answer is, “That’s all right. I’ll just sit here in the dark. Don’t worry about me.”  Right? Or the Italian joke is, how many Italian …what’s the difference between an Italian mother and a pit bull dog? And the answer is: ”Sooner or later, the bulldog lets go.”
Myron Cohen. He stood up on stage and told … Yiddish joke, I mean, he told a joke with a Jewish accent, then he told a joke with an Italian accent, then he told a joke with a Brooklyn accent.  But they were all about human beings in the same situations, but they were funnier because of the language. And I think that … or the accentuation. And I think that’s part of it, it’s delivery, delivery, delivery.
Jeff Schechtman:What about expectation, and pre-conception in terms of humor. In other words, would Henny Youngman be funny today? Now, there is more of a narrative to jokes today.
Al Gini:That’s a great question. Again, you’re stumping me here. I don’t think so. I think he’d be an acquired taste. If he just was the new comic up there, he’d struggle with it. Would Don Rickles, would there be a Don Rickles today? No, I don’t think so. I mean, he made a career out of being offensive. Foster Brooks. Are you’re old enough to remember Foster Brooks?
Jeff Schechtman:Yes.
Al Gini:He came on drunk and just told, he was just drunk. That would not be acceptable. And to get even closer to home, with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. With the character that Lewis was playing, would that be politically correct today?
Jeff Schechtman:No.
Al Gini:I don’t think so.
Jeff Schechtman:I don’t think so either.
Al Gini:No, because he wasn’t just jejune. There seemed to be something off about the young man, right? About the character. Would Tommy Smothers be as funny today, that he seems a little too simple, right? And so the politically correct world say, “Oh, no. Now you’re making fun of not so smart people. Be careful.” No, I think comic comedy evolves, and what’s really funny, changes. However, there are some things that are constant and that is political satire.
That night Lincoln was shot, in his standard black Brooks Brothers jacket that his wife bought for him, in the tail part, he had four different comedy writers, that kind of paper, he tried to read them every day as a moment of freedom from the burdens of the office.
They still stand up when you read some of these people. I mean, the Greek satirists stand up, you have to know a little history, but they stand up, they’re still witty in place. I don’t think the Seinfelds of the world are going to last forever. In 30 years, will Seinfeld be funny? Will he be as dated as the Marx Brothers? Well, are the Marx Brothers dated. Yeah, it’s a different kind of comedy, but you know what I mean. And so, I think, it is Bob Hope who was the king of comedy when I was growing up. Absolutely. Forget about now, he wouldn’t have a chance in the comedy world.
Jeff Schechtman:Finally, when you look at somebody that has no sense of humor, and doesn’t tell jokes, and doesn’t laugh, what does that tell you?
Al Gini:Well, I think it proves my point, that we need humor, we deal with reality with humor, we fight reality with humor. It’s a defense against reality, it’s a way to hold up the fears of the world. And it’s a bonding principle. When I tell you a joke, I’m just reaching out to you and say, “Do you like me? Do you like this?” If we both like this, maybe we have a basis for friendship. I’m giving you a gift right here.
I think the saddest thing you could say of someone, “she never told a joke.” Maybe not the saddest. She never got a joke. She never laughed. And I think those are people that we don’t despise, but actually feel sorry for.
Jeff Schechtman:Al Gini, the importance of being funny. Why we need more jokes in our lives. Al, I thank you so much, for spending time with us here on radio WhoWhatWhy.
Al Gini:You are very kind. Very good questions, and I’m not sure I’d live up to your questions. But, thank you very much.
Jeff Schechtman:You did great. Thank you, Al. I appreciate it.
Thank you for listening, and joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Henny Youngman (GAC / Wikimedia), Will Rogers (Underwood & Underwood / Wikimedia), Mort Sahl (CBS / Wikimedia), Lenny Bruce (Unknown / Wikimedia), Joan Rivers (Underbelly Limited / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 2.0) and Jon Stewart (Underbelly Limited / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 2.0).

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