Where is the Humor in This Age of Deadly Seriousness?

We’re taking a break from my series on civil discourse.

Thanks to dreamstime.com for the image.

Since every Action List I’m receiving emphasizes how critical self-care is, I decided I needed to focus on my favorite self-care rituals this week.

Off I hopped into a steaming bubble bath.  That’s always first.

Then  I joined another choir (I’m a soprano in one, an alto in another, and a tenor in the third, in case you were wondering the outcome of last summer’s epiphany).  Some day, I’ll write more about the power of music to heal. For today though, I’m writing about the  power of laughter.

You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time, says Stephen Colbert

Here’s what I also know. It’s not a matter of getting “in the mood to laugh.”  It’s a matter of letting the laughter catch you unawares. It’s a gift, laughter is. And it’s one I’d like to share.

Ready?  Let’s go.

Definition of Humor by Merriam-Webster

the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating
the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous

According to Merriam-Webster, humor is about finding the absurd, the ludicrous, and holding it up to the light.

I’m focusing, of course, on political satire — a long used literary device — when we speak of humor. For you see, I want desperately to believe that political satire, along with singing, will be our life saver.  After all, bubble baths aren’t for everyone. But everyone can sing. And everyone can laugh.

Laughter, for me, is also about finding that sense of community that emerges when I laugh together with another. “You’re not alone” is a powerful call. It’s the bonding part of laughter that I enjoy so much.  The same can be said, of course, for singing.

I grew up on political satire.  Remember the Smothers Brothers?  Tom Lehrer? Mort Sahl? Lenny Bruce? Dick Gregory? George Carlin (well, I was grown by the time I discovered George).



Who have replaced them?  I began my search.

We all are aware of The Onion and Andy Borowitz in New Yorker Magazine’s The Borowitz Report. But I’m going for auditory humor, not print.  I want to play something, sit back, and laugh.

I turned to the late night television comedy shows. YouTube videos to the fore.

Samantha Bee (Full Frontal), Stephen Colbert (CBS’s Late Night), Bill Maher (HBO’s Real Time With …), Seth Meyers (NBC’s Late Night With …),  Trevor Noah (Comedy Central’s Daily Show), who took over from the ever popular Jon Stewart, and John Oliver (HBO’s Last Week Tonight With…),

along with the folks at Saturday Night Live, are the top comedians of our day — The Smothers Brothers without the music, the Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce without the language, and the George Carlin without the pony tail.

But, as I watched these assorted clips, I found that studying humor comes with a certain barrier to enjoying it.  And, I learned a few serious things.

Comedians make sense of the world through sharing, and often skewering, common perceptions of it.

Bassem Youssef, called the Jon Stewart of Egypt for his work during the Arab Spring, who now lives in the US, cautions us — in this brief interview in Business Insider — against satirizing Trump, as does  Aparna Nancherla, in this article in  the Village Voice,

The most cliché Trump jokes — his orange skin, emphatic hand gestures, and tween-like reflexes on social media — have been hashed and rehashed, hashtagged and retweeted. … But these sorts of jokes about him fail to even begin countering the disastrous impact he’ll have upon the world. Because the problem isn’t that he’s unmockable; it’s that he’s too dangerous to simply mock.  …  

Maysoon Zayid, the Palestinian woman whose  TED talk “I Got 99 problems … Palsy Is Just One,” tells us that comedians are becoming the new journalists.

Trump is terrifying but also comedy gold. He’s a bully who can dish it out but can’t take it. It is our …  job to speak the truth when others fear doing so. … We need to fight the power while staying funny.

Baron Vaughn, whom I knew only from the Netflix show, Grace and Frankie (he plays Bud), says

There’s a new level of awareness about how the government works, mixed with a deep division in this country, sautéed with hatred and a sprinkle of xenophobia, then finely caramelized in racism. It’s a good thing to expose all the flaws in our institutions. It’s the only way to see what needs to be fixed. However, that doesn’t mean anyone will like it.

Here’s a final quote, an excerpt from the article in the Daily Beast, Can Comedy Survive President Trump?  that speaks to this level of seriousness.

The night before the election, Samantha Bee aired the second part of her series from Moscow, which highlighted the parallels between Trump and Putin, who has all but eliminated satire from Russia. “The only worse thing for a dictator than being criticized, is being laughed at,” one pro-democracy Russian journalist told her.

“But that could never happen here,” Bee said, optimistically, before revealing Trump’s calls for SNL to be canceled after he took issue with Baldwin’s harsh portrayal of him.

I’m suddenly struck by the courage it takes to be a comedian these days. And I’m also aware that I haven’t laughed yet.

I’m off to sing for awhile.

Now I’m back ready to introduce you to three budding comedians who post their work on the Internet for folks like me to discover (with help from a number of my Facebook Friends. Thank You!)

Remember, you can subscribe to their YouTube channels if you are so inclined, and get a new musical chuckle in your Inbox each week (times three)

First, The Bald Piano Guy, with “I Gotta Cut Art.” This had me smiling for the first time.


I continued my chuckles with Lauren Mayer, who, with this fun YouTube, needs no further introduction.

Her many songs include Cry Me A River (err, make that Crimea River).

Randy Rainbow is an R-rated comedian (or should be).  Here’s Microwaves are Watching You. 


All are entertaining, to be sure, if you lean to the political LEFT.

But where are the right-leaning comedians?

I could only find two: Dennis Miller and P. J. O’Rourke.  And even O’Rourke supported Clinton in the election (as “the devil we know”).  I include them in a stab at equal time, and I do wish there were more.  But, I wish even more that they were funnier.  Ah, but then there was Archie Bunker.

What is it about humor that draws from (or is supported by) the Left?  I don’t know. That will wait for a future post.

[learn_more caption=”How can I end this post on American humor without including links (at least) to a few of my all-time favorites. They never made me laugh out loud, but they did once make me feel less alone. “]

Tom Lehrer,  National Brotherhood Week  and  We Will All Go Together When We Go

Phil Ochs, The Draft Dodger Rag

The Smothers Brothers with George Segal, The Draft Dodger Rag


THIS JUST IN:  State Rep Jessica Farrar has introduced HB 4260 in Texas that will … well, you’ll just have to read this for yourself.  I can’t possibly do a better job than the Texas Tribune has done in covering it. Everyone wants to laugh, it would seem.

How about you? Did I include your favorite? Who’ve I left out?  Let’s get as complete a compilation as possible, for that empty afternoon we have time to laugh. In the meantime, I’m going off to sing. 

LEAP FROG (the FROG part) — my series on
civil discourse — will return next week


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28 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    It strikes me that your ample examples in word and video derive from suffering. “I’ll Cut Art”(which you said made you smile) wouldn’t be the least bit funny unless it struck a deeper chord of disgust and sadness.

    Wow, Janet – impressive! I look forward to others adding to your compilation here.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian. I’m certainly not laughing at the cutting of art funds. But, as I think about your comment, I’m thinking it must have been because his was so surprising. It caught me off guard, was new. As I’d watched all those earlier clips that I’m sure I would have found funny had I been watching them in real time, I’m sure I would have smiled then too. There’s something there about the element of surprise. Not sure just what though. Thanks for popping in and starting us off.

  2. Patricia Steele
    | Reply

    I loved this article and YouTube attachments, Janet! Thanks for entertaining me even though it is horrible, you are right. Laughter helps the grieving. PatriciaS

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Patricia,

      Thanks so much. To be able to laugh, and laugh together, is healing. I’m glad you stopped by.

  3. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet. This is an impressive compilation.
    I thought of another one from the past. Remember, “This is the Week That Was?”
    In Philadelphia, the theater company, 1812 Productions, does a show every year that is sort of like that. I think it’s called “This is the Week That Is.” It’s updated throughout the run, as news comes in.

    You are right that laughter is important–and music (and the arts). I can’t believe you’re in three choirs. Enjoy your singing!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I do remember That Was the Week That Was! And I remember it wasn’t on very long either.

      The latest choir is a really fun one. We are learning old time songs of protest so that at Marches, we can lead folks in Call and Response type singing. Great fun.

  4. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    Don’t forget hysterical laughter. That often occurs not because something is funny, but because it is tragic! A bit like laughing at the current US President’ antics. He certainly isn’t funny, nor is anything he does.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      He is not funny; you are too right. But we must find a way to laugh. I can tell you some of my greatest belly laughs occur on a Monday night at my hospice choir rehearsals. We’ve all commented on it.

  5. Frank V. Moore
    | Reply

    Sen. Al Franken (a former comedian), noted in an interview that he had never seen Trump laugh. I haven’t either. Have you? I think that says a lot.

    • Merril Smith
      | Reply

      Wow! You’re right, Frank. Of course, I’ve tried not to watch him.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Frank. The first draft of this particular post began with Al Franken and his comment during the Gorsuch hearings. “I spent my career identifying the absurd. I know it when I see it.” And, one of my memorable evenings of laughter was listening to Al Franken as Stuart Smalley doing a guided imagery. Hysterical. Especially after a whole weekend of rather intense psychotherapeutic explorations. Great memories. I think I may just pull out that old cassette again.

  6. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I went way back to my blog archives (Mar 13, 2010) to copy and paste in a short post I wrote titled FUNNY BONES:

    My favorite thing on the planet is trees. Next is laughter. I love to laugh! It’s a great antidote to stress. As a Holistic Health Practitioner, I can share this fact with certainty: of the 206 bones in the human body, the most important one is the funny bone.

    We’ve all heard the saying that “Laughter is the best medicine.” It really is. Just like a spoonful of sugar, laughter is easy to take. Possessing the same positive impact as inspiration, love, generosity, tolerance and respect, laughter is one of the many characteristics of Divine Love—Spirit. Simply put, laughter is good for the soul.

    By the way, if you take the time to listen, you can hear the trees laugh too …

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Laurie. Too bad you didn’t post the photo from that 2010 post. Were they your feet? (I’m assuming so; hoping so).

      • Laurie Buchanan
        | Reply

        Janet — I would have posted that photo if I could have figured out how. And yes, Len took that shot of my Happy Feet. I still have those huge shoes — I wear them when I read in the children’s wing at the hospital. They never fail to generate smiles.

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          I’ll bet. They certainly generated a smile here in Vermont when I first saw them. Those are lucky kids, seems to me, to have you reading to them.

  7. Carolyn
    | Reply

    I must say I have to think hard about recent humour in the UK – I don’t seem to click with so many of the new brand. Still love the Smothers Bros and Tom Lehrer and I enjoy Kinky Friedman’s irreverent songs. David Sidaris’s monologues can bring a smile to my lips. I tend to look at the Daily Comics (U.S.) for a giggle, especially Pearls before Swine with its latest story on Rat becoming president.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I love British humor, Carolyn. And, early on with this post had to decide to limit it to the USA. Kinky Friedman is a new name to me. http://www.kinkyfriedman.com And he’s American, too. Thanks for that.

      • Ian Mathie
        | Reply

        You clearly have yet to discover Hennig Wenn and his unusual sense of humour. I say unusual because he is German, a race not noted for having a sense of humour. He is, nevertheless, quite amusing. 🙂

  8. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    I’m with Laurie on this one as in Laughter is the best medicine, etc. I LOVE to laugh and find humor in everyday adventures. There is nothing like laughing at myself and as I get older am finding myself funnier than ever.

    However, I am not one for canned humor. Laugh tracks make me want to vomit. SNL can get me laughing but then I get to feeling very sad because what we laugh at here is simply pathetic. To me that is not really humor.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Joan, I think you’ve helped me understand a bit better why I didn’t laugh at any of the clips from the big-name folks of today. They were all about the same thing, in the same way and many I’d seen before (and laughed then). Sort of like any joke, I imagine. Not as funny the second time told. (and amazing how 6 year olds just don’t get that detail!). Yet, when I began playing those musical numbers, they did make me chuckle (or at least smile) because they were new to me. Hmmmm. We’re onto something here, kiddo. Thanks.

  9. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet – thanks for the much needed levity break. It has occurred to me that I need to find more ways to laugh amidst all that’s going on, and you’ve provided some good ammunition. A few random thoughts as I read your piece and the comments: 1. Frank is right, I’ve never seen Trump laugh, either, or even smile what looked like a genuine smile. I find this rather unsettling, thinking about it. It also occurs to me that I’ve never seen a photo of Hitler or Putin or Kim Jong-un or any other dictator or authoritarian laughing, at least that I can recall. What does this say about them, and about our president? 2. The Yousseff quote really has me thinking — is there a danger in mocking the president, both in terms of further inciting his rage against the left, who he sees as his “enemies,” and also possibly watering down the importance of all that he is attempting to destroy? It’s also occurred to me that all of the satirization of Trump, coming mostly from late night television, may be further pushing away those on the right who might otherwise be “won over” by a more civil approach to discussing the issues (getting back to your civil discourse series). As usual, I don’t have the answers, but it’s certainly interesting food for thought. 3. If you ever develop a theory as to why so much of the best humor seems to come from the left, I’d love to hear it. I’ve often wondered this myself. Today’s GOP leadership, in particular, seem utterly dour and humorless. I really miss Joe Biden’s smiling mug . . .

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You raise, as always, provocative questions, Tim. That list of “never laughers” gets me wondering if the ability to laugh is connected to the ability to step outside ourselves just a bit, to appreciate paradox (to put it mildly) in that moment. Takes a free spirit to do that, seems to me. I need to talk with my psychiatrist friends and see if the ability to laugh is something the mentally ill lose.

      As for your second point, I cling to the quote from the Samantha Bee interview — “The only worse thing for a dictator than being criticized, is being laughed at,” one pro-democracy Russian journalist told her.

      Add to that his extremely fragile ego (classic narcissistic trait) and we may well push him to implode sooner rather than later. The question then becomes, is that what we really want to do? (his finger on the trigger and all that) I don’t know the answer.

      But, good news on your third point. I’m talking with Lauren Mayer (one of my three newbies in the YouTube videos above) who will do a guest post for us this summer AND will focus on her theory on Left vs. Right humor. I’m also pushing her to do a song with the “Blame it on the Oxytocin” theme. Wouldn’t that be fun?

      Thanks for stopping in.

  10. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Hennig Wehn is hilarious, Ian. I just googled him and watched him on a British TV show. Fun way to start my day. Thanks Ian.

  11. Anne McKinsey
    | Reply

    Janet, I enjoyed your post; spent all of Tuesday evening catching up on youtube with Maher, Daily Show, etc. — sometimes we just gotta do that.

    This new show will surely give us a great laugh — starting later this month:


    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh Anne. Thank you for this. I think this guy does a better impersonation than Alec Baldwin.

  12. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Wanted to be sure to include this link to an article: 16 Comedians on the Role of Comedy During a Trump Administration, a January 2017 interview in Vulture.com by Elise Czajkowski.


  13. […] How to Take Care of Yourself in This Age of Incivility: LEAP FROG Part 3 Where is the Humor in This Age of Deadly Seriousness? […]

  14. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Another link just in that I wanted to keep with this collection. This is Sandy and Richard Riccardi singing “The Boy From Mar-A-Lago.”


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