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Humour In the Most Unlikely Places Can Be the Funniest of All

Humor Can Be Found Even At Executions - George Eastman House
Intentional or not, there is comedy where people least expect it, and that can be lucrative in the arts, business or just keeping everybody’s spirits up.

Man is inventive, creative and enjoys humour. Even the Bible is full of humorous devices like irony, puns, wordplays and sarcasm. From the office joker, to the stand up comedian, the circus clown to government directive that’s laughably unbelievable, people find something to laugh about in almost every circumstance.

Humour in Enterprise

Finding and creating a comical business enterprise can sell. Special occasion cards, wind-up and prank calls and messages, role-playing at parties – these have all been successful business ventures. Geoff Williams from Loveland, Ohio is one of a number of writers pointing out the financial benefits for companies great and small of marketing through humour.

He cites Shaun Clancy, owner of Foley’s NY Pub & Restaurant who banned the singing of Danny Boy in March 2008, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. The resultant publicity, including a roasting by satirist Stephen Colbert on late night TV, was worth big money to his small, but growing, business.

Williams also refers to Burger King’s short-lived, controversial campaign to give free Whoppers to customers who eliminated 10 friends from their Facebook page. The publicity was worth millions. In other words, humour handled properly is a key to successful advertising.

Williams advises comical entrepreneurs not to set out to be humorous, or it will fail; humour should fit the product or service without overpowering it; and unexpected humour is good, such as financial institutions laughing at themselves or the economy.

Spass, German Humour

One unlikely place for humour is often thought to be Germans and their language. This stereotypical view arrives in part through folk-memories of two world wars, and partly because German grammar is less flexible than English, as explained by the UK’s Guardian writer Stewart Lee in 2006. German prevents the delay of a punch-line in long, convoluted, compound words. Fewer German words have multiple meanings, so wordplays and puns are less achievable.

However, German comic tradition evolved with serious/mock serious, satirical content, no different from other cultures that enjoy both live performances, computer graphics and the internet to send-up and poke fun at politicians, laws, habits and behaviours.

Germans themselves have stereotypical jokes about other nationalities, as do British about French, Americans about Canadians or Mexicans.

German playwright Bertolt Brecht is associated with spass, humour, as one of his trademark techniques to make audiences/actors aware of demonstrating rather than emotional acting. It also means, according to Delamare Arts fun, satire and grotesque stereotypes. The audience is invited to laugh at characters and ultimately condemn what they stand for. The technique for actors/demonstrators is to find a stereotype and explore the character from outside-in; a grotesque outside contrasting with a kind, sympathetic inside.

Gallows Humour

The Free Dictionary defines “gallows humour” as the act of making unpleasant things, such as death, seem funny. It’s laughing in the face of adversity, making the best of a dire situation, finding the funny side of what outwardly cannot be amusing. It’s similar to black or sick comedy (like Michael Jackson jokes that circulated minutes after his death), but gallows humour comes from the person affected.

The 1927, Sigmund Freud’s essay Humour argued that, “The ego refuses to be distressed by provocations of reality … it insists it cannot be affected by traumas of the external world … such traumas are occasions for it to gain pleasure.” He said, in effect, that humour has a liberating effect on those under stress.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Sc 1, when Romeo tells the stabbed Mercutio that the hurt cannot be much. Mercutio replies: “No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve: ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

Often, people whom are facing imminent execution will say something witty or comical. James French, American murderer, is credited with making up a headline before he went to the electric chair in 1966: ‘French Fries!’ The criminals being crucified at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian 1979 movie ironically sing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Other famous last words from those on the point of execution, which count as gallows humour, include: George Appel’s ‘Well gentlemen, you are about to see a baked appel’ from the electric chair in 1928; ‘Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way’ from Erskine Childers about to be executed by firing squad 1922; ‘Hurrah for anarchy! This is the happiest moment of my life,’ from George Engel, about to be hanged in 1886, and Johnny Frank Garrett, executed by injection in 1992: ‘I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my ass.’

Ned Kelly, Australian murderer of three police officers, was hanged in 1880. Just before the execution, he said, “Such is Life.” John Thanos, executed by injection in Maryland 1994, said “Adios.”

First published on Suite 101, 20 July 2010.

Photo: Humour Can Be Found Even At Executions – George Eastman House

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