Somewhere along the line, I developed this theory that all jokes are simply little brushes with death. Man walks down the street whistling, slips on a banana peel and falls. He’s strolling along, ‘I wonder where you get a good sandwich around here’ and smack! He finds himself face to face with his mortality; bruising tailbone, and ego, alike.
We crack up.
Even the ol’ chicken/road joke is based on the premise that the chicken in question was one wrong claw away from kissing the concrete indefinitely. The timeless joke begs the question,
“What did it risk its life for? … Seriously? That’s it? Hilarious.”
But if you think about it, it’s rather deep, bro. Some people believe death to be the single motivating factor for the chicken to cross the road to begin with. Crossing the road=crossing over. The other side. Whether said chicken was actually suicidal or not, one thing’s for sure—death is the entire premise of the joke. Why did the chicken cross the yard? Who cares. The road…well now we’re getting somewhere.
Woody Allen famously defined comedy as “pain plus distance.” The distance could be literal (Charlie Chaplin is suffering, not you) or it could be created by time—when I flushed my brand new pager down the toilet in 1999 it was the worst, but it’s a go-to party story now. These humorous moments are little deaths. Death of a pager. Death of a chicken. Death to the illusion of control.
If pain + distance = comedy than it would follow that death + distance is about as funny as it gets.
Consider Shakespeare. How did you know the play was a tragedy? Somebody died: Ceasar, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet. How did you know it was a comedy? You thought somebody died but they were really alive the whole time! Much Ado About Nothing, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors.
Humor and Relief
For all death gives humor in material, humor gives right back in the form of relief. Humor at a funeral is like a cool breeze in the desert—a merciful gap in the pain. Just after my brother’s untimely death, we found ourselves laughing about the time he accidentally set the toaster on fire in a misguided juice-thawing incident. We were in stitches—on the way to his funeral. Does this make us terrible people? Possibly. But it’s the only moment from that horrific day I can look back upon and smile. If we hadn’t laughed at that moment, we may well have exploded.
The great Buddhist meditation masters radiate this truth.
Few smile and laugh more freely than a wrinkled old monk who’s spent half his life in a cave meditating on death. Their eyes seem to twinkle with the understanding of some great cosmic joke—how very absurd life’s struggles appear in the light of death.
Could humor be the instantaneous realization that both life and death exist at the same time? How can those two truths possibly coexist? The koan remains ever unanswerable, but one thing’s for sure—the only appropriate response is to burst out laughing.
Kelly MacLean is a humorist, writer and host of The Tao of Comedy podcast where she tricks comedians into waxing poetic about the nature of reality. She’s a proud member of the When You Die team and hosts WYD podcast. @thekellymaclean
Kelly MacLean is a humorist, writer and host of The Tao of Comedy podcast where she tricks comedians into waxing poetic about the nature of reality. She’s a proud member of the When You Die team and hosts WYD podcast.