Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.

Humor has always been a deadly political weapon. Peter Costello was at best a decent parliamentary performer, but elevated to god of the chambers by the press for his ability to wield humor. Throughout history the greatest leaders have often been the ones with strong senses of humor. Doris Keane Godwin places significant emphasis on Abraham Lincoln’s ability to tell a good joke as a key asset, not only for relieving tension between his stressed war cabinet, and as an internal stress relief mechanism. When Lincoln was told his best general general Ulysses S Grant was a drinker he declared he wanted to know what he drank and send a crate of it to all his military leaders. When he was waylaid by a minor case of smallpox he still managed to tell his secretary that he rather liked the disease, for it at ensured he could give something to every office seeker who arrived in his office. FDR, Churchill, Kennedy and others possessed either a keen wit or a genial good humor that kept them going. Australia’s longest serving politician Robert Menzies was a favourite after dinner speaker for his supply of anacdotes and loved public meetings where he could verbally parry and strike at hecklers.

Australia seems ill served today, with Rudd seeming a rather humorless man (and Howard before him couldn’t tell a joke to save his life), but observers of the USA can’t fail to have noted the dead pan humor of Obama. His great delivery ensures pre-written jokes crackle before audiences, but it’s also spontaneous too as demonstrated in his recent Q&A with Republicans last week. While Obama’s command of the details was critical, the clinching fact for many was Obama’s ability to deploy humor and keep the mood light in the face of his angry and sometimes uncivil opponents. While many in the USA are so blindingly angry (and many on TV pretending to be so to gain their money/support), Obama’s ability to use humor while initially off putting will in time come to be seen as evidence he is truely in command and fits comfortably into the suit of President of the United States of America.

It also sends an inspiring message to the world, that the west is not dismayed and frightened or even distracted by the threat of terrorism or even economic strife. The psychological war element of WW2 shifted when the British were able to keep getting up, going to work and living their lives despite Hitlers threatening forces just 150 miles away. Against a much weaker and much more dependent on psychological (It’s called terror for a reason) we in the free world, west and east, whatever our culture or location, humor is a powerful weapon. It shows how little our opponents are compared to ourselves and will act as an important release valve during tough debates about how to fight a battle that never ends and targets our loved ones at home.

Below the fold a few good War on Terror jokes and video of Obama’s pre-election roast(McCain was also pretty funny). If you know any good related jokes, please post them in the comments.

“It looks like we are going to have to set up a new government in Afghanistan, which is not going to be easy. After our last election, look how long it took us to set up our own government.” —Jay Leno

“In Pakistan anti-American protestors set a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on fire. The protestors mistaken-thought they were attacking high-ranking U.S. military official Colonel Sanders.” —Jimmy Fallon on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update”

“My only hope is when those terrorists get to heaven, they meet up with the kind of virgins we had in Catholic school: Sister Mike Ditka from Our Mother of Eternal Retribution.” —Robin Williams

Terrorist safety messages:

If you spot terrorism, blow your anti-terrorism whistle. If you are Vin Diesel, yell really loud.

If you are sprayed with an unknown substance, stand and think about it instead of seeing a doctor.

If you spot a terrorist arrow, pin it against the wall with your shoulder.

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  1. Matt C

     /  February 9, 2010

    My favorite Menzies quip was in response to a heckler who said:

    “I wouldn’t vote for you even if you were the archangel Gabriel.”

    To which Menzies replied:

    “I can assure you, sir, if I were the archangel Gabriel, you would not be in my constituency.”

  2. It’s one of his best Matt. Back in the day when you could get away with this, you could have some fun:

    “Interjector: “Wotcha gonna do about ‘ousing?”
    Sir Robert Menzies: “Put an ‘h’ in front of it.”

    A noisy meeting of coalminers in Wonthaggi hall was settling down, when someone from the front row yelled out:
    “Tell us all you know, Bob – it won’t take long!”
    The meeting erupted.
    Menzies looked at the main and said:
    “I will tell you everything we both know – it won’t take any longer.”

    He’s also sometimes credited with the quip that a heckler declared “if you were my husband i would put poison in your tea” Reply: “If i were your husband I would drink it”, however thats probably better credited to Churchill.

    Speaking of humor, last night I had the good fortune to see “Pennies from Kevin” the Sydney Wharf Review’s latest. Absolutely brilliant in its parody of Rudd, Swan and Gillard, along with Turnbull, Keating, Whitlam, Bob Ellis, Barry Jones, Amanda Vandstone etc etc. Brilliant, and lapped up by the lefty crowd in canberra. (Being opening night it was packed with journos and -local- politicians, who laughed if anything harder than anyone else in the crowd.