If you don’t laugh, you cry: Coping with virus through humor


BOSTON (AP) – Neil Diamond publishes an original version of "Sweet Caroline" with its familiar lyrics enhanced to say: "Hands … washing your hands". An anchorman asks when the social distance will end because "my husband keeps trying to get in the house". And a sign outside a neighborhood church says, "I hadn't planned on giving up Lent so much."

Can we still laugh? Better, say psychologists and humorists. Laughter can be the best medicine, they argue, as long as it is within the limits of good taste. And in a crisis, it can be a powerful coping mechanism.


"It's more than just medicine. It's survival," said Erica Rhodes, a Los Angeles comedian.

"Even during the Holocaust, people told jokes," said Rhodes in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “Laughter is a symbol of hope and becomes one of our greatest needs in life, up there with toilet paper. It is a physical need that people have. You cannot underestimate how it heals people and gives them hope. "

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that go away in two to three weeks. For some, especially the elderly and people with existing health problems, it can cause more serious illnesses, including pneumonia and death.


Those are scary words and scary prospects. But history has shown that its heaviest moments are usually fermented using humor and laughter as conscious choices – ways to cope when other things are not working as expected.

"There is a lot of fear and horror out there. All the hand washing in the world is not going to clear your head," said Loretta LaRoche, a Boston suburban stress management consultant who uses humor to help people alleviate anxiety caused by the pandemic.

“Some people will say that it is not time to laugh. The point is that there is always time to laugh, ”said LaRoche. “We have 60,000 thoughts a day and many of them are very disturbing. Laughter helps the brain to relax.


This explains why social media feeds are peppered with memes, cartoons and fun personal anecdotes with coronavirus themes.

Here is Diamond posting a video of himself singing "Sweet Caroline" with the lyrics changed to say: "Hands … washing hands … don't touch me … I won't touch you".

Julie Banderas, Fox News anchor, tweeted: “How long should this social distance last? My husband keeps trying to get into the house.

And here, see novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, sharing a photo of her having lunch in her wedding dress after her children asked her to wear it "and I couldn't think of a reason not to."

For centuries, laughter in difficult times has been cathartic, said Wayne Maxwell, a Canadian psychologist who has done extensive research on "hangman humor". The term originated in medieval Britain, where hangings took place in parks near bars and regulars told jokes at the victims' expense.

"Even in some ancient Egyptian writings, there are descriptions of soldiers returning from the front lines and using humor to deal with it," said Maxwell, from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

But, he warns, there is a kind of comedy continuation: although humor can lighten things up, lots of laughter and nonsense can indicate that a person is trying to escape reality.

There are also issues of taste. Nobody wants to make fun of medical misery or death. Quarantine and social detachment, however, are a fair game, and self-deprecating humor is almost always safe – although LaRoche warns that humor, like beauty, is always in the eye of the beholder.

"It all depends on how your brain works," she said. “Allow yourself to find humor. It is almost like a spiritual practice, finding ways to laugh at yourself. "

For those millions of parents who struggle to work at home and teach their children at home, she is preaching to the choir. Witness this widely shared meme: a photo of an elderly woman with white hair with the caption: "Here is Sue. 31 years old, studying at home with her children for the past 5 days. Great job, Sue. Keep it up."

Michael Knight, a 29-year-old musician and social worker for people with intellectual disabilities, has been breaking the tension by publishing memes like: “They said a mask and gloves were enough to go to the supermarket. They lied. Everyone was wearing clothes.

"It helps me to decompress," said Knight, of Plymouth, Massachusetts. "It kind of makes up for the paralyzing effects of the bogeyman that is the pandemic."

Rhodes, who won more than $ 30,000 after three festivals and his first recorded special was canceled, is trying to see humor in his own situation.

She recently posted a video on the iPhone pretending to work with a non-existent crowd on an outdoor stage she came across while walking. "How is everyone not?" it splits.

"The best material comes from a very real and somewhat dark place," said Rhodes.

His prediction: when life returns to normal, "Saturday Night Live" and the latest Netflix specials will be fueled by the humor of the quarantine.

"Just a month ago, who would have liked to receive a roll of toilet paper?" she said. "I mean, the whole world is upside down."


William J. Kole is the editor of The Associated Press in New England. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/billkole

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