Some days it seems I am surrounded by uncouth idiots. When I complain out loud, Shelly reminds me of my manners. She also reminds me that I’m no gem and not always the easiest personality to navigate. This latest reprimand occurred while I was engaged in a difference of opinion with an esteemed colleague.
“Could humor help de-escalate tense situations by creating a common bond?” His question seemed simple enough.We fear what we don’t understand. We generally hate things that scare us. Certain emotions are catalysts for our behavior while certain behaviors trigger our neurochemical transmitters. I was now angry with my colleague because his question caused me enough anxiety that I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling trying to come up with a respectable answer.
Humor is just another way that humans have developed to cope with uncertainty. Based solely upon that premise, the easy answer would be yes, humor can de-escalate tension internally or in voluntary social settings (one’s where we get to choose our friends, the time, location etc.). The harder question is, “what about involuntary social settings?” I guess that I would characterize an involuntary social setting as one where you don’t get to choose the location or participants. For example; an angry employee confronts you in the parking lot having just been fired by HR at your company. Or perhaps you are a law enforcement officer separating the combatants in a domestic violence situation.
Sticky wickets, both.
I move downstairs and now I find myself typing well after midnight. Outside the wet bulb is well below zero. The wind howls steadily outside the walls of Rogue Manor West. I sense that Shelly is now awake upstairs. My first thought is that the fierce wind gusts won’t let her sleep. I was wrong. I woke Shelly up; I was being too noisy bouncing around downstairs between the keyboard to the bathroom. Suddenly, the ambient light changes and I see her zombie-like visage hanging over the second-floor railing. The flickering light from the fireplace on the first floor creates a wan face seeming to hang bodyless in midair.
“Did I wake you up?” I yell up to her. No, she answers “all the noise did”.
Cue the rimshot followed by the small cymbal crash. Now THAT is humor.
With Shelly up and the wind causing the fireplace to flare up like it was being stoked by an otherworldly bellows with random timing, she curled up on the couch a few feet from my chair and began channel surfing for an old movie. Shelly switched the television over to Turner Classic and the 1963 film The Nutty Professor was just starting. You know, the film with the long intro that looks like an old Batman TV episode? Shot inside of a Disneyesque laboratory complete with too-bright colors, bubbling beakers and exploding experiments?
Sure enough, there was Jerry Lewis espousing the role of Professor Julius Kelp. It’s easy enough to forget just how much influence the Professor Kelp has had on our present culture. For example; Professor John IQ Nerdelbaum Frink Junior (talk about ham-handed) is a well-known character on The Simpsons. Since 1991, Hank Azaria has been the voice of the character that is clearly based on Jerry Lewis’s portrayal of Professor Kelp. Proof can be found not only in Azaria’s frantic and frenetic portrayal of Frink-Kelp’s character mimicking every tic and nuance of Lewis, but the fact that Jerry Lewis appeared on The Simpsons as Professor Frink’s dad in the 2003 Treehouse of Horror XIV episode.
The Nutty Professor is a great discussion piece regarding humor as a defense mechanism. Jerry Lewis had denied it in multiple interviews, but even a cautious viewer would suspect that Kelp’s film alter-ego “Buddy Love” is a characterization of Lewis’s longtime screen partner Dean Martin made obnoxious and grotesque. The films premise is simple, Kelp is messing around in his laboratory and accidentally or incidentally creates a potion which (when ingested) turns him into a Don Juan-ish handsome, reckless lady-killer. I love the origin story, the 1886 original Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Nutty Professor is Dr. Jekyll with a humorous, acerbic twist. I should warn you that even though its common fare around the holidays, it’s certainly not a family film. Kids will be scared at the transformation from Kelp to Love AND kids won’t get the heavily punctuated misogyny.
Lewis’s comedy personations never fall ‘far from the tree’.
Arguably, Lewis (who died in 2017) kept his core performance of the Kelp voice and mannerisms alive in films, television appearances from the 1950’s and repeated them up to at least 2010 during his yearly performances as the host of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethons. Two years later, Lewis was directing a musical theater version of The Nutty Professor with his Kelp mannerisms carried on through virtually every scene. Those who say Lewis’s denial of Dean Martin being the motivation behind the Buddy Love character always come back with a yin and yang-style argument. Perhaps Love is Jerry Lewis’s alter ego. His “dark side” they say.
What’s easier to believe, their string of logic or the fact that Lewis and Martin had an amazingly popular and profitable ten year run as comedy partners then spent the next 20 years without speaking to each other?
If humor might work to de-escalate tense situations, it certainly failed Martin & Lewis.
Back to the central argument.
While we don’t really understand humor, it is universal in many of its forms. Irony is universal. So are exaggeration, sarcasm, cynicism and misdirection. I would bet that a silent film would translate immediately into any culture. The absence of the specificity of language allows the viewer to focus on the emotions and body language being transmitted between the characters. Like pornography, humor allows us to release pent up tension. That doesn’t mean humor (or pornography) can be used to relax the anxiety during a confrontational encounter.
No one likes getting laughed at (Gelotophobia is the term for the fear of being laughed at), but everyone likes laughing. I think interjecting optimism into a tense encounter is fine, but could humor actually create an even more dangerous situation? Could the counterpart in your encounter think you aren’t taking the situation seriously? I would suspect that humor requires a social contract of sorts. Humor could be considered an emotional exchange, evidenced by the fact that even chimps and orangutans engage in laughter in social settings.
Humor helps us from being overwhelmed by our fragile egos and our challenging social situations. Jokes are a form of humor, but jokes aren’t universal nor universally culturally appropriate. Humor can be a coping mechanism whereas joking can be an immediate irritant and wildly inappropriate in certain cultures or circumstances. Brits and Americans tend to skew towards sexually charged jokes and humor. That could get you beheaded in the Persian Gulf. But Arabs and Jews alike would likely react similarly to any humor conveyed through silent cinema. To me that means you need to express your emotions, and those emotions might include humor, through your non-verbal communication skills like compassion and empathy. Compassion and empathy are universal, emotional game-changers.
When we rely on words alone to convey our emotions, we fall short. When we rely on our entire corporeal selves to convey our emotions our messages are better received.
The final essential element is context.
Context is the essence of effective communication exchange. Information science says that we have to use context to convey the setting within which the information is exchanged so that the statements, ideas and emotions can be conveyed properly and fully assessed and understood by the receiver. Context is the paralanguage that helps clarify what words fall short of transferring. Even though Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) has sound, you can turn down the sound, play it anywhere in the world in any culture, and you’ll get bell laughs. It’s due to Wilder’s insistent context, not the acting of stars Monroe, Lemmon and Curtis. With the sound off, the visuals are enough to draw you in and keep you riveted until the end.
Point? It doesn’t matter that we all laugh about the same things as long as we laugh.
After careful consideration I would answer my esteemed colleague thusly. Humor is a possible de-escalation tool only in social setting where both participants are there voluntarily AND there are no established boundaries. Both parties are just talking smack, there is no danger and nothing hangs in the balance. I received the best training anywhere as first a hostage negotiator and next as an advanced hostage negotiator. The training was so good it helped me de-escalate tough situations on the street each day of my career and many times since. Let me be fair, the training allowed me to be at scenes where there were terrible, sometimes unspeakable tragedies. I had to deal with broken people in the very worst of circumstances.
The confidence and competence I got from my own HBPR&A training coupled with negotiations training created an opportunity to learn on my feet when nanoseconds between life and death mattered most. During those call-outs I had to become what the subject, suspect or potential victim needed. Many times, it was a character I call “Father Flannagan”. I was the old priest that just listened and let the subject’s vent. The longer between gunshots and killing the better chance that the situation would resolve without further violence or the suspect taking their own life (which in these instances was sad but a much better trade-off than killing a hostage, the cops, their own family or the perpetrator coming out shooting and raising the likelihood of injury or death to the general public).
Other times, I was the self-deprecation guy. I call him “Old Homeless Pete”. I acted humble, modest and criticized myself and my crappy condition. Slowly, while completely, actively listening and responding, I eased the tension and turned some of the anger, hate and fear over to my plate, demonstrating that all of humans were fragile little snowflakes that make mistakes and no matter how bad the mistake, we can walk out of this room, house, fast food joint after a failed robbery attempt, with our heads up and start the healing process.
During negotiations you never lie. You never diminish the seriousness of the situation. You never joke.
But I will allow you that a very narrow and calculated message delivered with humor can provide necessary leverage in a very narrow bandwidth of situations.
So where did we leave The Nutty Professor?
Shelly was asleep and snoring before the opening credits were through. Lewis received the La Legion D’Honneur (legion of honor) medal from the French for his humor, but what you don’t know will make you laugh. During Lewis’s career, his films were dubbed in many languages for many countries. In France, all of his films were dubbed by Jacques Dynam. Jacques Dynam went off-script for almost every single line that he voiced-over for Jerry Lewis.
Think about it…who deserved the D’Honneur? Dynam never asked for permission he merely changed the dialogue intuitively thinking what he (and through him the French) would think was funny. In French, that’s called being a douche.
The French NEVER got to hear the INTENDED humor that was actually pouring out of Lewis’s mouth.
Training changes behavior.