My cousin died of alcohol poisoning. At his memorial service, his younger brother described in his eulogy a Native American mythic figure, the god of alcoholics, thieves, tricksters, and comedians.
In Greek mythology the god of wine is Dionysius, the god of thieves is Hermes—those roles are split—but the two gods share affinities. Both break rules, flout authority, engage in radical transformations. There is something precocious about both, and something similar in the way they each blend pain and play.
Most dictionaries supply two definitions for “pratfall”: “1) to fall on one’s buttocks 2) a humiliating mishap or blunder.” Most dictionaries refine the first, to specify this fall is “often accomplished for comedic purposes or laughs.”
Trying to explain the relationship between pain and humor, I once said to my students, “That’s why we can’t help laughing when we see someone fall down a series of stairs.” My bravest student raised her eyebrows, making me self-conscious. “What? You all don’t find pain funny?” I asked. That’s when they laughed, because I was aghast, though not (as they imagined) merely pretending to be.
Why do we laugh at pain and humiliation?
The first cartoons I loved depicted the extreme violence that the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon on The Simpsons barely hyperbolizes: Wile E. Coyote, falling hundreds of feet into chasms, emerging mangled and stumbling, anthill-lumps climbing from his head. The roadrunner would sometimes laugh-beep derisively, but Bugs Bunny, the coolest of bystanders, wouldn’t crack a smile. He’d munch on a carrot, blithely observing the mayhem he produced, while his injured enemies raged.
Comedians, along with surgeons and litigators, are professionals who suffer high rates of depression.
Studies have shown that laughter literally relieves pain: headaches and cramps abate when people watch sitcoms.
When I was a graduate student, I held office hours at an outdoor café full of small trees with knobby branches—trees that looked like they were screaming, according to my sister, or as if they had burst forth from the eyes of potatoes. In these branches perched clamorous birds. Once a student of mine, wearing an expensive, brown leather jacket, got shat on twice by a bird. This happened within half an hour. The second time he was angry and upset, though clearly trying to control his temper around me, his teacher, who had stuck him in the precarious location where he was defecated upon by birds. Simultaneously I was trying to control, less successfully, my compulsion to laugh. I considered telling him many cultures viewed getting shat on by birds lucky, but resisted this urge.
My sister, after her surgery that cut her stomach muscles, pleaded “Don’t make me laugh! It hurts to laugh.”
The “funny bone,” the elbow, is one of the tenderest parts of the body, most sensitive to injury. A tap that would barely register elsewhere is felt on the elbow as acute pain.
Consider why the denouement of a joke is called the “punchline.”
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com