March felt like a decade. April feels like one long fool. Things are getting serious. The infection rate reached a million, necessary equipment is in shortage and we’re facing rising threats to public freedom.
Brands have reacted with utility. Making masks, donating delivery fleets, turning labs over for scientific use. The reactions have been swift and necessary, as we fight to flatten the curve. But as the weeks stretch into months we’ll need more beyond the serious and the helpful. We need levity. We need laughter. Because if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.
A sign outside a comic shop in Chicago reads “we will hold, ship, or throw comics at your car as you drive by.” Anchor Julie Banderas asks “how long is this social distancing supposed to last? My husband keeps trying to get into the house.” Humour has both confronted the crisis and acted as easy escapism. Who hasn’t seen multiple gummy bear concerts? Everything from the horse challenge to home adaptations of art has provided detached relief from the world’s events.
It’s a biologically universal response. The human being is, almost by definition, the only animal in the world to laugh. Humor has been part of the behavior of humans for thousands of years. And since Antiquity, we’ve used it to make light of dark situations.
Plato felt humor was the mixture of pleasure and pain. Freud, famously, saw laughter as a form of ‘relief.’ If we were to laugh at a joke about (say) a virus, what Freud said causes our diaphragm to expand and contract is the release of psychic energy that would otherwise have been used to suppress our anxiety about said virus. LOL.
Another, the ‘incongruity theory’ sees laughter as a response to the illogical or the unexpected. It’s clear that humour has always had a relationship with misfortune, and yet laughter feels much the same in every context in which it occurs. A dizzying release. As Stephen Colbert observed on the night Trump was elected: “You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time.”
Humour is healing. The late Robert R. Provine, a professor at the University of Maryland, and the leading expert in laughter, concluded ‘laughter is primarily a social vocalisation that binds people together.’ It’s a means of bonding. However happy we may feel alone, laughter is a social signal we send to others and it virtually disappears when we lack company.
The past few weeks have ignited an abundance of texts from neighbours, colleagues and old friends. Teams of WhatsApp groups formed whose primary function seems to be the exchange of lo-fi memes. ‘My mum has a PhD on coronavirus from WhatsApp university,’ tweeted one user. And we pass them on, sharing and forwarding to the next person we know needs to laugh as much as we had. Through these exchanges, we’re reaching out and establishing a shared experience.
That’s something brands can play a part in. Right now, eliciting laughter is akin to a public service. Sloggi’s ‘Mind-Blowingly Light’ campaign provided a much needed sense of escapism.
The BBC is releasing a set of “Seriously, Stay at Home” films in response to the crisis, with the help of some of its best shows. In one from last week, Malcolm Tucker yells “Right people, listen up. It’s a f***ing lockdown right now. This is the f***ing Shawshank Redemption, but with more tunnelling through s*** and no f***ing redemption.” You can’t not crack a smile.
Small acts, like this, feel incredibly big. Right now, providing relief is as valuable as providing masks. Whilst apart, humour keeps us connected. But today, all work looks pretty much the same. Stay home and thanks and togetherness. These sentiments are necessary, but like Zoom it can be hard to hear who’s talking. Brands, your role isn’t just serious utility, there’s a need to entertain as well. It suits both you and Britain. We all need a break from the noise.