TED Conversations

Jim Moonan

Owner/Artistic Director, NorthWind Education

TEDCRED 50+

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What role do you think humor has in human discourse?

I am a huge proponent of humor used in small measures to enlighten and propel a conversation forward. It is a remarkably versatile and worthwhile ingredient to any recipe for unlocking truths. It has been my experience that TED conversations appear to largely forgo the use of humor as if it were MSG or some kind of unpronounceable chemical additive. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?

On the other hand, many TED talks are well-seasoned with humor and it is standard wisdom that most formal presentations need to be whetted with humor from time to time to keep things “real”.

I’m talking about wit. I’m talking about insightful humor. Twain-like quips. David Sedaris-like observations. Churchillian witticisms. Obama-like levity.

It’s a difficult subject to address seriously. Everyone is born with a sense of humor, yet so often it is kept under wraps when we talk “seriously” about issues.

I am NOT advocating for “laughs”. Not looking for jokes. Not interested in embarrassing someone or offending someone.

I am NOT talking about the “everybody is a comedian” syndrome that seems to infect social scenes nowadays. I am not talking about the pointless, baseless humor meant to shock and offend sensibilities.

I am NOT talking about controversial humor that acts like an irritant.

I am talking about human nature.

How do you feel about it?

Topics: World Peace
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    Nov 14 2011: I feel that everything needs to be in balance to be appreciated or even accepted by others. A sense of humor is great, IF those we are engaging with understand our humor. Sometimes, we may not be on the same page with our attempt at humor, so it is always a delicate balance. One thing my mom taught me, is that humor is as serious as any other emotion. Because we sometimes address issues with humor, does not mean that we are not as serious, as those who address the issue with other emotions. Listening to each other on many different levels sometimes gives us a clue as to where the other person is with the interaction.
  • Nov 16 2011: To me, humor is so deeply intertwined with a healthy sense of perspective and an open flow of joy in one's own life that it's hard for me to imagine a viewpoint that places humor into a box, somehow aside from the inherent experience of being alive. I get the sense that humor is being discussed here, somewhat, as a discrete tool, to be selected and put into play at chosen moments for mostly social reasons. I don't mean this with regard to the laughter-as-medicine, laughing-in-the-face-of-adversity comments, because of course that is one very powerful, healing aspect of humor. But what about noticing the absurdities of life, of human nature, that surround us constantly? What about noticing some silliness in your own actions or words, small or large, in the course of any given day? What about being surprised and delighted by the antics of a child, a pet, an animal in the tree outside?

    Laughter serves no purpose in us, biologically, beyond boosting endorphins and oxygen flow-- does this not imply that a sense of humor is a deeper, more essential and vital part of being alive than, say, earning your spot at the water-cooler with co-workers or winning admirers with a tactful but pithy newspaper column, etc. ...?
    I think that humor can be, and should be, a celebration and reveling in the lighter aspects of life. A certain amount of self-deprecating humor keeps one from taking themselves too seriously, and from being too poised for disappointment in their own inevitable follies. Noticing and relishing the absurdities in human nature all around us, in the media or in line at the grocery store, can actually foster a sense of affection and commonality with humanity, rather than feeding into a grim resentment or otherness. Allowing yourself to be surprised and amused by the smaller things in life... well, it just makes life a better experience. One's sense of humor (or lack thereof) is unique, but largely defines that person and their relationship to the universe.
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    Nov 14 2011: My father had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Everyone was devastated. We were all sitting in the hospital waiting area when he was escorted out by the nurse. He addressed us by saying, "First I had to get a teeth cleaning, now this." To me this is an example of humor at its benefical best.
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      Nov 15 2011: Dear Lynn,
      I understand this type of humor. My brother is going in for a 6-8 hour surgery early tomorrow morning for cancer. He is staying with me now, and says tonight...."well, at least I'll catch up on my sleep tomorrow".
      It is a way to short cuicuit anxiety, as well as bring positive energy to the situation.
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        Nov 15 2011: Exactly. My best to you and yours.
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          Nov 15 2011: "First I had to get a teeth cleaning, now this." Thanks for sharing this Lynn. We are lucky to learn from your wonderful Dad. It shows the importance of keeping things in perspective - come what may !!!!
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        Nov 15 2011: Dear Colleen, sending positive energy to your brother for his surgery....And double that to you. People who have a self-regulating program to short circuit own anxiety are blessings indeed. lolv (Lots of love).
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      Nov 16 2011: Dear Lynn and Juliette,
      Thank you for your loving kindness:>) My brother is heavily sedated and resting as peacefully as possible in ICU. After seeing him last night, it is difficult to connect with the feeling of humor at the moment, but my heart and mind are open to the possibilities. Thanks again for your loving energy:>)
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        Nov 16 2011: I understand that 'difficult to connect with humor for the moment'.
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      Nov 20 2011: Hi Don,
      Are you mentoring now, cause I need a humor mentor. :-) :-) Seriously!!
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    Nov 19 2011: so so,first I want to say that I am not so good in English,but I'll try to express myself. As an accountant who isn't doing so well in english I will answer with equation ...
    1) speach without humor=boring line of words but
    2) speach including humor=delisious brekfast)))))
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      Nov 19 2011: That is sweet Marianna. I have met very few accountants capable of good humor. I specially like your #2 "speech including humor = delicious breakfast". Keep well.
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        Nov 20 2011: )))Really?I am amused.It is not so in my country...when i was writing #2 I meant that such conversation may be more effective
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    Nov 18 2011: Jim, it doesn't surprise me that a (fellow) Bostonian would pose this question; puritan roots, Catholic stigma, 86-year Series drought, endless winters, logjam traffic- a wry sense of humor has become hardwired into our DNA as a necessary trait for survival!
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      Nov 19 2011: What kind of a name is that????????????????? Tell me you walk your dog in Cunnigham Park.
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      Nov 19 2011: LOL!!!
      Milton and Jim,
      Now I understand where the sense of humor comes from..."puritan roots, catholic stigma...endless winters".... "a wry sense of humor has become hardwired into our DNA as a necessary trait for survival"!!! Funny...and maybe true!

      I'm in northern Vt., near the Canadian border, so I don't have the traffic, but we do have much longer, colder winters. When I worked in Boston, people used to be surprised that I looked younger than my actual age. My response was often..."I live in Vermont, and frozen meat doesn't spoil" :>)
  • Nov 16 2011: Like many of you below, some years ago a family member also had terminal cancer. What he decided to do, though, was throw a party to bring all his friends from across the lands and generations, and he entitled it "It's All About John". There were Johns of all stripes there: Long John Silver, Olivia Newton John, my uncle wore onesie long johns, Pope John Paul, a Johnsonsville Bratwurst, someone even wore a toilet seat around their neck. It was hilarious, and offered us all (many of whom didn't know each other from... John) an opportunity to come together, find common ground, all with hilarious conversation starters.
    Humour in the face of immense adversity is one of the most admirable things i can imagine, and indeed helps keep us human and (relatively) sane in the most difficult situations, and keeps us down to earth in the most mundane, common ones.
    Thanks John for reminding me of this.
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    Nov 16 2011: I feel use of humour (of course appropritate one ) makes communication more effective and enjoyable hence ensures higher retention of the message.

    Wit is even better..... well it seems there is a very fine line between humour and wit.....but defintely both needs a strong presence of mind ....ability of quick thinking on feet....

    Wit & Humour is more related with EQ than IQ , that is another point I feel......
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      Nov 19 2011: The key is balancing EQ and IQ. I really appreciate how beautifully explained here by Salim : " appropriate humor makes communication more effective and enjoyable hence ensures higher retention of the message."
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        Nov 19 2011: Loved your point of balancing EQ & IQ Juliette, that's so vital :)
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        Nov 19 2011: Out of thumbs up but I loved your profound point about balancing EQ and IQ, Juliette.
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    Nov 15 2011: Oh yes humour. I live for it. I love it. Laughter therapy! Yes its a great stress release. A great bringer together of people. An easy feeling. of fun and laughter. Apparently 70% of all things we laugh at are not discernably funny. and we laugh at our own humour more than anyone elses. (Social Animal , David Brooks). Too much of anything however is bad thing. apparently in 60's in an African village a student started laughing followed by the teacher followed by the class followed by the class next door followed by the whole village. This laughter continued for hours then into the night and then for days. It became dangerous and people became ill. They had to bring in the medics and the army. Mirror neurons on a feedback loop out of control? Or something in the water? Laughing - I crave it! I make it happen. my mother had a wonderful knack of turning adversity into laughter. Humour is beautiful - long as you're not hurting anyone. It makes you healthy and well again. We are attracted to funny people .
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    Nov 15 2011: I love the stories that Lynn and Colleen shared so I will share one more.
    At the very sad funeral of my brother-in-law who died of an accelerated Alzheimers at only 46, my sister-in-law and I were standing close together to get support and comfort from one another (a very bad idea because we have a tendency to laugh when we are under stress especially if we are together and we were very stressed). She was waiting to get into the limo behind the hearse when suddenly she grabbed me and pointed at the license plate of the hearse which had the name of the funeral parlor and the number one. Then she looked at the licence plate of the limo and she started to shake with supressed laughter. The hearse's plate was Amigone1 and the way we read the limo's plate? Am I Gone Too?
    Game over! All of the emotions that we had bottled up came spilling out in a laughing fit for both of us which, though terribly inappropriate, released a lot of stress.
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    Nov 14 2011: For me, I have a self-deprecation type of humor, which keeps me humble and not developing am omnipotent point of view.. I have noticed a lack of humor or light-heartedness with-in these conversations as well. Possibly the nature of topics discussed are of such serious nature some are concerned that any attempt in non-offensive humor will be seen as diminishing the topic. Perhaps, a majority of people who comment are involved one way or another with the topic at hand, either by teaching or life-situations. At any rate, there are those of us who use humor or stories that have a light-hearted tone, to exemplify or describe a topic or idea or debate. I believe -in and support what TED stands for and for the platform they use. I believe over time the percieved "anti-humor" establishment will be overthrown. Peace.
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    Nov 27 2011: Here are some things I came across while doing one paper. First one to talk about it was Socrates. He believed that humor is what we call immune system of a body and imagined it physical as what we call lymph. Since than, we haven't progressed a lot. There is no official definition. The ones that exist are more of descriptive nature and everybody agree on how hard it is to study it. Humor became studied in collages only in past decade, and still only in very few institutions in world. There is no official classification. I found one with 77 described types, and they where described only by using one comic situation. In order to study humor, you also have to look deeply into the laughter. It is more determined and has 7 types. There is one important detail: in every type of humor lies something that is illogical for our minds and has laughter as reaction to that lac of logic. There is so many details I discovered, but this box is to small for listing all :)

    I call humor a system of communication. I believe you are quite right when you say it can bring world peace. I am media person fascinated with group communication, especially manipulation of masses and this moment when mass starts being dominated with a kind of common mind that receives simple orders and does not question them. It is well known pattern, and people leading crowds know how to use it. It is very dangerous and unfair as well. I have seen it working in practice. Now, mass media have one common problem: by their very definition they use only mass communication, that as a consequence always calls for peoples mass mind, and prevent them from analytically thinking. Now, what I believe in, and would be happy to devote my life to is researching how that pattern of communication with a mass mind works when you put humor in it . My thesis is that humor has power of breaking patterns of manipulation and bringing individual thinking. I also believe that is good enough to make the world more peaceful place.
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      Nov 28 2011: You and I feel the same... :)

      I would love to know more about your research on humor and laughter and it's affect on people's lives - and how it can play a roll in advancing world peace. I, too, am very interested in the subject and am currently using it as a teaching tool with young children.

      Thanks for joining the conversation!
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        Nov 28 2011: Well, for starters, I could try and translate my work to English, and I would be glad to share it. Its titled "Ethic of black humor and its usage in business communication". It has good research structure of humor itself, and also proved me that I had no idea what black humor is. So I ended up discovering what I first chose to write thinking I had a point. Further more, I could recommend some literature I was using (and still am piling up), and finally I would love to discuss and share knowledge and opinion on this matter. I have to admit you inspired me, since I paused my academic studies and never done another work on this subject (once I actually got the point). Thank you for that. Contact me through email for sharing work. I'm looking forward to continuing this conversation.
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    Nov 25 2011: The role of humor is the release of tension.

    Laughing is as old as our species lived within close groups.
    Even with other primates it is common to show teeth when threatened and by doing this pulling the corners of the mouth back. The release of any threat or insecurity leads to the relaxation of the mouth and pulls the corners up.
    This relaxation is read from the face by other members in the group which tell them that everything is safe. With this one could express and communicate a good feeling a signal not to be frightened.

    In the course of time human beings found all kinds of ways to give each other a good feeling as with humor it still is to build a kind of tension and to suddenly take away the reason. And with a nice smile you are accessible which we call friendly.

    Humor has to fit with any sort of people we interact with. The wit of one isn’t understood by another. The joke can give a good laugh while it is offensive by another group.

    Humor is based on culture and agreements and seldom is funny outside the group or language you live. If someone uses humor too often it can be really boring.
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    Nov 24 2011: Seeing discrepancy between imagination and reality.
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      Nov 24 2011: Ah! I like that kind of humor much more than joke telling.
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    Nov 24 2011: Paul - Such pressure!

    Q: Why did the potato chip start to cross the road but stop in the middle?

    A: Because there was a dip in the road.

    To be frank, I think there is humor embedded in almost everything. You've just got to find it.

    -But then again, I'm not Frank.

    (did you see it coming?)
  • Nov 24 2011: First good presentations typically include humor....the purpose being to connect. http://www.techsupportalert.com/content/100-incredible-lectures-world-s-top-scientists.htm is a site that illustrates this (also enjoy). Humor from a "how did it evolve"" point is also a very interesting subject (with little research). While there are opinions on what humor is, an unexpected surprise is one, the more interesting question perhaps is it's use and development in early man. 'If you can relate to The peek-a-boo game parents play with young children the question is what are they responding to. While "surprise" might be part of it I think relief (removal of fear) may be also. And as we or at least most of us know laughter can defuse a situation and reduce tension. Anyone caring to follow this line of thinking??? Maybe laughter is the best medicine.
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    Nov 19 2011: 'Like all young men I set out to be a genius, but mercifully laughter intervened.'
    Lawrence Durrell

    I reckon we sometimes all take ourselves too seriously and would benefit from allowing a bit of more genuine humor into our lives.
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    Nov 19 2011: Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is. – Francis Bacon

    Humor is by far the most significant activity of the human brain. – Edward de Bono

    ---

    If you can use humour well, it's a good idea. If you cannot, it's a bad idea.

    I have a friend who has absolutely no sense of humour. He's a nice guy, everyone likes him but he cannot engage in any form of humour whatsoever. It's interesting to see. Most of us can use a little humour. Not this guy.

    Once, when he was laughing (because he was nervous) another friend actually left the room because it scared them.

    I'm not kidding.
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    Nov 18 2011: I still am getting the sense from most of the responses here that the point I would like discussed is being missed. I'm not interested in "funny". I'm interested in humor as an integral part of human discourse.

    Here are some examples of a few of my favorite people who use humor to shed light:
    Barack Obama to reporters as he disembarked from Air Force 1 in Cannes, France to attend the G20 summit 2 weeks ago: "I'm here to watch a few good movies".
    Larry David in response to a question about whether or not there is any topic that is “out of bounds” as a subject for humor (I’m paraphrasing from a radio interview on NPR) “No. It’s all about context. How you treat a subject humorously is all about finding the right context within which to address the humor hidden within it. I’m a miner for humor”

    David Sedaris said this in his book entitled, “Me Talk Pretty One Day”: “Every day we're told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it's always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it's startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are 'We're number two'.”
    For me, Mark Twain is the Shakespeare of humor (although Shakespeare was funny in spots, too). Twain said, “The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”

    Here is another Twain quote from “Following the Equator” - “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” Mark Twain,

    And this: “The humorous writer professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness--your scorn for untruth, pretension, imposture....He takes upon himself to be the week-day preacher”.

    I absolutely love gentle humor.
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      Nov 19 2011: Jim,

      As a fan of Shakespeare humor which fits Twain's definition (though rumors related to both might be highly exaggerated), I suggest what you are getting at is irony.

      Both were masters of the mirrored, multi-prismic double- (and more) entendres, that walk the tight-walk of truth without stooping to clobber it into cognitions.

      The thrill comes when one can hear its balancing tensions and teeter in the higher-consciousness airs, too.

      If only for a moment before toppling to try and straddle which meaning is truer. Or worse, falling hard back to the concrete, where life's concussions render one unconscious to it's higher-art blends of yin/yangish humor.

      I'd add Woody Allen and Jon Stewart whose latter-day labors are not lost to true lovers of irony. Though successfully show up for sleepers only later.

      Andrea
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        Nov 20 2011: "The thrill comes when one can hear its balancing tensions and teeter in the higher-consciousness airs, too." That is beautiful !! This goes into my keepsakes highlighted and underlined. Thanks Andrea.:)
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          Nov 21 2011: Juliette - although I obviously hold humor in high regard, I actually don't "get out" that much! I know of the Improv Asylum here in Boston but have never attended. I was in Chicago a few months ago and made a pilgrimage to Second City, which was a real treat.

          I developed a "playshop" for children entitled, "Funny Bones" that gives young children a chance to hone their comedic skills through skits, standup, etc. It is a different experience for boys than it is for girls at a young age, so it is offered separately to each.
          Parents of boys are looking for a constructive outlet for their many times borderline appropriate attempts at humor while parents of girls are usually looking for a way to help them break out of their seriousness/shyness. Interesting...
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        Nov 20 2011: Andrea!

        Tonight (Sunday 11/20) on PBS at 9pm EST: "American Masters:Woody Allen, A Documentary"
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      Nov 19 2011: Dear Jim,
      If the point you "would like discussed is being missed", I guess it would be helpful if you would direct the discussion more to your point?

      If we look at the definition of humor, there is a very braod understanding of what humor is, so it's not surprising that people on this thread are expressing a broad basis of what humor is to us/them. Humor can mean different things at different times, and be expressed and recieved in many different ways.

      "The highest form of bliss is living with a certain degree of folly"
      (Erasmus)

      Perhaps "living with a certain degree of folly" allows us to see/feel many forms and expressions of humor?
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        Nov 19 2011: I guess I am looking for us to pay homage to humor as a vital part of our existence. (Did I sound like I was scolding the group of responders to this question? Shame on me – no soup for me!)

        I think every comment made thus far is beautiful. Together they are revealing how complex and how cunning humor is. It takes on so many forms, slips into so many situations, and even rears its ugly head in places where it doesn't belong! That is humor.

        I absolutely love the beautiful, gentle humor that is laced with sorrow. I hope to be using it in copious amounts someday when I need it most.
        Your beautiful story below and a few others here are living proof that humor is so powerful it can take our breath away.

        But back to paying homage to humor... What makes you laugh? What kind of humor enriches your day-to-day life? Thomas points out that there are people in this world who are humorless (see below). Imagine being devoid of humor! People like that are at a real disadvantage. It's almost akin to being loveless - imagine that!

        Yes, Jon Stewart (and in my opinion Stephen Colbert even more so) are virtuosos at using humor to enlighten and lighten. For me they both are like an elixir for the mental/psychic brutality that we are all suffer from as a result of being so plugged-in to what is happening to our world. I take one dose of Stewart and one dose of Colbert daily and I'm good to go :)

        I love Thomas's quotes and I always love Andrea's angle on subjects and this one is no exception (see Andrea’s word play above). Which is also another form of humor (word play).

        Charlie Chaplin needs to be mentioned. He is a treasure of humor. Who else? How about more quotes on the topic?
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          Nov 19 2011: I don't percieve you "scolding" Jim, I am interested to understand what, to you, is "missing" from this discussion. I see many examples on this thread of how people pay "homage to humor as a vital part of our existence". I'm hearing that...feeling that aspect of humor, expressed in many different ways in this discussion. So, again, I'm wondering why you say you are... "getting the sense from most of the responses here that the point I would like discussed is being missed". It seems that there is another perspective that you would like to discuss...what is it? That's what I'm saying...if there is something missing for you in this discussion...bring it on:>)
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        Nov 19 2011: I think all people who are humorless should be put in a special Humor Treatment facility. Then we should hire comedians, funny people, satirists and jesters as therapists and treat them them with humor until they are cured.

        By the way, I can't stand humor 24/7. No where near thjat much!! That is a nightmare! Run away from those people!!
        As I said in my introduction, humor is an "ingredient" to a recipe for living a fully enriched life. Too much or too little cause the whole thing to taste bad.
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          Nov 19 2011: Jim,
          I don't believe people are "humorless". I feel that it is a very natural emotion/feeling/expression. That being said, however, it seems that some people are uncomfortable using it, or accepting it? Sometimes people are taught it is inappropriate to use humor. We're sometimes taught that as adults, we "should" be more serious about life. My mom taught me that humor is just as serious as all other emotions, and the expression of humor, just as important for balance in our lives.

          I couldn't take humor 24/7 either because for me, it's important to have balance....as you say...it's an "ingredient" to the recipe of life. It's another part of our "self" and it helps to fully understand all parts of "self" and how, why, when, where and with whom we use the parts of "self":>)
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          Nov 19 2011: Hi Jim, I love your idea of a "humor treatment facility". Here we have the "Improv Asylum" which is a decent facility you can check yourself into occasionally. Certainly that 2-3 hours a year is no where near enough "treatment time". I think a humor reach-out program is essential to help those seriously deprived and under-served populations living in extended gray climates. lol.
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        Nov 19 2011: OK! Uncle!! I give up!!!!

        I agree with you (didn't I say I did in my last response?? Don't get me mad or I'll start another conversation about anger and it's place in human discourse... kidding - maybe)

        Here is what I said in my first response to your questioning what it is I feel is missing from this conversation: "I think every comment made thus far is beautiful. Together they are revealing how complex and how cunning humor is."

        I mean that! I don't know why I said that people were missing my point - they aren't. I guess I was just prodding people to keep digging.

        As for humorless people, look at Thomas's comment above. He knows someone who is essentially unable to let humor into his life. I know a few too. Maybe not humorless, but humor-deprived.

        Yes, the secret is in the recipe.
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          Nov 19 2011: Jim !!
          You TAAALKIN' to me ????
          You talkin' to me ??
          You talkin' to me ??
          YOU talkin' to me ??
          are you talkin' to ME ??
          are YOU talking TO me ??
          :-):-)
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          Nov 19 2011: Dear Juliette,
          I got the notice, so it looks like he's talking to me??? Maybe BOTH of us???

          Well, he DID say "UNCLE" ....that's "proof"...it means we won...we're "right" Juliette!!! LOL:>)

          I KNOW you were "prodding people to keep digging" Jim,...that's why I was "prodding" you back...LOL:>)

          "Unable to let humor into his life" is different than one being "humorless" huh? I think/feel humor lives in our heart. Whether or not we allow it to be stimulated is a choice. Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons people are unable or unwilling to experience humor in their lives.
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        Nov 19 2011: Ahem....Juliette. I don't recall you raising your hand. Sit down please. I was talking to Colleen.

        Colleen. Stand up please. When I said "uncle" I was referring to my Uncle Bill who used to tickle torture me.

        (Colleen, yes, I was referring to you!! I give up easily but watch out - my fingers are usually crossed)

        :):):):):):):):)>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
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          Nov 19 2011: All of you made me really laugh...in a giggle way. :)
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          Nov 19 2011: Giggles are just as good as belly laughs:-) :-)
          I say given openness of minds, we can indeed share humor in computer-mediated-communication (CMC). I feel KEEPING OUR MINDS OPEN IS ACTUALLY A PREREQUISITE TO BEING ABLE TO SHARE HUMOR, be it in the face to face or the CMC interaction.
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          Nov 23 2011: OK Jim...I'm standing again:>)
          I was leaning for a few days when my bro was in ICU, and it was difficult to connect with humor. He's out of ICU now, and doing well:>)

          I think I know EXACTLY what you meant when you cried "Uncle"...your words...
          "OK! Uncle!! I give up!!!!" I understand that statement completely:>)

          Thanks for the warning...your humor is appreciated:>)
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      Nov 20 2011: Jim,

      I can't read David Sedaris or Bill Bryson in public--they make me laugh that hard.

      From Bryson--

      “(...) at least I still had my wits about me. Or at least I felt as if I did. Presumably, a confused person would be too addled to recognize that he was confused. Ergo, if you know that you are not confused then you are not confused.

      Unless, it suddenly occurred to me - and here was an arresting notion - unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel, early symptom of confusion. Or even an advanced symptom. Who could tell?

      For all I knew I could be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state characterized by the fear on the part of the sufferer that he may be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state.”

      ― Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

      Andrea
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      Nov 20 2011: Jim,

      From another favorite, Anne Lamott:

      "“Laughter is carbonated holiness.”

      Andrea
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    Nov 16 2011: I think humor is useful and here below is why I think humor is a great teacher. In my opinion some of that masters of wit in this form were Abraham Lincoln, along with Mulla Nasrudin from whom I learned so much.

    Through humor our body relaxes from its fight/flight mode to a receptive awareness. When humor doesn't point in a flippant manner that causes someone to be shamed ..... we find we laugh at ourselves and later reflect on how many times in the past that could have been used.

    One example I borrowed from President Lincoln, was his story about the steam engine - (Paraphrasing) There is a steam engine that produces 120 pound of pressure; to run the engine took 80, and to blow the whistle took 70. So when ever the whistle blows the engine stops." I would tell this to my workers when they would lean on their tools and start a beautiful philosophical conversation. In time, they would catch themselves 'blowing the whistle', smile, and go back to work. The nice thing about this, was, they would Smile .... If I had directly gotten on their case about their excessive talking I would have put them directly into fight/flight mode. humor allowed me to by pass that.
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    Nov 16 2011: I love the way humour breaks the ice, breaks stalemates, breaks tension and builds rapport. In many TED conversations it helps to move things forward. It is evident though that humour sometimes goes over people's heads, is taken concretely or that two people's sense of humour just doesn't match. Maybe it is a real skill to deliver humour in written form?
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    Nov 16 2011: I believe we all want to operate from a standpoint of "we come in peace", but knowing little about who you engage in conversation with puts a strain on letting your guards down. Humor in conversation can loosen that tension if used in the proper way. Humor holds great power, some never learn to unlock it and use it as a tool.
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    Nov 15 2011: There are two sorts of humor: appropriate and inappropriate.
    The former is all good. It demolishes akwardness and embarassment. It relaxes; defuses; comforts; energizes; motivates; encourages; restores; and calms.
    The latter has the opposite effect. As the Latin proverb says: "It is not humor to be malignant."
    There is a trend today to blur the distinction. Offensive, pointless, hurtful "humor" is put forth as acceptable, appropriate humor. Sometimes the line is fuzzy but decency and compassion clarify on which side of the line an idea belongs.
    Thomas Carlyle said: "True humor springs not more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt, its essence is love; it issues not in laughter, but in still smiles, which lie far deeper."
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      Nov 15 2011: It's interesting to me at this early point in the conversation how quick we are to condemn the inappropriate form of humor (I did it, too, in my introductory comments)

      I'm not sure where to begin so that we can step away from that aspect of humor. There is no doubt that humor is sometimes used to insult, denigrate, belittle and hurt people. What I would like for people to share and become more aware of here in this conversation is the incredible power humor has to enlighten, inform, overcome prejudices, etc. There are so many examples...

      Edward, I understand your point in lumping humor into two categories - appropriate and inappropriate - but disagree. I would suggest that humor deemed "inappropriate" is in fact not humor, and that humor takes on many different forms and serves many different purposes.

      The one all of us are most familiar with is comedy. Joke tellers, stand-up, sit-coms, etc. that kind of humor is fun, entertaining and a way to escape our thoughts for awhile.

      Then there is the kind of dark humor that Lynne, Debra and Colleen talked about that helps us cope with sadness.

      One thing that strikes me about humor as an art form is that it is as personal as music. What is funny to one person may not be as funny to another… and riotously funny to yet another… and offensive to yet another.

      I am primarily interested in the art form. The kind embedded in the wits of people like the dear deceased Andy Rooney, writers like David Sedaris, politicians like Barack Obama, performers like Stephen Colbert, Steve Martin and Larry David and the classic literary satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. I also think Dr. Seuss is a comedic writer/poet and that is partly why children love his writing so much. My tastes. Maybe not yours...

      That’s the kind of humor that I think is vital to human discourse.
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        Nov 15 2011: Oops! I aimed at the target next to yours. Sorry.
        Do you disagree with me that there is such a thing as inappropriate humor, whether it be in timing or content?
        To change my aim to your target, I think the many benefits of appropriate humor are conducive and vivifying to conversation when used wisely.
        There is a time for humor and a time for sobriety, and this is not it! :-)
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          Nov 15 2011: That's funny!
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          Nov 27 2011: Huck Finn was actually deemed inappropriate when it was written, for the exact same reason Chappelle is considered offensive today. It pokes fun at religion and traditional values, where there is room for it. Often poking particular fun at the devout christians contradictory views on race. At the end of the book Huck says something like "If helping Jim sends me straight to hell, well then I reckon that's where I ought to be".

          Southern churches hated Huck Finn. Also it's vulgar, and it's a childrens story... The exact question you now ask me about. Should children be told, that when they grow up, men become slaves to hormones, and do all sorts of rediculous stuff to impress women... Yes I think they should be told that.

          I think children should also be told, that if you live in a culture, that thinks saving a runaway slave sends you straight to hell... You ought to go to hell, and be proud of it. I think the problem is that no one even remembers what traditional values are anymore, so they're fighting for slavery, censorship, and war, and calling it traditional values. Any culture that doesn't tell its children the truth is destined to have stupid children. Of course, that's my extreme minority opinion, I could be wrong.
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        Nov 16 2011: Ooh... Appropriate and inappropriate... that's a dangerous distinction... Who decides who gets to make it? Is it whoever is most sensitive and easily offended? Whoever's in charge...

        I occasionally reference one of my favorite Chappelle quotes, on the rare occasion I get to engage in an honest discourse about mascullinity and femininity in modern culture "If a man could fuck a beautiful woman in a hole in the ground... He wouldn't buy a house!". Once you've admitted that, in front of four or five people, the conversation gets a lot more personal, and people feel much more comfortable sharing some of their real experiences in the sharing of power that goes on in real relationships. "Lincoln needed to see that play like he needed a hole in the head".

        A recent South Park about how broadway is all an enormous scam to trick wives into giving their husbands blowjobs... but at the end they come to the conclusion that it's kind of nice... In the "Book of Mormon", where they talk about how Mormonism is one of the craziest dumbest religions on the planet, but so are they all, and in the end... It's kind of nice.

        The second that you say a type of humor is inappropriate, it means you might be in favor of creating some sort of organization that sensors humor. "Huck Finn" was inappropriate when it was written.As George Orwell said "Every joke is a tiny revolution". Thus all jokes are inherently inappropriate.
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          Nov 26 2011: I think knock-knock jokes are appropriate in a kindergarden classroom full of five-year-olds.
          Would you feel censored (notice the correct spelling) if you were asked to not to share your favorite Chappelle quote with those same little ones?
          Would you consider it to be "kind of nice" to share your South Park story with a devout, gentle Mormon grandma?
          You say Huck Finn was inappropriate (someone is being censorious), upon what do you base such a statement?
          David, I think you are wrong to insist that honoring the accepted standards of appropriateness is tantamount to censorship. Do you really not have small voice inside telling you that you should not be vulgar and obscene with anyone and everyone anytime?
          You are a raucous firebrand, ever vigilant against the specter of decency, propriety and convention. You will, with time, grow out of it.
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    Nov 15 2011: Laughter is medicine. Good humor is essential for our well being. So I would say good humor is preventive medicine and a way of healing. I feel there is definitely more need for humor in our daily interactions. "Humor is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement. The term derives from the humoral medicine." Also disease and cancer is when there is "bad humor" in the body.
    Thanks for a great topic/question Jim.
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    Nov 14 2011: Jim --

    Humor can be a powerful catalyst for pivoting serious conversations.

    And, in certain rhetorical or relational realms where tensions are high and conversations are stalled, it is simply all that will work. And beats contempt, which is often where energies of such stalls devolve.

    The trick is balance.

    What is funny in a way that enlivens the dialogue at one point and connects it to constructive ends can be annoying or offensive if overdone at another.

    This requires the same alertness to interpersonal cues and social behaviors as one would have during a serious discussion.

    As I tell my kids: funny once not fifty-times. Though, they'd say I don't always practice what I preach.

    Andrea
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      Nov 15 2011: Andrea, my kids are the ones who feel that I need remedial humour classes. They are convinced that I am the corniest person in the world and that one of their siblings is just as handicapped in the sophisticated humour department. That is so funny because Daniel and I are cracked up by our own jokes!
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    Nov 14 2011: Humor helps defuse the emotions of fear and suspicion (in tense situations) so people can regain rationality. Sometimes a laugh lets everyone put things into perspective.... and resume working together to solve problems....
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    Nov 28 2011: Great !! NOW you tell us !!
    I was so busy memorizing what you are and what you are not talking about and stretching my brain that I completely missed out on the two small words at the bottom. You mean the answer to your puzzle was written on the face page all along ??!! ThanksALOT ;-) :-)
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    Nov 28 2011: Telling jokes, especially little ironies, but failing to help your audience with the convincing delivery visage, are doomed to failure. The result is often more discomfort of the audience than the shared delight of the tellers Wit.