Gallows humor, dark comedy or inappropriate jokes. Whatever name you know them by, the art of making funnies when the world is turning to ash is something that’s been observed among humans across time and geography. The last few years alone have provided more than their fair share of opportunities to grin our way through some grim reality, but why do humans turn to jokes at times of crisis?
In World War I, The Wipers Times went to print in the decimated city of Ypres, Belgium. So named because most of the soldiers reading it couldn’t pronounce Ypres (they said why-pers instead of ee-pruh), the satirical trench newspaper included sporting notes in which gas attacks were reported as a horse race, regular serials (one of the earliest: a detective series “Herlock Shomes”) and a Things We Want To Know section including: whether the pop’lar Poplar tree’s as pop’lar as it used to be?
“We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry,” reads one issue’s Notice Section. “Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other absently walking near the wire in deep communion with the muse. The editor would be obliged if a few of the poets would break into prose as a paper cannot live by ‘poems’ alone.”
The above clip is based on a real advert about a fake product that featured in the paper – one of many – from the film The Wipers Times based on the true story. The film, like the book (which brought together all 23 issues of the paper) demonstrates the remarkable good humor of soldiers living under constant fire, bombing, and the daily threat of fatal illness and/or injury.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, humans across the globe took to their windows, bathrooms, and balconies to showcase a similarly resilient sense of humor in the face of life-threatening disease, all while grappling with the stress and isolation of lockdown.
And as we move from one crisis to the next, amidst the devastation unfolding in Ukraine, hackers found the time to make Russian charging stations display the message: "Putin is a dickhead".
Consuming content about health crises and war through the medium of memes and TikTok might make you question their appropriateness, but psychologically speaking there’s nothing new or surprising about using humor to provide comfort at a difficult time.
“For some people, using memes to convey information can add both meaning and levity to very threatening situations,” said clinical psychologist Dr Carla Manly to Teen Vogue.
“By adding a dose of humor, more comical memes downplay the severity of crises. For example, a humorous meme oriented toward being drafted may, at its foundation, be based on a fear of being drafted. In such cases, memes may offer a dose of cathartic psychological relief.”
As well as circulating among the distressed masses, humor can also be used in clinical settings to “stress-proof children in conflict” according to a paper titled “Building resilience through humor”. Jokes can serve as “tension decontaminators” which can be deployed to demonstrate that if one person isn’t so stressed as to be unable to crack a joke, perhaps the problem isn’t as big as it seems, and this can have a calming effect.
“Humor can be used when individuals are under stress or perceive discomfort in others. In the midst of these moments, people rely on laughter and humor when attempting to remedy, cope with, and buffer a wide range of awkward, sensitive, embarrassing, fearful, anxious, atypical, strange, or abnormal situations,” reads a chapter preview from the publication “Cases on applied and therapeutic humor”.
“Therefore, humor may act as a powerful adaptive coping mechanism when confronted with adversity and is found to be positively correlated with resilience.”
In this way, the authors say, humor can help people weather what they call “health in the river of life” by using positive coping strategies to stay afloat in turbulent waters as a metaphor for meeting life’s challenges. To put it simply, pandemic memes and war TikToks can act like miniature buoyancy aids to keep us from slipping under.
Humor has acted as a lifeline during times of great stress for humans across time and geography, with perhaps the biggest difference from earlier examples to modern day being simply that the medium has changed. The advent of the Internet has seen correspondence go online, but the self-deprecating and ridiculous nature of the jokes made doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.
Rather than branding these jokes as innapropriate, perhaps we should see them as adaptations to life in what seem to be perpetually “unprecedented" times. Maintaining psychological wellbeing has been routinely linked to better physical health, and, as they say, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.