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The psychological connection between humor and tragedy

Mankind has endured no greater tragedy than the Holocaust, but that hasn’t stopped comedians from joking about it over the years, nor audiences from laughing. Take a classic 2004 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the comedy series by Larry David, that centers on a Holocaust survivor named Solly. One night Solly comes to a dinner party expecting to meet a fellow survivor. There’s been a mix-up, though, and the person who arrives is Colby Donaldson — a contestant from the Survivor reality show. One thing leads to another, and Solly and Colby get into a heated debate over who is the tougher survivor.

“You never even suffered one minute in your life compared to what I went through, ” says Solly.

“I couldn’t even work out when I was over there, ” says Colby. “They certainly didn’t have a gym.”

The fact that people can find some humor in a tragedy of genocidal proportions suggests there’s nothing we can’t find a little funny — at least when it’s presented right. Great thinkers throughout history have recognized this unusual tendency to poke light at dark times. Plato felt humor was the mixture of pleasure and pain; Mark Twain once said, “Humor is tragedy plus time.” What’s become clearer to psychological scientists lately is just why we have the ability to find comedy in tragedy, and just how well humor helps us cope with the various stressors of existence.

“Humor arises from potentially negative situations, ” says behavioral scientist Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado. “That’s counterintuitive for obvious reasons: why does something so good originate from something potentially bad or wrong?”



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