Steve Bhaerman is an author and comedian who has spent the past 30 years performing cosmic comedy in the guise of Swami Beyondananda. He also coaches and consults with others to help them add humorous wisdom to their content. Here, he offers us a unique perspective on the power of laughter to bridge divides — an inspiring contribution as part of our ongoing series to inspire everyone to #PledgeToListen.
"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people."
Victor Borge should know. For years, the musician-comedian was a one-man international ambassador for laughter and goodwill. More recently, physician-turned-clown Patch Adams has toured the world with his clown posse “speaking” the language that transcends language, silent physical comedy. In 2013, comic Gabriel Iglesias (aka "Fluffy") had a breakthrough trip to Saudi Arabia, where despite the cultural restrictions, his kind yet edgy comedy was a huge hit. And ... sometimes the power of humor can be anything but "fluffy".
Economist John Kenneth Galbraith tells of a group of American and Soviet economists meeting to discuss trade possibilities at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. When news of the missile crisis hit, everything stopped, and there was tremendous tension in the room. Finally, a Soviet delegate timidly raised his hand and suggested they go around and tell jokes. He volunteered to start: "What’s the difference between capitalism and communism?"
"In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around."
The room erupted in laughter, the tension was broken and they were able to continue the meeting because “levity” uplifted them enough to see from a higher perspective.
As a comedian, I have taken that story to heart, and have dedicated my work to building bridges through humor. That’s tricky, because humor is necessarily edgy, and "too nice" just isn’t funny. The trick is to point the audience — regardless of which "side" they identify with — toward some universal truth or foible we humans share, and do it in a way that deconstructs ideas that need to be deconstructed while "leaving people standing".
In 2009, I had the privilege of performing comedy at an event called the Transpartisan Citizens Summit. As the name suggests, every political viewpoint was represented in the room, from left-wing progressives, to gun-toting militia folks from Idaho and everyone in between. I walked out to do my set, and after an innocuous opener, I announced:
"I have been asked to not do any controversial political material ... (pause) ... so you’ve been a WONDERFUL AUDIENCE, GOODNIGHT!"
The place broke into laughter, and of course I was able to do all the material I wanted to do, and the audience stayed with me. Interestingly — even though the bulk of my material suggested I was part of the "progressive" tribe — the people I had the strongest heart-to-heart connection with were the militia people from Idaho.
Upon reflection, it was probably because I stood for my own principles and respected them because they did the same. And ... because we experienced the joy and camaraderie of laughing together.
Political humor has become polarizing and confrontational, but it doesn’t have to be, particularly if we address the one paradox that everyone seems to ignore. Yes, we are polarized — and yet the overwhelming majority of Americans agree the system isn’t working. Consequently, I have a found a joke that always works:
"We have a deeply divided body politic in America. Half the people believe our system is broken. The other half believes it is fixed."
After all, it is the "job" of humor to play with paradox and magically integrate contradictions. We laugh in surprise and delight at a joke because it is as if a puzzle is being revealed. Brain scientist Scott Weems says we get the same dopamine rush (a good thing) when we hear the punchline to a joke that we get when we solve a problem.
So maybe the magic of humor can simultaneously bring people together in laughter, and then in the wake of the "ha-ha" there can be an "aha" — an insight that can lead to a creative solution. Done the right way, humor can heal the heart and free the mind.
Here are a few guidelines for cultivating humor that builds bridges instead of blowing them up:
1. Make sure your heart is in the right place.
If you’ve ever met someone whose "humor" is thinly-veiled aggression, you know what I mean. So before trying something funny, check your audience and check your intention.
2. Self-effacing humor works best.
Poking fun at yourself — provided you are being as kind to yourself as you would to another — breaks down defenses. Abraham Lincoln was a master at this. When a debate opponent called him “two-faced”, Lincoln protested, “If I had two faces, would I be using this one?”
3. Commit random acts of comedy.
That means, have your humorous spirit “at the ready” to break tension, cheer people up, and create a sense of playfulness. You don’t have to be a professional comedian to lift spirits in a playful way. The weekend after 9/11, my wife Trudy and I were on our way to a conference that should have been cancelled. We were at the Denver airport and the atmosphere was grim — armed soldiers, and shocked and depressed passengers. At one point a man with a doggie carrying case put the case down and unzipped it so the dog could poke his head out for some air. Trudy walked up to the dog and asked, "Did you pack your own things today? Did any stranger give you anything?" The dog just looked at Trudy and wagged his tail. Everyone within earshot laughed with great relief because the joke was not about the tragedy itself, but about a peripheral situation. It was a healing act.
In delicate situations — as Free Trip to Egypt demonstrates — civility matters, as does listening deeply and compassionately. And ... in sharing the joys of life, like food, camaraderie and laughter, we create true, deep and long-lasting bonds that remind us we are all one family. After all, a family who plays together stays together.
To find out more about Steve’s work, visit www.wakeuplaughing.com.