Long Read: Laughter, the best medicine?
‘Laughing brings up the oxygen levels’
Earlier this month, British actress Helen McCrory passed away at 52. Cancer (not Covid) got to her. Sometime later, her devastated husband (actor) Damian Lewis penned a tribute to her in The Sunday Times; he started out with, “As I sit down to write this, I can hear Helen shouting from the bed, ‘Keep it short, Damian, it’s not about you’.” As he went on to add how she’d been “utterly heroic in her illness”, the first attribute he accorded her was “funny”, before listing out “generous, brave, uncomplaining, constantly reminding us all of how lucky we’ve been, how blessed we are”. “[She] Made them [everyone around her] laugh, always. There were few funnier people — she was funny as hell.” Cancer ravaged her, but her funny bones didn’t creak: she had her sense of humour intact till the very end. “Only a couple of weeks ago she said to us [Damian and the kids] from her bed, ‘I want Daddy to have girlfriends, lots of them... but you know, Damian, try at least to get through the funeral without snogging someone’.”
Helen McCrory’s ability to make others laugh — at times, through their tears — had obviously rubbed off on to her better half. And I wondered if that made it easier for Damian to remain connected to her subliminally…
The past one year has been dismal. Every day, I hear of someone or the other losing a near or dear one — a friend, a family member, a colleague — to different strains of the virus, all over the world. There is ‘fear and paranoia’ all around. The Covid ante has upped in recent times with India reporting a massive, debilitating second wave.
It’s no laughing matter, and yet, laughter may well be what makes us wade through this welter. We speak to those who are in the business of being funny and find out why humour can be an antidote to anguish.
‘Laughing brings up the oxygen levels’
Stand-up comedian Nitinn R Miranni shifted base to Mumbai from Dubai a few years ago (but he keeps coming back here and is due in town shortly for the Dubai Comedy Festival). Sitting in Mumbai, watching, first-hand, Covid take a heavy toll, has been overwhelming. Plus, Nitinn himself was down with the virus. It was a time when he was “unable to think positively, [much less] laugh at things”.
He’s now out of the woods, but a little conflicted. It’s tough, he admits, to post stand-up videos when his feed is crammed with pleas and cries for help. “It makes me think: should we laugh? If you knew someone who’s passed away due to Covid, are you in a mood to laugh — or are you just angry?”
Also, “What happens if people see me laughing? We come from an upbringing where we are conditioned to feel guilty all the time — even our parenting is very guilt-based… So here you are ‘Liking’ a funny video [on one thread], and then moving to one where there’s someone dying because of lack of oxygen.”
Covid, he feels, has deeply affected — and changed — the DNA of people’s ability to see humour in things. Which is why it is important that the magnitude of the tragedy is never glossed over. “I want to get on stage and talk about things on a lighter note but not with the intention of letting them forget what’s happening outside.”
These days, he is exploring the possibility of going to hospitals and conducting shows for patients: “As a comedian, even if can distract them for an hour, I’ll be happy — because that’s all I can do.” Just the way he believes it’s his calling, as an artist, to use humour as a “service” to help people ease their pain, however temporarily. “When I do comedy, I create that safe place where there is no Covid.” And biologically, he adds, “laughing brings up the oxygen levels”. While it’s true that “after leaving the ballroom, you’ll have to go back to the news” and confront reality, humour does makes a difference for some time.
Nitinn is grateful to Dubai for understanding that comedy is actually required during these trying times, that humour shows work to distract audiences and make them feel better. “I must give a standing ovation to Dubai, it’s one place in the world right now that is artist-friendly, where we are allowed to put ourselves out for the public’s welfare.”
‘Laughter can lighten even the darkest day’
An actor, a comedian, an annoying (but much loved) wife and a very proud mum, Bronwyn Byrnes is from Australia, has been living in the UAE for 25 years, and tries to “add something positive to the world every day”. “For me, personally, comedy has helped me through some of my worst times in life. Ever heard the saying ‘If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’? Well, I certainly like a good cry but not as much as I like a good laugh. I believe humour to be a great outlet and something that brings us together — not divide us.”
During the Covid lockdown, she, like many parents, experienced 15 weeks of online schooling last year. “My sense of humour helped a lot! I have even written some new material purely based around these times. Also, as an expatriate and coming from a country I can’t go to right now, humour has allowed me to reflect on many wonderful times and memories.”
Does she feel guilty cracking a joke in the midst of doom and gloom? “I think it’s all about your intent. My intention is to make people escape for a short time and laugh and enjoy life — that’s all. ‘Guilt’ comes from doing the wrong thing, and, let’s face it, our inner voice tells us when something is not right.”
Laughter, Bronwyn says, can “lighten even the darkest day”, so she encourages people to “at least try it”. Instead of engaging in an argument or a hostile debate, tell each other a joke. Look for humour in day-to-day things, smile a little. “Even if we are wearing masks, people can still see your eyes smiling.”
‘Covid can’t take away my love for laughter’
Egyptian-origin Lamya Tawfik, a Dubai-based actor and storyteller, used to be a comedienne many years ago, but her ‘funny’ streak follows her around even today. “While acting, I tend to gravitate towards comedic roles and I insert humour in my stories instinctively — it’s so ingrained in me that I don’t even realise it.” So, yes, she loves to laugh, and “no pandemic will take that away from me”.
People deal with trauma differently, she says, and there are many who don’t feel like laughing because they think “what about the misery of others?”. But she does believe comedy has been a saviour of sorts and helped us get through these dark times. During the lockdown, when she was “alone”, she had one of two choices. “To be depressed, and beat myself up with ‘OMG, what will I do?’… or say to myself, ‘Okay, wait, maybe I should try relying on humour, laugh a lot, and be determined that I won’t change as a person’.”
She didn’t want to be “that changed person, at a molecular level”, so she fought back with humour. “Covid has been unprecedented, and humour is my No 1 defence mechanism.”
‘Laughter gives us hope that things will get better’
A comedian, performing artist, arts professor and “mama to twin toddler boys”, Mina Liccione, hailing from New York, has lived in Dubai for 13 years now, where she, along with her husband Ali Al Sayed, founded Dubomedy, “the first comedy school in the Middle East”. “Pain + time = comedy,” she breaks it up. “Often times, what was painful yesterday can make for great comedy material tomorrow. When we can laugh at our pain, embarrassment, regret, it means we’re healing from it and can, in turn, help others laugh about it and heal also. As a comedian, it’s my job to make people laugh but they also hopefully heal by knowing they’re not alone.”
During the lockdown, Mina and her husband conducted a series of ‘Comedy Lockdown’ stand-up intensives online — that turned out to be a therapeutic experience. “Many of the students were home alone and this was their only connection to other people besides work. Some were recovering from Covid and terrified. Others were at home with large families and desperately needed a laugh (and a little privacy!). We talked a lot about what we were feeling and together found humour in it and supported each other.” At the end of the intensives, everyone performed online stand-up showcases and the response was “powerful”. “They were saying what the audience was feeling and allowed them to laugh about it together. Comedy and humour are such powerful tools for healing and connecting.”
She’s also a trained medical clown, and used to volunteer in children’s hospitals and senior centres in the US (when she lived there) for years, so she’s seen for herself how humour and silliness helped kids in cancer wards and recovery centres relax. In Covid times, it’s even more important to stay positive and have some levity to help relieve stress, Mina points out. “When we can have a laugh at certain things, it gives us hope that it’ll get better. Laughter reduces stress and anxiety, and releases endorphins.” Even on days she just wanted to cry, she made sure she found a reason to smile and cheer someone else up with a funny message, video or homemade meme.
‘Humour is a strong way to bond over misery’
About six months ago, just as Salman Qureshi was readying to record a comedy show, he received news that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He went ahead with the show because “everyone is facing personal challenges, frontline workers — doctors and nurses — were going about doing their jobs despite the odds, so I couldn’t let my setback get in the way of what I do”. His jokes that day didn’t roll out as effortlessly as always, but Salman managed to pull it off. (And his mother is much better now.)
When confronted when an overwhelming situation (like Covid), the way Salman sees it is, “Some people cry, some people shut down, some people joke. For me, cracking a joke is a coping mechanism.” He makes it a point to write out funny tweets and post Facebook jokes, at times taking a swipe at Covid.
These days, he remembers reading about how soldiers survive in war camps — cracking jokes. “Humour is a strong way to bond over misery, and comedy somehow connects people — but, of course, you have to be sensitive about your surroundings and not offend anyone.”
‘Humour helps us retain our sanity’
Filipina expat Imah Dumagay, who’s been in Dubai for 14 years now, has a regular job as an executive secretary. Comedy is something she does because she enjoys it. “It’s an outlet for de-stressing,” she says. “And yes, it makes me far more observant of people and surroundings — everything is something to write comedy about.”
Covid, however, has been different. There’s nothing funny about it, even though she hugely appreciates what the UAE has done to contain the virus. “But humour still is a great way to cope with the stress that this crisis brought upon us, it makes you feel lighter, and helps us keep track of our sanity.”
When Imah makes people laugh, she feel good, and she feels like she’s doing something good. “As a human being, I’m being there to provide a semblance of moral support.” And comfort.
Even if you aren’t attending a comedy act, just go online, read some jokes, check out some memes, she suggests. “Don’t hate life… it is short, so don’t get dragged into the misery. All over, people are hurting and suffering, so give them something to smile about, and forget about their problems.” Even if it’s for a little while.
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