Saturday Night Live (SNL) is arguable one of the most important shows on television right now. The following is a paper I wrote for school explaining exactly why.
It’s important to be able to laugh in the face of shit. Many have expressed great frustration concerning recent events that have happened in the United States, and although not literally speaking, feel as if facing these events is like facing a whole bunch of shit. On one hand there are the numerous political and social conflicts that have enveloped the United States in the past couple of months. And on the other hand, there are the television shows, spoofs, and comedians who make fun of these current affairs, most notable Saturday Night Live (SNL). This is not the first time in history in which serious problems with lethal consequences have been met with comedy and humor, for humor has a beautiful way of acting as a weapon that allows people to combat adversary.
During the Great Depression, which was the longest period of economic decline in the history of the United States, thousands of individuals took refuge in theaters and the movies to enjoy various forms of entertainment, one such form of entertainment being screwball comedy. Screwball comedy is a film genre that made its debut in the early 1930’s and became popular in the early 1940’s (Weinman). It is no accident that this time line interestingly enough follows the height of the Great Depression as well as the slow recovery from it.
Screwball comedy was created partly in rebellion to what became known as the Hays Code, a set of moral guidelines for motion pictures being filmed from 1930 to 1968. While people of the Great Depression, particularly those of the lower class, wanted a way to express their frustrations towards the economic turmoil taking place, the Hays Code set strict rules as to what could and could not be shown in a film (Weinman). Screwball comedy was filmmakers’ way around those rules, as obscene jokes, sexual tensions, and social class critiques were hidden enough below the surface of the film to avoid censorship but still poignant enough to let audience members understand the underlining joke being made.
One of the most common elements of a screwball comedy is a romance interest in which two people who seem to be complete opposites overcome their differences and eventually fall in love with each other (Weinman). These individuals not only demonstrate polar opposite personalities but also take on what was considered role reversal for the time, where the woman in the relationship was from the upper class and it was the man who was from the lower class and struggling financially.
The 1934 film It Happened One Night was one of the first screwball comedies made and features a wealthy heiress who meets an unsuspecting reporter who was fired for drinking on the job. This contrast in social class appealed to the general public during the Great Depression because it often showed upper class individuals struggling to deal with the harsh realities that the lower class faced on a daily basis, giving them a lesson in compassion. It also allowed those from the lower class to feel as if they were upper class material without having to worry about being scrutinized for their desires. In essence, screwball comedy was a tool used during the Great Depression to protest the economic struggles many lower class and middle class individuals had to face.
The Great Depression ended in 1939 to meet the height of World War II, where the power of comedy continued to help relieve the pain of those suffering, including those suffering from one of the most well-known genocides of today, the Holocaust. Cabaret was the form in which comedians made their audiences laugh in the midst of people being sent to concentration camps. In Munich, cabaret performer Weiss Ferdl became known for a comedy routine in which he would bring pictures of prominent Nazis onstage and ponder aloud, “Now should I hang them, or line them up against the wall?” (Knepp 6). Other jests made at the Nazi regime included asking audience members from the Gestapo if they understood what was going on in case the show was going too fast for them. Or even outwardly mocking Hitler himself by breaking a black hair comb in half and taping the halves above the mouth in order to imitate Hitler’s infamous mustache.
Either way, people were not afraid to use comedy to make fun of the grim circumstances at the time. Associate editor for the magazine Maclean’s suggests that making fun of Hitler was a way of, “cutting him down to size” (Weinman). By making light of a genocide that would ultimately result in the death of millions of people, individuals living during the Holocaust were cutting the devastation they faced down to size.
If the people in the Great Depression were facing extreme poverty while victims of the Holocaust were facing death, it begs to ask the question as to how comedy was able to provide any type of relief to anybody during those times. The answer partly lies in why a person might find something funny as well as the way our brains processes instances of humor.
Before looking at the science behind humor, it is important to distinguish between laughter and humor, for the two terms are often used synonymously even though they are distinctly different. Laughter is the physical response a person has when they find something funny, “It’s like a punctuation mark” (On The Brain 1), while humor is the intellectual capacity to find something funny. In short, humor causes laughter.
The prevailing theory of why we laugh is called the Incongruity Theory and it postulates that the cause of laughter is, “the perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations” (Morreall). With this line of thinking, the comedian’s job then becomes a matter of leading their listeners down one path and at the last minute turning them down onto another path. So when Weiss Ferdl would bring those pictures of Reich leaders onstage, he made his audience believe those were just pictures, but when he gave the punch line, surprised the audience by making a joke about the Nazis. Regardless of whether the subject of the joke is itself serious of not, the act of thinking in one direction and then being cleverly led in a different direction is what people find amusing and subsequently compels them to laugh.
Laughing has a similar effect which sugar and drugs has on a person - it makes an individual aroused. While studying the effects of laughter during psychotherapy, Carl Marci MD from the Harvard Medical School found an increase of activity of the nervous systems of patients who laughed during their session - this nervous system which controls an individual’s blood pressure and heart rate, indicating an aroused state. Being aroused by humor in turn evokes feeling of happiness and relaxation, and in the face of adversary happiness and relaxation can provide much needed comfort for an individual (On The Brain 2).
Even more intriguing from Marci’s study is when he found that this nervous system’s activity would not only increase but double when both the patient and psychiatrist laughed together in their session. This observation speaks to the social implications humor and laughter has on a group as a whole. Laughter is contagious because it encourages others to express similar feelings - it encourages empathy. Even the most popular sitcoms on television take advantage of the contagion of laughter by utilizing taped laughter. Taped laughter are tracks of prerecorded audience laughter inserted during a scene that is intended to be humorous. The tracks give a social cue to viewers and invites them to laugh along with the show.
The same concept of empathy can also be applied with watching shows in a group setting. When people living during the Great Depression went to the movies to see screwball comedies, they were doing so in an attempt to have the burdens of reality lifted off their shoulders, and while laughing at a man’s masculinity being challenged with another 100 people, was able to take solace in knowing that they were not alone in their woes.
Neurologically, when a person becomes aware of humorous stimuli from the outside environment, the cortical and subcortical networks of their brain begins processing the stimuli and various regions of the brain ultimately decide whether they find the stimuli convincing enough. It should be noted that, “While these processes are generally intimately intertwined and difficult to separate using imaging paradigms, they are dissociable; humorous intent can be recognised even when it does not provoke amusement” (On The Brain 3). This means that a person can find something funny even if they do not laugh. A person may not laugh at Ferdl’s jokes about being persecuted by the Nazis, but if they find it amusing they can still reap the rewards of becoming aroused from it.
If our minds define humor as something that doesn’t fit with our expectations and arousal is an effect of when that moment of humor becomes clear, it is not surprising that people living through the Great Depression and the Holocaust used comedy as a form of therapy in the face of incredible circumstances. Comedy is intended to make people laugh but that doesn’t mean it’s always reassuring. As director of the 2007 comedy film My Furher - The Really Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler explains, “There is a saying, ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’ I think the same goes for those who can’t laugh at history as well” (Weinman). Comedy therefore is a defense mechanism that can not only be used to fight against adversary in the past, but to also fight against adversary happening right now.
SNL is an American sketch comedy and variety show currently in its 42nd season since premiering in 1975. This late-night show features various celebrities who perform comedy acts meant to poke fun at contemporary culture and politics. Considering the recent string of events that have taken place in the political sphere of the United States, SNL is now what screwball comedy was to the Great Depression and what cabaret was to the Holocaust - it’s comedic relief in a time of uncertainty. SNL not only gives people a way to laugh at everything happening in the world right now, it also gives people permission to laugh at it. While it doesn’t actually solve any of the problems at hand, and at least according to the Twitter accounts of some particular individuals, people do get offended by the jokes, SNL made millions of people laugh just from last week’s episode alone. It’s important to be able to laugh in the face of shit because doing so ensures that tragedy doesn’t get the last laugh.
Knepp, Robin. Laughing Together: Comedic Theatre as a Mechanism of Survival during the Holocaust. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Morreall, John, “Philosophy of Humor”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
On The Brain. “Humor, Laughter, and Those Aha Moments”. The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter (Spring 2017):1-3. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Weinman, Jaime J. “Hitler Is Hilarious.” Maclean’s 120.7 (2007): 50. Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Feb. 2017.
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