The Best Medicine

On March 14, 2005, I delivered a paper to The Chicago Literary Club titled “The Best Medicine.”  The paper is a mildly academic study of the history, styles and benefits (even healing power) of humor. See http://www.chilit.org/Papers%20by%20author/Petersen4.htm   

Joseph Addison – the 17th Century English writer – said “man is distinguished from all other creatures by the faculty of laughter.”  Sigmund Freud in his The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious states that “jokes” release us from traditional inhibitions which make up the veneer of our personalities.  Ol’ Sig’s book also contains a host of jokes, puns and one-liners. His book ain’t Planes, Trains and Automobiles but it’s worth a look. . . .  

Historically, the earliest known “smile” is etched on the lips of a statue of Ebbeh – a Mesopotamian factotum who lived in 2400 B.C. (Ebbeh now resides in the Louvre).  Four centuries later, we enter Biblical times.  While there were no Old Testament comedians, the word “laugh” (or “laughter”) makes its debut in the Book of Genesis.  When Abraham and Sarah are told they will have a son, both fall on their faces – laughing.  Perhaps that is why their son was named “Isaac” which in Hebrew is “He [or God] laughs.”  The word “laugh” or its derivations appear 43 times in the Bible (with only 6 of those in the New Testament).  The Koran chronicles 16 uses of the word but most relate to the faithful laughing at the inglorious fate of unbelievers.  The Veda in Hindu text records the word “laugh” 8 times.   In Buddhist tradition, he “Laughing Buddha” was supposedly a real person – a wandering happy Zen monk named Pu-Tai who lived around 1000 A.D. 

The first stand-up comedian was Aristophanes (see post of 8/28/11) who was known for his political jabs.  He would lurch out on stage smeared with wine playing the Emperor – Cleon.  It didn’t go over well with Cleon. . . . . The first joke book was The Philogelos (“Laughter Lover”) “published” in the 4th Century A.D.  It was a collection of 264 jokes.  One depicts a chatty barber.  “How shall I cut your hair” he says to his customer.  “In silence” the man responds.  Some things don’t change. . . . .    

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