The Politics of Laughter

Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College, is one of America’s most eminent scholars of humor.  With this book, he has written another very thoroughly researched study of contemporary American humor, ranging from the “positive humor” and “laughter club” movements that use humor to promote health and efficiency, peace and uplift, to the “killing humor” of American jokes and comedies that seemingly violate all norms of kindness and restraint.

Lewis is quite rightly skeptical of the claims of the laughter clubs, hospital clowns, and corporate humor consultants who have come to constitute both something approaching a New Age religion and a substantial and prosperous business sector.  His detailed review of the now-extensive research literature shows, however, that there is no clear link between humor and health.  Likewise, he is able to deflate the claim that humor reduces hostility and makes people feel good by showing that it very often achieves the opposite result.

Lewis’s accounts of his personal encounters with the professional humor practitioners are both insightful and wryly funny.  The question remains, however: Does it matter that these people are fakes?  The positive-humor movement neither leads patients to ignore more effective cures (as homeopathy sometimes does), nor can it inflict direct harm on patients (as psychoanalysis often...

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