Ziv, Avner. "Humor as a Social Corrective." Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum 3rd ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen, eds. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1988. 356-60.

Avner Ziv has written extensively on the subject of humor, his titles including Humor in Education: A Psychological Approach, The Psychology of Humor, and Personality and Sense of Humor, from which the following has been excerpted. Ziv chairs the department of education sciences at Tel Aviv University and has also chaired international conferences on humor. His ten books have been translated into a half-dozen languages. (This excerpt is from Avner Ziv, Personality and Sense of Humor; copyright 1984, used by permission of Springer Publishing Company, Inc., New York.)

Never from its inception has the world been that ideal place in which all man's desires and dreams achieve perfect realization. In consequence, history is strewn with attempts to improve the world and make it a better place to live in - attempts that have taken some very strange and varied forms. Idealistic notions have arisen in every generation, and they have not always remained merely notions. Some of the most beautiful theories for the advancement of justice, peace, and equality have led, in the process of their implementation, to wars, revolutions, mass murder, inquisitions, and all the rest. All these dreadful things have issued paradoxically from the service of ideals whose ultimate aim has been to create a better world (better, at least, for the relevant group of idealists). The path of action, however, has not always been chosen. People have sometimes contented themselves with preaching, explaining to humanity what constitutes "right" and "wrong" behavior, in the hope that when everyone acts correctly the world too will become good. Not confining themselves to explanation, such preachers have promised rewards to those who do "right" and punishment to those who do "wrong." Such rewards and punishments, moreover, have been guaranteed not to terminate with life, but to continue beyond it. The righteous have been promised a happy life in paradise (page 357 begins here) for all eternity, and the wicked an equal period in the torments of hell.

These attempts to reform humanity by presenting ideals and advancing them by word or action have engaged human beings for hundreds of years, with great seriousness and feelings of self-importance on the part of the presenters. Less serious and self-involved people have held that things might be changed by a less tedious approach - that is, by means of humor. Humor exposes ugly human phenomena (those that render the world almost unbearable) to mockery, in the hope of thereby eliminating them. Man makes a mockery of man. In his efforts at changing and improving mankind, man turns matters he thinks grave into absurdities. He does this sometimes with delicate casualness, sometimes with disrespect, and sometimes with ferocity. The laughter that derives from the perception of absurdity reforms the world. This is the function of humor on which Bergson's (1899/1975) theory principally focuses.

Bergson's theory lays special emphasis on the "educational" function of humor. A human phenomenon that is opposed to society's expectations will meet with punishment, which in this instance means laughter. Thus Bergson writes, "Laughter is a social reaction which punishes and puts down deviant elements in man's behavior and in various events" (1899/1975, p. 76; translation mine [Ziv's]). Bergson's theory presupposes that a person or institution that serves as an object of laughter will take care in future not to repeat the behavior that has evoked punishment. Moreover, the fear of becoming a target for mockery should be sufficient to prevent a person from again committing the deed that has led to a punitive reaction. Thus laughter should have the power to change not merely the personal behavior of one individual, but also the behavior of institutions and even whole societies.

Humor of this sort must have a wide scope and must be applicable to the greatest possible number of people. The arts and the various means of mass communication are the means by which humor can fulfill this role.

In the theater, the burden of social correction has traditionally been laid upon comedy. The renowned English playwright Ben Jonson described comedy as an educational instrument: Its goal is not to make us laugh, but to arouse us to moral improvement. The French novelist and critic Stendhal went so far as to set up an "experiment." In Racine and Shakespeare (Beyle, 1823), he wrote, "On December 17, 1822, Tartuffe was performed. Mdlle. Mars acted well and there was no defect in the play. Nevertheless, the audience laughed no more than twice, and then in a restrained manner" (p. 46). Stendhal came to the conclusion that the aim of comedy is to expose man to the mockery of the audience. People may accept rebuke but cannot bear (page 358 begins here) to be laughed at, and are prepared to be wicked but not ridiculous. The great comedian Charlie Chaplin (1966) has also remarked that the function of comedy is to sharpen our sensitivity to the perversions of justice within the society in which we live.

This "pedagogical" approach seems somewhat overblown to us; if comedy were merely educational, it would be no more effective than a Sunday sermon. Its effectiveness derives precisely from its being humorous. It makes the spectators laugh - that is, it gives them emotional pleasure by throwing the absurd into prominence. Their laughter focuses on the phenomenon that the playwright considers in need of improvement.

Satire, both written and acted, works in a similar way. The satirist is not content with the world as it is; or, more precisely, he is not , content with certain things in it, which to him seem black. In his attack he blackens them yet further, in the hope that after blushing with due shame they will turn white.

Comic and satiric theater have the same function - to "reform society" - but there are several important qualitative differences between them. Comedy's criticism of life emphasizes the human side of events and behavior, the good aspects as well as the bad ones. Satire, on the other hand, scourges certain events, sometimes with brutality, and emphasizes their negative aspects almost entirely. As to the preferred topics, comedy focuses on general human characteristics, such as miserliness, hypocrisy, and snobbery. These are to be found in every society, and a humorous presentation of them speaks to everybody. Comedies, therefore, may readily be translated and acted in different countries without losing their relevance. Satire, in general, focuses on situations specific to a given society and period. To understand political satire, the spectator must know something about the political relations and economic background of the society in question. Hence, as a rule (if not always), satire can only rarely be transferred from one society to another. The final difference to be noted here between the two concerns the world views that subsume comedy and satire. Comedy is basically optimistic, and it always has a happy ending. Since it criticizes general phenomena that are fundamentally human and "eternal," the writer of comedy does not expect that the subjects to which he gives a comic treatment will disappear as a consequence of this treatment. He contents himself with showing what is ridiculous about them, in the hope that this will lead to understanding and perhaps a slight movement towards change.

Ephraim Kishon, the Israeli comic playwright and satirist, called his popular column "Had Gadya" ("One Only Kid") in allusion to an Israeli song with a structure like "This Is the House That Jack Built," in which each being is in succession attacked by something stronger. Things change, recur, and change once again - or, as the French say, (page 359 begins here) Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Writers of comedy are well aware that the subjects with which they deal - infidelity, self- importance, hypochondria, and all the rest - will continue to exist. What comedy really does is to place them beneath a magnifying glass. Exaggeration of the size turns it into an absurdity.

In contrast to comedy, satire is fundamentally pessimistic. As I have noted, it deals principally with topical phenomena, and so the satirist expects a rapid change in these phenomena. For example, when political satire attacks a prime minister or a minister of finance (a favorite satiric target), it does so in order to "destroy" the target - in other words, to bring about a resignation. But it is clear to us all, including satirists, that ministerial changes arise from political realities, and that only very rarely does satire succeed in unseating anyone. Here, perhaps, is the mainspring of satire's pessimism: On the one hand, it desires to change actualities, and with dispatch; on the other, it is aware that it is powerless to do so. Moreover, it is almost inevitable that an inability to change matters will be accompanied by a feeling of frustration, which, as we have seen, is one of the main causes of aggression. The element of aggression in satire is certainly far more prominent and embittered than in comedy.

Despite the differences between them that I have noted, comedy and satire possess a common denominator in that both try to change or reform society by means of humor. The two forms together constitute the best illustration there is of the social function of humor. Comedy is generally received in a friendly spirit. Satire is not. Its victims fear it as a threat to their power and position. Thus in totalitarian countries satire directed against the ruling powers is banned, and any manifestation of satire earns harsh punishment. Attacks on a regime through humor must therefore be underground work. Behind the Iron Curtain, there is a most lively industry for humor of this sort:

A man who has requested an exit visa to one of the Western countries is summoned to the police station.

"Why do you want to leave? Isn't your salary good enough? Is your work too hard?"
"No, I can't complain."
"Isn't your flat big enough?"
"No, I can't complain."
"In that case, why do you want to leave?"
"Just because I can't complain!"

In every oppressive regime there is this kind of underground humor, and it fulfills an important function: Laughter shared by the (page 360 begins here) oppressed at the expense of the oppressor reduces fear and helps people to go on living under the regime with more ease. Totalitarian regimes possibly do themselves a disservice in preventing manifestations of humor against themselves, for laughter may be a safety valve for the release of tension and frustration. Similarly, a government that lets its subjects laugh at it evinces its strength, inasmuch as it is not afraid of mockery. Feelings of hostility and frustration may well be increased among the oppressed by the restraint enforced on humorous expression. When such feelings build up and must be held in, a kind of "pressure cooker" is created, which can explode in violent ways. It is to be supposed that in democratic societies, in which freedom of expression is given to political humor, satire indirectly serves the interests of the government. The possibility of ventilating feelings against the state by means of laughter offers release; the hostility might otherwise be demonstrated in far more violent forms, even outright rebellion. The first piece of methodical research on the function of humor as a mode of facing oppressive social power was carried out by Oberdlik (1942). He investigated the jokes that appeared in Czechoslovakia during World War II, when the country was under Nazi occupation. In analyzing the humor of that period, he stressed its role as a mode of coping with the conquerors. One of his examples is as follows:

"Did you hear that the Germans have decided to lengthen the day to 29 hours?"
"No, why?"
"Because the Fuhrer has promised them that by the spring they'll be in Moscow!"

Stories of this sort are told when a group or nation finds itself under occupation or oppression without any means of fighting back. In such cases, humor is an instrument of self-respect and the spirit of freedom. The French philosopher Penjon has written, "Laughter is nothing but an expression of the freedom which we experience or long for. Always and everywhere, laughter is the echo of freedom."


1. According to Ziv, what is the purpose of mockery? 2. Summarize the role that Ziv assigns to theater in cleansing society. 3. What distinctions does Ziv draw between comedy and satire? 4. What are the purposes of "underground" humor? 5. According to Ziv, how might satire become a means of political control by a society's ruling members? 6. In the first paragraph, Ziv asserts that human beings desire an "ideal" world. What proof does he provide and how does he define "ideal"?

In what ways does he develop this opening statement later in the text? 7. In paragraph 14, Ziv describes a joke based on the familiar expression "I can't complain." Consider the ways in which this expression relates to his central argument. 8. Consider a recent event you witnessed or read about that illustrates

Ziv's remark that "people may accept rebuke but cannot bear to be laughed at."