learning from laughter


Good news to report tonight: Rachel went home today, five days after her surgery. She is in good spirits and is feeling well, all things considered. Now the challenge is figuring out how life will look for her and Reuben, my father-in-law, who has some issues of his own. Thanks again for your prayers.

On the nights I have not been working, I’ve watched a couple of movies that I knew would not interest Ginger. The one that got me thinking the most was Albert Brooks’ lastest film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. The title was enough to make me pick up the movie, but I had also heard about it on NPR a while back. If you’ve never seen one of his movies, I will say he is an acquired taste, but a taste worth acquiring. As in his other movies, Brooks plays himself — this time as a comedian who is asked by the U. S. State Department to go to India and Pakistan for a month to find out what makes them laugh and then to write a five hundred page report. In return, they promise him the Medal of Freedom.

He goes to New Delhi, and when he can’t get anyone to respond on the street when he asks them what makes them laugh, and because he can’t find any comedy clubs in the city, he rents a school auditorium to put on a free comedy concert. He begins with this joke:

Why is there no Halloween in India?
Because they took away all the Ghandi.

He got nothing but crickets. They don’t have Halloween in India because it’s an American holiday. His search for humor reflects the way most Americans tend to ask questions about the rest of the world: why aren’t they more like us? His quest is painful, informative, poignant, and funny.

One of the things that struck me had to do with the original request from the State Department. They were asking about comedy as part of the war on terror: if they could learn what made the Muslims laugh, they would have another weapon in their arsenal. The shallowness of their understanding shows through when Brooks comments that India is a Hindu country. Rather than point out there are more Muslims in India than in any other country in the world, the response is, “When you learn what makes the Hindus laugh, you’ll know what makes the Muslims laugh.”


In the comedy concert, Brooks tells the audience he is going to show them what improvisation is. He brings out a blackboard and asks them for suggestions to help shape a character he will embody: nationality, occupation, married or single, kids or no kids, rich or poor. He takes their suggestions and, one by one, changes them until he gets to the character he wants to do, which is not at all what the audience gave him. They didn’t laugh. He was trying hard to connect, but he wasn’t listening; he wasn’t looking for what they thought was funny, he was looking for them to tell him he was funny.

We, as Americans, are not malicious or malevolent for the most part, but we do damage around the world because we take much the same approach: we don’t listen, we tell; we don’t investigate, we assume; we don’t cooperate, we lead; we don’t see ourselves as equals, we see ourselves as heroes. In the end, Brooks, for all his good intentions and earnest need for affirmation, didn’t understand what made Muslims laugh anymore than George Bush understands what’s going on in the minds of those he calls “evil doers.” Neither knows how to make sense of those who are different from them (though I think Brooks, as writer and director, understood that was the point he was making).

I remember my dad telling me a story of an American journalist who came to visit Zambia when we lived there. He was staying a month and was going to write a book on Africa. One of the Zambian pastors told him, “It is good you are only staying a month, because then you will leave with all the answers; if you stay longer, you will find you have none of the answers.” Whenever my dad told that story (we Cunninghams are good at repeating the stories we like), he always laughed. Now that was funny.

And sad.

My favorite joke is one I heard on Prairie Home Companion several years ago on the April Fools’ Show, which is always filled with jokes. It goes like this:

Two penguins are talking.
One says, “Some people think we look like we’re wearing tuxedos.”
The second one says, “Maybe I am.”

I love that joke. I can’t explain it. But then again, if you have to explain a joke, it’s no longer funny.



  1. I remember the punch line a little differently: the second penguin says “What makes you think I’m not?” Funny either way, though.

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