The Role of Humor in pandemics

By Makenna Mahrer

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“To be mery in the herte is a grete remedie for helth of the body. Therfore in time of this grete infirmitie beware ye drede not deth But lyue merely and hope to lyue long” - A Litil Boke (1485)



As the world has now come to realize once again, a pandemic world is a world largely lacking in individual agency. Helplessness and anxiety abound, but the resilience of the human spirit has found a way to endure, often by crude or trivial, though nonetheless critically important means: through humor. Indeed, a large part of healing lies in partial trivialization for the purpose of rationalization and reestablishing control over certain components of mental conception. As we navigate our current environment, we are going to need a bit of levity if we are indeed going to make it through the fear gripping our realities. 


Modern audiences should by now recognize the concept of a meme, in the traditional sense being an image accompanied by text that humorously signifies a more complex idea or experience that is generally commonly recognized. By extension, anything seemingly iconic and humorous can fall into this category, but the root of the phenomenon lies in a purely visual format. Not surprisingly, the dissemination of meme culture is a direct byproduct of widespread communication platforms and ease of sharing, as anyone can create and distribute content in the advent of internet technologies. However, this concept is far from new. Visual humor has always existed, and has been used as a coping mechanism during times of trauma from the very beginning. It has the capacity to make complex issues more palatable and conceivable for a suffering and otherwise despondent audience and unify the private and political spheres, both of which we will explore in greater depth here. 


Is it also important to note that visual media is not the only source of humor frequently used during public health crises. Literature is another place where humor is able to be utilized for the purpose of levity, but renowned literature takes time to develop. The clarity that the written word serves as direct documentation for which to find the feelings of an individual, but the books being written and diaries being kept are not yet fully realized, and the humor in a private letter may be comforting to few but not utilized on a broader scope until years down the line when history pulls it from the dusty archives and just for a fleeting moment relives the trivialized version of the horrors occurring there through the softened yet stinging diction of comedy. The strict written word is indeed more personal or only comforts in hindsight, and as such, we have yet to fully access the utility and significance of the current pandemic literature. Nonetheless, we can seek to derive comfort today from words of the past, as will be further referenced and discussed below. 

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