An Anatomy Of Humor

FOR those of us who are not, except inadvertently, funny, humor can be a serious matter. But at least we can take a moment with the new year to acknowledge the role of comedy in public life.

The Queen of England summed up 1992 as a royal fiasco - her children's marriages in disarray, Windsor Castle burned. Instead of an annus mirabilis, the term for a crucial or pivotal year often invoked on solemn public occasions, she called it an annus horribilis, one to be forgotten. This humorous twist showed the Queen able to rise above the indignity of having nowhere to hide. This is the Queen with all the curiosity and bustle about her, as well as her little corgis. Disappointed but not in the mopes.

Even Ronald Reagan's critics appreciated how he could cheer up a nation, quipping to an emergency room staff after he'd been shot, "I hope you're all Republicans."

Humor is therapeutic. Norman Cousins, the journalist and man of peace, told how he'd recovered from a serious illness by watching classic comedy films. Laughter overcame the grimness around him.

George Horwood, former English department head at Medford High, a suburban Boston school recently torn by racial strife, used to recommend one good belly laugh every day to keep a school community in good working order.

Edward De Bono, the management consultant who came up with the idea of "lateral thinking," calls humor "by far the most significant behavior" of human thought. In "Serious Creativity" (Harper Business, $22), published last June, De Bono argues that humor's twists into the unexpected best describe the mind's process of forays and interventions that we commonly call "creativity." And he outlines a process for fostering the kinds of challenging hypotheses needed to regenerate organizations.

"Humors" refer to the range of dispositions from anger to melancholy, once thought to dominate individuals. They could also be said to dominate organizations and societies.

Right now our collective sense of humor is in a messy state. Our popular culture is caught in a purgatory between tragedy and comedy. Where would you put the three television networks' versions of the Amy Fisher story?

De Bono, Cousins, the Queen are right: Humor helps us think better.

I learned in college that listening to some kinds of music frustrated my attempts to study. Music is another form of language. It may or may not have verbal counterpart. On my day off, when I plan and outline the meetings and activities of the week ahead, I often listen to Rossini's Barber of Seville (London CD, with Nucci and Bartoli, conducted by Patane). Over and over. Particularly the finale to the second act. The performance is funny and good humored, musically complex and surprising.

De Bono warns against the current fad of getting in touch with one's feelings as an organizational self-help device. Some of the feelings one might get in touch with are better left dormant. There is a discipline to humor and creativity, an intelligence that should not be let go of.

Humor can be disliked by those in authority because it cannot be controlled. It is a liberation movement. Comics are often the first to catch the scent of scandal, pretense. A wise leader invites humor as a useful early warning system.

A sense of humor marks a consciousness in good working order. For consistency, the frame of reference should be comedic: It should expect the outcomes of life to lead to a positive conclusion. This can take inventiveness of the highest order. Dante could call his literary odyssey through human experience, from hell to heaven, "The Divine Comedy" despite the outrageous sufferings and rivalries he recorded.

Tragedy, in public policy, would imply that environmental decline, mass hunger, old ethnic antagonisms, cannot be reversed. Comedy is the feeling that no matter what we go through, we will prevail.

If we cannot all be funny this new year, at least we can try to set our expectations to more positive outcomes.

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