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Faculty Lecture Series: Morreall examines humor

Sitting in the back row of his first-grade classroom, John Morreall couldn’t help but laugh hysterically at the scenario unfolding before his eyes.

But when his teacher, Sister Evangelista, scurried down the aisle and huffed, “What’s so funny, Mr. Morreall?” he stopped chuckling and responded seriously to the question. 

“There’s a huge bug in Tommy’s desk.”

While his response didn’t evoke a humorous reaction from Sister Evangelista, years later the memory became inspiration for Morreall’s scholarly research. Why are some things funny to some people but not others, and what benefits does humor bring to humans?

Morreall, professor and Chair and of Religious Studies, spoke about “What So Funny? The Nature and Value of Humor” to an audience of 300-plus on Oct. 2 in the Sadler Center. His lecture was the second installment of William & Mary’s Faculty Lecture Series, an event launched last semester to showcase the creative work and research of the faculty. The next speaker in the series will be Professor of Geology Chuck Bailey in spring, 2013.

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Before Provost Michael R. Halleran introduced Morreall, he made a special announcement to the crowd. Thanks to a generous commitment from Carl ’78 and Martha Frechette Tack ’78, the Faculty Lecture Series will be endowed as the Tack Faculty Lecture Series.

“Their generosity will fund the lecture series in perpetuity, ensuring that William & Mary can continue to highlight the great researchers and teachers who make William & Mary so special,” said Halleran. 

Humor – once viewed negatively and condemned until the 20th century – is actually healthy and has real medical, psychological and social benefits.  Scholars from the fields of religion, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology and psychology are actively studying the phenomenon of humor. The University of Michigan has even started a project called HAM – Humor At Michigan – with the eventual goal of offering a graduate degree in humor studies.

“Humor is cognitive play,” explained Morreall. “By cognitive I mean play with ideas and with emotions. It’s play with mental states.

“Laughter is a play signal. What’s the connection between ‘hahaha’ and finding something funny? One theory from anthropology and ethology is that the ancestors of the great apes engaged in aggressive play, and laughter was their indication that they were not serious.”

Morreall’s presentation was drawn from his research on humor and comedy. He is an international authority on the subject and the author of five books, including "Humor Works" and "Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor."

Morreall engaged the crowd with personal and professional stories of humorous incidents and provided a short lesson on both the social and medical benefits humor can offer.

“Laughter has good medical features,” he said.  “Laughter gives your heart and lungs a workout, reduces pain, relaxes muscles and boosts your immune system.

“I’ll skip the laxative benefits,” he quipped.

Within our social environment, Morreall described how humor is useful for improving relationships. He sees humor as a “social lubricant, which can smooth out the rough spots.” 

“And it creates rapport and good morale, and reduces defensiveness.”

In the classroom, Morreall confessed to using humor as a way to help students relax, a tool that is especially helpful when discussing sensitive subjects, such as religion.

“I’ve used humor in every class I’ve ever taught,” he said. “It has a way of relaxing students, especially self-deprecating humor. It allows them to just learn.”

So the next time you’re feeling stressed or upset about a situation, Morreall said the best cure is to laugh. The shorter the time frame between when something bad happens and when you’re able to laugh about it the better, he said.   

“You’ve all said to yourselves, ‘Someday, we’ll laugh about this.’ My closing question to you is: Why wait?”

Consider this funny fact about Morreall. If it hadn’t been for an encounter with his first-grade teacher and his ability to laugh about it, a life-altering scholarly passion would have gone untapped. 

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