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Tuition serves as cover charge in Morreall's class

John Morreall

In an inconspicuous room at the corner of James Blair Hall's third floor, William and Mary professor John Morreall hosts a little-known comedy show on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. His is of a different sort, cleverly disguised as a full-credit religion course, complete with papers, midterms and finals. Tuition is the cover charge.

His stage has no microphone, no dramatic spotlighting—it's just an ordinary classroom, with a long green chalkboard, a solitary overhead projector and tiered rows of chair/desk combination seating bolted to the floor. And there are no jokes.

"I don't tell jokes," Morreall says about his ‘bits' in the classroom. "I tell stories."

His stories are funnier than jokes. So funny in fact, that it's hard to believe they're not made up. And he's a pro when it comes to storytelling. Morreall's long, lanky arms move wildly, his face contorts with exaggerated expressions. He does voices. His tall, narrow frame carries him across the room as he pretends to run or hide. Well-timed punch lines send the audience, err, students, into hysterics.

Morreall tells this morning's class about a presentation he gave at a hospital a few years ago when he asked operating room nurses to tell a story that's well-known around work. One story emerged hilarious.

"So this nurse says, ‘I was working a couple years ago in the psychiatric ward, fifth floor. We had a patient who was what they used to call manic depressive. He was on a number of medications, and because of all of this he got completely depressed and tried to kill himself. He tried to kill himself by jumping out of a window,'" Morreall says with a comically insincere gravity. "Then I told her to tell it the way she really tells it around work."

Moving seamlessly into comedic mode, his face lighting up in anticipation, Morreall begins the nurse's "actual" account of the same situation. "She says, ‘Ok, so we were on break down on the fourth floor, and he was up on the fifth. He weighed 400 pounds, and he was dressed only in a hospital gown which wouldn't tie in the back because of his weight. The window that he tried to kill himself by jumping out of was only 18-inches wide—he got his right arm, his shoulder and his head out the window but then he got stuck,'" Morreall says now trying not to blow the end of the story by laughing too much himself. He continues, "‘So he was calling for help when we heard him down in the break room, and we came running up the stairs as fast as we could. We ran into this room, right into this 400-pound ass!'"

Students are laughing so hard they nearly fall out of their chairs. It's the story that's funny, but Morreall's sweeping gestures and enthused voices (‘Heeeeelp! Heeeelp!') are what really deliver. Example after example, Morreall brings down the house, employing his own humor to explain humor. But every story he tells has a point—a teachable point. After all, this is a religion class, and learning is required. The nurse's dual accounts illustrate Morreall's general message perfectly. There are two ways to look at every situation in life—with the comedic view or with the tragic view. Simply put, life can be tragic or comic—you pick.

Religions, too, fall somewhere between the polar opposites of tragedy and comedy. His class, "Comedy, Tragedy and Religion," looks at the world's faiths in terms of these two approaches.

"Zen Buddhism is by far the funniest religion," Morreall says without hesitation. "It's got lots of comic features, and I don't think it has many tragic ones. It emphasizes things like questioning authority and questioning tradition—lots of Zen masters were famous for doing wacky things."

Morreall's assessment is not unfounded. Though he's a religion professor first, he's also been studying humor for more than 25 years and has developed a 20-point system for looking at religions on the basis of paired, opposite comedic and tragic principles. No religion ends up entirely one or the other with Morreall's approach, but Western religions, for example, come out arguably more tragic, particularly in terms of finality versus second chance.

"When you screw up in tragedy, you're done for. In comedy—in the best comedy—you always have another chance. In Western religions, like Christianity, you get one life, then you're judged. But in Hinduism, you go through thousands and thousands of lives, so if you screw up, well, the next life you can fix it," he explains.

Using the 20-point system detailed in his book, also called Comedy, Tragedy and Religion, Morreall introduces students to the basics of both comedy and tragedy. Even the discussions of tragedy come out funny in Morreall's class. Leave it to the current President of the International Society for Humor Studies to put a comic spin on one of the greatest tragedies of all time, Oedipus Rex.

"Anger— that was Oedipus' strong suit. Oedipus is the first-known case of road rage. He's the first guy in the history of drama to get pissed-off when somebody tries to drive him off the road, and of course, he kills the king and his whole entourage," Morreall tells the class with the poise and style of a stand-up comedian.

Humor works. Morreall swears there's no substitute for using it to teach. Through 25 years of humor studies, he has discovered countless benefits to humor—scientifically proven benefits, all of which somehow apply to teaching a religion course.

"It allows students to relax," Morreall says. "When you joke about stuff, people don't have the view that there is a set body of things that they have to learn that day, so discussions go much easier."

Talking about the sticky subject of religion can be difficult at times, but humor, Morreall says, eases students into dialogue, especially when he makes fun of his own upbringing.

"It's an icebreaker, a way of reducing tension and allowing people to express themselves. There's nothing comparable to humor in the classroom," he says. At the same time Morreall blames the classroom for suppressing humor—teachers, more specifically. Early in life, children learn to lose their sense of humor while at school. The general idea is that students go to school to work, and humor and laughter are equated with play. Work and play are often perceived as opposites at school, so humor is often discouraged.

"If somebody's got some musical talent, he might go to the music room. If somebody's got artistic talents, they go to the art room. But a kid with a good sense of humor, he or she goes to the principal's office," Morreall says, thinking back to his own days in elementary school.

But without humor, work doesn't get done as well or as efficiently as it could. That's part of Morreall's message to the hundreds of high-profile corporate audiences—his clients include AT&T, IBM and the IRS—to whom he's given humor consultations, seminars and presentations. The benefits of humor extend beyond the classroom, into the workplace and into daily life.

"Humor promotes creative thinking, mental flexibility and the ability to cope with change (and that's what our lives are full of). It reduces stress. And lastly, it helps us to get along with each other—it smoothes out rough relationships," Morreall says.

And to be sure his students make it to the workplace with a keen sense of humor intact, Morreall uses his religion courses—his comedy shows—to dispel the myth that school is not a place for humor. All joking aside, a classroom is the perfect spot for comedy, because for Morreall's students, college is their reality. What better way to learn than to laugh.

Related content:
A healthy workplace is a humorous workplace: Q&A with John Morreall