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'Comic Relief': Morreall argues for the seriousness of humor

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In 2009, John Morreall, professor of religious studies and among the unofficial humorists-in-residence at the College of William and Mary, is doing more than fighting back tears. In his new book, Comic Relief, A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor, Morreall takes on traditional literary theorists who argue for the superiority of the tragic over the comic. They assume that comedy is "light," that tragedy is "heavy" and that "heavy" is better than "light," he explained.

"One of the arguments in my book is that light is better than heavy," he said.

The argument proceeds as follows: "The tragic character is mentally rigid," Morreall explained. "Comic characters solve problems not head-on, not by facing them in a militaristic, tragic way …  They use trickery. They use word-play. They face the same difficulties, but they live to tell the tale. A tragic character makes up his mind once and for all and dies."

In Comic Relief, Morreall draws on personal experiences and existing scholarship to create his comprehensive philosophy. He began writing the book with the idea that humor is a kind of playfulness. Through research, including conversations with the College's Barbara King, an expert on primate behavior, he realized that play, which involves chasing and biting, is based on aggression and that without a "play signal" it easily could escalate into violence. "When chimps laugh, it's a play signal," he said. "Laughter involves muscle relaxation: In fact, if you laugh really hard, you couldn't do anything; your knees buckle, you fall on the floor, you might wet your pants. Obviously that's not a person who is going to attack you."

Morreall also traces societal reactions to humor, beginning with Plato, who believed that laughing at someone was equivalent to attacking them. "For Plato, laughing at a person always involved "putting them down,"' he said. "In his The Republic, he proposed requiring a license to produce comedy."

During the early Christian period, comedy essentially was banned, Morreall said. "Comedy was seen as leading to sexual license. It was seen as leading to anarchy, promoting disrespect for religious and political authorities," he said. That attitude became most dour with the Pilgrims, according to the professor. "However, if you look at the Bible, there's no encouragement to work, but there are a lot of rules against work," he said. "In the Commandments, for instance, the rule against working on the Sabbath has the death penalty attached to it, but now we're all workaholics. We think of work as a religious virtue, but it isn't."

Comedy and tragedy each are focused on the problems of life, Morreall explained. "Comedy isn't about success. Comedy, like tragedy, is about failure. It's about danger. It's about all the dark stuff. This is why Mark Twain said the secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow. He said there will be no humor in heaven," Morreall said.

Comic Relief is Morreall's fifth book on humor. A previous book, Humor Works, became the centerpiece of an international humor congress in Amsterdam in 2000. Other works by Morreall have been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Economist. In addition, Morreall, who is a past president of the International Society for Humor Studies, has served as a humor consultant to organizations, including IBM, AT&T and the IRS.