Anthony McCarten: On Laughter at TEDxMünchen (Transcript)

Anthony McCarten at TEDxMünchen

Anthony McCarten – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Hello. It is said that you’re asked to come and give a TEDx talk twice in your career: once on the way up, and once on the way down.

And may I say, “It’s great to be back.”

Laughter – that is our theme today. Laughter – I may not be able to produce much of it, but will try to shine some light on it, and ask the question: what is it, and what is its role in our lives and in our society?

I want to tell you four jokes today. That’s pretty much it. I’m going to tell you four jokes, and we will derive whatever lessons we may from these four jokes.

Before I tell you the first joke, as we are in Munich, I’d like to conduct a little experiment. Some terrible things are said about the German sense of humor specifically that you don’t have one.

And I’d like to put this horrible assumption to the test and do an experiment. So when I tell this first joke, I would ask that only the German people here respond. To either laugh or not laugh, as you see fit.

But please, don’t force yourself to laugh to skew the results. This is a scientific experiment, it’s terribly serious.

So here is the first joke. There is a man, he is dying in his bed in his home and he smells, coming from the kitchen, the most sublime smell. It’s the smell of his favorite chocolate chip cookies.

And with his last strength, he gets out of bed, and he goes to the kitchen, where his wife of 50 years, is cooking these beautiful chocolate chip cookies. And they are on a plate of four of them, just out of the oven. And with his last human strength, he reaches over to take one of the biscuits.

And his wife sees him, she rushes over, she slaps his hand, and she says, “No, they are for the funeral.”

Newsflash: TEDx talks reveals finally that the Germans have a sense of humor.

So, now a statement, here is a statement for you: those who lose the power to laugh, lose the power to think. If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think.

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If I can put that another way, the smartest people I know in the world are the funniest. The smarter they are, the funnier. And why should that be?

For me, the answer is that seriousness is not the correct response to the absurdity of life. The human comedy that would create beings, such as we, who are sophisticated enough to ask the huge questions, “Why are we here?”, “Who are we?”, but be really forever denied an answer and left in a state of existential tension which we seek to relieve in various ways. And one of these, the most effective for me is laughter.

Two old couples are walking down the street. Two women are walking in front of the two men, and one of the men says to the other, “What did you do last night?”

And the second man says, “Oh, I went to this restaurant. It was amazing. The food was fantastic, and the prices were great. Absolutely super.”

And the first one says, “Wow, sounds great. What was the name of the restaurant?”

And the second man says, “Oh! What’s the name of that flower that smells great? It’s red, and on the stems, there are little thorns.”

And the first men says, “Well, that would be the rose.”

And the second man says, “Of course.”

“Rose, what was the name of that restaurant we went to last night?”

For me, that joke is as priceless as a painting by Monet or a sonnet by Shakespeare. For me, laughter has always been extremely important.

Seriousness – I hope you will agree with this statement – seriousness is dangerous. Seriousness is dangerous, not just for ourselves but also in society.

And why should that be? I think, it’s partly that seriousness, the forces of seriousness, of humorlessness, would limit us to narrow thinking, rigid ideology, cruelty, and a tunnel vision whereas humor obliges us to have an open mind. It obliges empathy and forgiveness.

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Humor always forgives. The relationship between humor and seriousness has long been understood. Winston Churchill, a famous wit, once said:

“You cannot hope to understand the most serious things in life, unless you understand the most humorous.”

The American Civil Rights activist Clarence Darrow wrote:

“If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think.”

If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think. These two men were dealing with politics at a very, very high level, and they knew very well that sometimes only humor can break down entrenched positions and rigid ideology.

There was a flight, a Lufthansa flight from Munich to New York. The flight was going very well. It was almost in New York, and then there was a tremendous explosion from the right wing of the aircraft, and the captain’s voice came over the speaker, and he said, (with German accent)….

“Ladies and gentlemen, please, we have a problem with the number three engine on the right wing of the aircraft. Please do not panic, we have four engines on this aircraft. We have… (explosion sound) We also now have a problem with the number one engine, but we have two very good… (explosion sound) We have one engine, but I assure you the pilot is most capable of flying the aircraft with only…(explosion sound) Ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to make a landing on the water. I will speak to you from the water. Please do not panic.”

The Lufthansa pilot, of course, makes a spectacular landing on the water. And then, the captain’s voice comes over the speaker again, and he says:

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for following my instructions. Now, please listen very, very carefully to what I am about to say. All those of you who can swim, please line up on the right wing of the aircraft. All those of you who cannot swim, line up on the left wing of the aircraft, and I will speak to you from the water.”

So they do everything he says, and they see finally a little captain in a rubber boat rowing to the front of the aircraft, and he has a loudspeaker, and he says:

“Ladies and gentlemen, again, I congratulate you for following my instructions. Now please listen carefully to what I am about to say. First, those of you on the right wing of the aircraft, New York is this way. It is only three nautical miles, the water is warm, and the current is with you. Good luck. Those of you on the left wing of the aircraft, ‘Thank you for flying Lufthansa.'”

Why do we laugh? Why did you just laugh? Why do any of us laugh?

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Well, this question has perplexed philosophers for thousands of years. And the best of them: Plato, Freud, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche. Here is what they came up with.

They said that the reason we laugh is our ancient response to the passing of animal danger. That’s the best they could come up with, that we laugh because it’s our ancient response to the passing of animal danger, from which I think, people, we could conclude that asking a philosopher to define comedy is like asking Stevie Wonder to help you find your car keys.

Just as you cannot have a mathematical proof that isn’t built from pure mathematics, you cannot have a theory of laughter that isn’t funny. So let’s try again.

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