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.

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?”

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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.

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.

Let’s try here today to define comedy, better than Plato, and Nietzsche, and Freud. I’ve looked around for the oldest joke I could find, and I found one. It’s 1,000 years old.

At the end of the first millennium, this was knocking them dead and it goes like this:

There was a funeral in a church. You have to imagine a medieval church, and everyone is weeping in great tears, except one man. And the priest notices that one man isn’t crying. And at the end of the service, the priest goes up to the one man, and he says, “Did you know the dead man?”

The men says, “Yes, I did.”

And he said, “Well, why aren’t you crying?”

And he said, “Well, I would have, but I don’t belong to this parish.”

You’ll have to accept that 1,000 years ago that was a killer. But it does teach us something interesting about comedy: that to understand a joke, you have to belong to the parish.

Let me tell you what I mean. To understand a joke, you have to belong to the parish, that community of understanding, and if you feel you belong to that community of understanding, of getting the joke, then you will laugh at almost anything that reinforces your sense of belonging to that group.

Jokes connect us, they embrace us. And in sheer gratitude for that embrace, our mouths open, our chests fill with air, and our bodies do something utterly extraordinary: they make a noise that no other creature has, or will ever make in the entire history of the universe — laughter.

And what a privilege it is to be able to make someone else laugh. So when you make someone else laugh, you’re not just being funny. It’s not a trivial thing. You are inducers of hope, embracers of strangers, eradicators of hopelessness, you are physicians, and peacemakers.

I’d like to read you a little statement. It’s a quote, and I wrote it down. It goes like this:

“Comedy is the clash of one point of view colliding with another, one sensibility with another, high with low, East with West, light with dark, old with the young; a collision of two worldviews of two civilizations; and like two pieces of flint being struck together, a life-saving spark is given off and with this spark, you can light a fire.”

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I thought that was a wonderful quote. I wrote it this morning. I’d like to give you an example of how humor can be used to break down rigid thinking and entrenched positions.

In 1995, during the Second Intifada, Palestinian Intifada, I was in London, and I went to see the great Jewish comedian Jackie Mason. Terrific, very controversial in some of his comments. He was doing his normal show, very funny, and then at one point he said, he wanted to become very serious.

And of course, if you know Jackie Mason, the audience became very anxious that Jackie would say one of his very controversial things, and, in fact, he did. He said, “I want to speak about the Palestinian question,” and you could feel the tension in the audience rose tremendously.

And he said — this is what he said. He said, “I believe that Benjamin Netanyahu wants peace. I believe this. In fact, I think he would give back the West Bank to the Palestinian people this very day, this very day; but he can’t, because it’s already in his wife’s name.”

And the laughter in this primarily Jewish audience was so pronounced, it went on for five minutes. It was hysterical. And in that five minutes, you couldn’t help but feel that the possibility of peace had been advanced in some way, that somehow, compromise was just a little closer at hand, and that’s what laughter can do.

If we can laugh together, we can live together. You know what I think the secret of life is? Some people would say, it’s knowledge. But for me we don’t seem to learn very much in our human evolution.

History is a wonderful teacher, but we seem to be very poor students. For me, I think, it’s laughter. Laughter, the husband of truth, the arch enemy of dogma, transmuting the dross of existence into gold.

Someone asked me recently, “How do you want to die? Do you have any ideas?”

And I thought for a moment, and I said, “I think I want to die like my father did, quietly, in his sleep, not screaming like his passengers.”

The final line of any joke is called the punchline in English, and in German, in “Deutsch” I believe, it’s “die Poente.” It’s the line where the miracle happens; the line where we’re surprised by something that is revealed, and from that surprise is released joy.

And my parting wish for you all here today is that your own life be a joke. Yes, I want all your lives to be a joke, and that they have punchlines; that they have “die Poente,” as good as “No, they are for the funeral,” “It’s already in his wife’s name,” “Not screaming like his passengers,” and “Thank you for flying Lufthansa.”

Stay funny. Keep laughing. Peace.


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Resources for Further Reading: 

Ahmed Ahmed: When It Comes to Laughter, We Are All Alike at TEDxDoha (Transcript)

How to Humor Your Stress: Loretta LaRoche (Transcript)

Why I Don’t Do Jokes About Politics in India – Stand Up Comedy: Kenny Sebastian (Transcript)

The Funny Side of Fear – Conquering Anxiety Through Comedy: Daniel Hardman at TEDxDouglas (Transcript)

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