Illustrations by Tim Mele
Comedy’s Unique Role During the Aftermath of
Societal Trauma
by Eve Lombardi

In the aftermath of societal disturbances, it is extremely difficult to return to normal life, especially in a world that has changed. Traumatic events such as the attacks of September 11 can have long-lasting effects beyond their initial impact, such as prolonged recessions and international turmoil. Interestingly, these times often lead to an increase in the popularity of comedy, especially on television. During such stressful and depressing times, one would not expect such a trend to emerge. However, considering the physical benefits of humor and laughter and the mentally detrimental effects of conventional news programming, the reason for this trend becomes clear. That is, comedy plays a unique and important role in facilitating the transition back to normalcy after stressful life events.

Because comedy can be misinterpreted as inappropriate during stressful times, it is often difficult to break comedy’s silence in order to eventually serve as a helpful agent. Author Paul Achter discusses this hesitance in his article “Comedy in Unfunny Times: News Parody and Carnival After 9/11” from Critical Studies in Media Communication. The attacks of September 11, 2001 caused a pause among popular comedians like Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien, argues Achter, who notes that shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart aired reruns for two weeks after the event (274). Achter quotes Conan O’Brien opening his first show after 9/11, who claimed that he had “never, ever felt more unsure or more at a loss” (275). After this initial uncertainty, the first television show to successfully display the value of laughter in public after the attacks was Saturday Night Live. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appeared on the show with SNL’s producer who asks, “Is it okay to be funny again?” to which Giuliani replies, “Why start now?” (Achter 275). Achter argues that this opening line itself reminded people of the need to laugh after tragedy.

Achter furthers his argument by pointing to the panel of comedy writers from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Modern Humorist, the New York Observer, The Onion, and Time that gathered in New York to discover comedy’s role during such unfunny times. The panel ultimately decided that comedy creates community when society needs it the most and that they would explore the role of comedy during tragic times (276). The function of comedy was observed through the stress that followed the attacks, and suggested that people do benefit both psychologically and physiologically from comedy. Meanwhile, news programming proves to be detrimental to mental health (Propper et al. 334). This harmful quality and the trend toward comedy viewing have contributed to the subsequent decline in mainstream news programming’s young audience members. Authors Ruth Propper, Robert Stickgold, Raeann Keeley, and Stephen D. Christman, in “Is Television Traumatic? Dreams, Stress, and Media Exposure in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001” from Psychological Science, argue that this transition is psychologically rooted. Propper and her colleagues studied the dream patterns of people before and after the attacks of 9/11, watching for increases in attack imagery, fear, and terror emotions as indicative of increased levels of stress (334). Their research reveals a strong positive correlation between exposure to media coverage and increased levels of stress and trauma.

Moreover, the study found a 5-6% increase in the proportion of dreams containing attack related features for every hour of watching news programming after 9/11 (339). One may argue that this increase in stress levels was caused by exposure to all 9/11 related content, not just that of television. However, Propper et al. discovered that simply talking about the events with friends and relatives was not related to the increase in stress-related dreams. Furthermore, they found that spending time talking to others about the attacks actually improved individual’s ability to process these events (Propper et al 340). This finding indicates that television coverage of traumatic events causes increases in levels of stress and trauma, justifying the increase in comedy viewing.

A Pew Research poll reaffirms this increase in comedy viewing and validates comedy’s benefits, displaying that young people are especially inclined to view comedy over traditional news sources. Marie-Louise Mares and Ye Sun, in their article “The Multiple Meanings of Age for Television Content Preferences” from Human Communication Research, suggest that age is an important factor in determining the types of media that viewers prefer. This inclination toward varying media sources is based on the historical moment, age identity, and emotional development of the viewer (Mares and Sun 392). Achter builds upon this idea, explaining that young audiences are more likely than their parents to accept comedy formats with a news focus and increasingly watch news parodies as sources of political news (278). Mares, Sun, and Achter would all likely agree that an all-encompassing societal stress, which occurred after the attacks of 9/11, would change what we as a culture find pleasurable and valuable in the media.

Further evidence of humor’s beneficial qualities in the aftermath of societal trauma is its prevalence in the field of social work. Carmen C. Moran and Lesley P. Hughes explain how humor helps social work students cope with stress in their article “Coping with Stress: Social Work Students and Humour” from Social Work Education. Moran and Hughes explain that being exposed to issues like poverty, child abuse, and discrimination make social work a stressful profession (502). Moran and Hughes point out that humor has recently become more popular in this field and has been found to be a coping mechanism that may alleviate the stress associated with both college and social work (503). Through their studies, Moran and Hughes found that an appreciation for humor was linked to an increase in overall well-being. Their work suggests that high periods of stress may draw people to humor (511). This finding explains why people who are experiencing stressful life events prefer humorous television to traditional news programs.

CM MacDonald, author of “A Chuckle a Day Keeps the Doctor Away: Therapeutic Humor & Laughter” from the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, expands upon Moran and Hughes’ research to explain why young people turn to comedy based on the benefits of laughter on a population experiencing stress. While traditional television coverage of traumatic events leads to increased feelings of stress and terror, humor and laughter work to bring these levels down. In one of MacDonald’s studies, people were randomly assigned to either one hour of laughter or one hour of quiet. While the control group showed no changes, the laughter group experienced a decrease in serum cortisol, dopac, epinephrine, and growth hormone levels (20). All of these decreases reduce the physiological stress response and subsequently increase immune response through increases in natural killer cells, T cells, helper T cells, and B cells (20).  Furthermore, MacDonald explains that laughter not only decreases stress levels, but also has many other physical benefits. After the initial muscular contractions caused by laughter, people experience relaxation of skeletal and cardiovascular muscle (20). However, while MP Bennett and C Lengacher, authors of “Humor and Laughter May Influence Health: III Laughter and Health Outcomes” outline similar evidence of laughter’s benefits, they initially doubted laughter’s physical benefits. They argue that since it is difficult to sustain periods of intense laughter, its physical effects are minimal compared to the effects of aerobic exercise (38). MacDonald would disagree with this statement, arguing that this conclusion is irrelevant since laughter is not meant as a replacement for exercise, but as a supplement to people’s physical and mental health.

Though Bennett and Lengacher draw somewhat different conclusions, these findings do not undermine the benefits of laughter that they observed, specifically on anxiety. In a study simulating a stressful waiting period, participants listening to a humorous tape while waiting reported significantly decreased levels of anxiety during the waiting period compared to those listening to a non-humorous tape, and those not listening to any tape (Bennett and Lengacher 38). One may argue that laughter simply distracts people from the stresses of everyday life. To prove this theory wrong, MacDonald conducted two pain threshold experiments while controlling for distraction.

In the first study, MacDonald assigned participants to a humorous audiotape, a relaxation audiotape, a narrative audiotape, or no audiotape (21). The narrative audiotape controlled for distraction by determining if the narration itself affected the discomfort threshold. Those listening to the humorous audiotape experienced a discomfort level that was significantly higher than all other types of audiotapes, suggesting that the benefits of humor are not simply distraction (21). To further focus his findings, MacDonald conducted another experiment to make sure that it was the laughter itself and not the distraction of humor that caused the increased pain threshold. Researchers observed the highest pain threshold after the humorous audiotapes that induced laughter, rather than those audiotapes that did not induce laughter (21). MacDonald’s studies may explain the increase in humor related therapies around the world. However, most people experience the benefits of laughter through television without directly realizing or expecting its psychological and physiological benefits.

One way that people experience these benefits through television is with late-night comedies such as the Tonight Show, The Late Show, and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Laughter’s therapeutic qualities and news programming’s detrimental effects explain why people would prefer watching these late-night comedies to traditional news sources. Lauren Feldman and the University of Delaware’s Dannagal G. Young further illustrate this trend in their article “Late-night Comedy as a Gateway to Traditional News” from Political Communication. Feldman and Young point to the Pew Research Center’s evidence that young people are abandoning traditional news as a source of election information. Instead of watching news programs that increase stress and anxiety, young audiences are turning to late-night comedy programs to receive their political information.

These late-night comedies are unique in their function based on how they combine political information with humor. Such shows combine topics in a way that makes politics interesting, entertaining, and informative without provoking the negative emotions associated with traditional news. Feldman and Young found, contrary to popular belief, that young people report high rates of learning from late-night comedy programs and low rates of learning from network news (402). They propose that these late-night comedies promote learning among young people because of the desire to understand the political humor and be in on the jokes (403). Feldman and Young also believe that these programs function as a bridge for young people to learn about politics and eventually as a transition into watching traditional television news (403). As a result, they argue that late-night comedies are beneficial because they eventually ease young people into watching traditional news.

 However, James Onusko, author of “Parody and Satire in the 2008 Canadian Federal Election” from American Review of Canadian Studies, would agree with Feldman and Young’s evidence but not their analogy of late-night comedy as a “bridge” to traditional news sources. While Feldman and Young focus on how late-night comedies elicit political interest from young people, Onusko emphasizes the importance of these comedies as a genre that can function on its own. Onusko argues that these shows are valuable because they integrate political information, humor, entertainment, and the news (138). This mixture of political satire and parody that characterizes “soft news” has become increasingly popular among young viewers compared to traditional “hard news” programs. While Feldman and Young view this popularity as a gateway to traditional news, Onusko argues that late-night comedies alone provide young people with pertinent and timely political information. He suggests that this information helps people make more informed voting decisions for federal elections (148). By combining humor and news, late-night comedies have successfully provided what the young population looks for and needs during stressful societal events.

While traditional news sources increase levels of stress and anxiety after traumatic events, society—especially the young—increasingly turns to comedy. Evidenced by the psychological and physiological benefits of laughter, comedy ultimately functions as a buffer during stressful life events. Laughter’s benefits help counter the traumatic effects of societal disturbances. Therefore, late-night comedy programs that combine news and comedy prove to be the optimal news source for a population that has recently experienced societal trauma.



Works Cited

Achter, Paul. "Comedy in Unfunny Times: News Parody and Carnival After 9/11." Critical Studies in Media Communication. 25.3 (2008): 274-303. PDF File.

Bennett, MP, and C Lengacher. "Humor and Laughter May Influence Health: Iii. Laughter and Health Outcomes." Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Ecam. 5.1 (2008): 37-40. PDF File.

Feldman, Lauren, and Dannagal G. Young. "Late-night Comedy As a Gateway to Traditional News: an Analysis of Time Trends in News Attention Among Late-Night Comedy Viewers During the 2004 Presidential Primaries." Political Communication. 25.4 (2008): 401-422. PDF File.

MacDonald, CM. "A Chuckle A Day Keeps The Doctor Away: Therapeutic Humor & Laughter." Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services 42.3 (2004): 18. CINAHL Complete. Web. 9 Apr. 2014.

Mares, Marie-Louise, and Ye Sun. "The Multiple Meanings of Age for Television Content Preferences." Human Communication Research. 36.3 (2010): 372-396. PDF File.

Moran, Carmen C, and Lesley P. Hughes. "Coping with Stress: Social Work Students and Humour." Social Work Education. 25.5 (2006): 501-517. PDF File.

Onusko, James. "Parody and Satire in the 2008 Canadian Federal Election: Reading the Rick Mercer Report." American Review of Canadian Studies. 41.2 (2011): 138-149. PDF File.

Propper, Ruth E, Robert Stickgold, Raeann Keeley, and Stephen D. Christman. "Is Television Traumatic? Dreams, Stress, and Media Exposure in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001." Psychological Science. 18.4 (2007): 334-340. PDF File.

Inspiration for my research paper came simply from exploring everyday things that I enjoy on a deeper level. As I began brainstorming, most of my ideas revolved around comedy or humor. I tossed around a few vague ideas about humor in social relationships, the function of sitcoms in society, and comedy as a stress reliever. However, it was when I began my research that I discovered a way to take elements from all three of these ideas to create a cohesive essay.

After my preliminary research, I shifted my view to look at comedy on a larger scale as a social stress reliever. Specifically, I became interested in the apparent increase in comedy viewing and subsequent decrease in news program viewing surrounding traumatic events, which is the opposite of what I expected to find. From there, I looked at comedy’s relationship to events such as recessions, the attacks on 9/11, and any stressful societal events affecting a wide range of people. Comedy’s appeal includes its social and psychological stress relieving capabilities, which help counteract the negative stress and tension traditional news sources cause. I explored people’s entertainment needs, looking at why viewing preferences shift based on current life situations. Further research led to the discovery of late-night comedy as an effective blend of the positive aspects of humor and the informative quality of the news, without the negative stress associated with traditional news programs. I soon shaped my focus into exploring comedy’s role during stressful societal events.

After homing in on this topic I began outlining articles and organizing my information in order to identify similarities and differences between each author’s opinions and ideas. I sorted this information into categories such as comedy’s health benefits, traditional news sources’ stressful qualities, and the advantages of late-night comedy. These ideas developed into something that I enjoyed researching and writing, and that I am still interested in learning more about. Overall, I pursued this topic because gaining a better understanding of how people react to stressful events with respect to television trends reveals what a society seeks and needs during times of trauma.

Prof. Cucciarre

Eve came into her Spring 2014, ENGL110 class saying, “I’m more of a science person, and not a writer.” Her researched paper proves that she is both. Even though she wrote about a cultural phenomenon, she approaches her research and writing with a scientist’s thirst for knowledge and evidence.

Students choose their own topics to research but instead of choosing topics that are meant to be solved, I encourage conceptual topics that often argue for a more thorough understanding of an issue. The reader should walk away after reading the paper knowing more and thinking more about a rich and complicated topic. Students spend almost one and half months working on their papers, so I urge them to pick something that is both interesting and rich in research possibilities. From early in the semester we discuss that there are few, if any, topics that are black and white and that one of the magical things about being in college is how welcoming the grey area can be when one admits that they can never know everything about an issue. Student research centers around this idea of the comfort in not knowing and desire in finding out more.

Eve took this prompt to heart when she decided that she wanted to write on comedy and trauma, an unlikely but smart pairing given our recent cultural history and how much of the younger population is turning to comedy for their news.

Paper Prompt PDF