“Just purse your lips and whistle — that’s the thing!” Eric Idle, Monty Python
When Eric Idle first presented “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to the other Monty Python cast members, Michael Palin wrote in his diary that “It was rather coolly received.” Terry Gilliam hated it, although he had to admit, it did touch on the British trait of stoicism in the midst of adversity.
Funnily enough, once Idle turned it into a “cheeky version,” it seemed to work fine. Add a crucifixion and they had the perfect ending to Life of Brian.
On an interview show some month’s after the movie’s launch, Idle admitted it was a parody of the song “Give a Little Whistle” from Disney’s Pinocchio. The main character is about to die, making it deliberately ironic. Since Life of Brian is totally ironic, the song made perfect sense and became immensely popular.
It was so popular, in fact, that during the Falklands War, when the HMS Sheffield was hit by an Argentine Exocet missile, Sub-lieutenant Carrington-Wood led the crew in singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as they were rescued from the sinking ship.
Nobody’s saying we have to end up a bloody mess. Laugh and, like Kurt Vonnegut said, “There’s less to clean up afterwards.”
Imagine being an Argentine officer, trying to enjoy a direct hit, while your target is singing some goofy song. Eventually, you give up watching rather than wait for the next verse (no doubt stuck in their heads anyway, since it’s tough to forget dum dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum).
As Idle expressed in the lyrics “Forget about your sin — give the audience a grin.” In other words, why die tragically (figuratively or really) when you can “laugh, dance and sing.” Nobody’s saying we have to end up a bloody mess. Laugh and, like Kurt Vonnegut said, “There’s less to clean up afterwards.”
Now, admittedly, not everyone likes humour — or even gets it — but it remains a good thing when tragedy occurs. Crying and comedy are interrelated. Laughing till you cry is considered medicinal.
We forget this, of course, since our lives are terribly serious. Tragedies are everywhere. You can’t swing a proverbial cat without hitting some form of natural disaster or war in progress. Add a loopy president, a country launching missiles like fireworks, and terrorists calling every cat and cow “infidels,” and you’ve got a wacky world just waiting for three-part harmony.
If you think about it, we should sing and laugh through everything. Why we don’t is foolish. Every mental health expert will tell you it activates and releases a huge amount of beta-endorphins. These are a form of morphine produced by our brains. Laugh and you get an immediate fix. Be serious and you don’t get any fix at all. Why spend money on drugs when your brain is the best dealer going?
People who watched the funny clip revealed 30% more personal information, meaning they were more at ease (and just bloody chatty).
In a 2015 study, psychologists Alan Gray, Brian Parkinson and Robin Dunbar had participants watch two films: one funny and one neutral. People who watched the funny clip revealed 30% more personal information, meaning they were more at ease (and just bloody chatty).
Those who watched the neutral clip remained wary and close-mouthed. Considering this is an era of information exchange, we should be watching funny films every minute of the day. Google, Facebook and Instagram should insist on it.
After Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, John Cleese made a series of brilliant corporate training films. Using humour, he engaged employees the way no typical training film could — or did. What people remembered was memorable because it was funny. “They were enjoying themselves,” Cleese remembered, claiming it didn’t diminish the message at all.
“We learn in so many ways,” he explained. “If humour gets the point across effectively, why address people like they’re in a penal colony?”
That’s the great thing about humour. Besides making us laugh, it helps us absorb information we’d otherwise find monotonous.
Laughter makes us less wary, less inclined to close ourselves up.
Think of our ears, eyes and mouth as portals. When we’re sitting through a dull presentation, our eyes, ears and mouths are barely open (if at all). Laughter makes us less wary, less inclined to close ourselves up.
Yet each day, in our corporate or personal lives, we listen to the monotonous, believing that’s what we should do. The speaker is monotonous because they believe that’s what they should do. It’s pretty dreary stuff.
We throw around words like “robust,” the silliest word in existence. Every newscaster and speech writer has used it at one time or another. Is it any wonder we’re seeing a decline in television viewership?
As Groucho Marx once said, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
In news stations around the world, the worst calamities are focused on, leaving humorous incidents either to the end or ignored completely. “Always lead with the bleed” is a common term in the news arena, with commentators looking like morticians, and experts looking like petrified trees. Viewership is down because we’re too depressed to be interested in anything more depressing than ourselves.
If you’re already serious, what’s the point of carrying on a conversation? You might as well watch the news.
A woman went on social media with a post entitled “Why Won’t Men Take Me Seriously?” The answer should be obvious. If you’re already serious, what’s the point of carrying on a conversation? You might as well watch the news.
Or the person on a dating site saying, “I want someone who’ll make me laugh.” That’s like asking for your own personal comedian. Do you need a personal comedian? Can’t you just rent one instead of dating one?
Humour exists because, without it, we’d all be slitting our wrists. We’ve got so many wars, religious persecutions, racial persecutions and gun-toting right-wingers thinking any altercation—including a slow order at a restaurant—requires shooting off a full of clip of hollow points, just to show you’re upset.
Isn’t it easier to always look on the bright side of life? As the lyrics go: “When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle! And this will help things turn out for the best.”
We can’t all be slitting our wrists or spraying restaurants with what ammunition we’ve got. We should listen to Kurt Vonnegut — and Eric Idle — and avoid the mess.
That might be too easy an explanation, especially given our natural inclination to worry. But it might be the only way to reduce at least some of the stress in our lives. We can’t all be slitting our wrists or spraying restaurants with what ammunition we’ve got. We should listen to Kurt Vonnegut—and Eric Idle—and avoid the mess.
Nobody likes a mess, least of all serious people who take life and messes too seriously. Better to laugh, and let the commentators, experts and politicians look like petrified trees. As Joan Rivers once said, “I enjoy life when things are happening. I don’t care if it’s good things or bad things. That means you’re alive.”
As Joan Rivers once said, “I enjoy life when things are happening. I don’t care if it’s good things or bad things. That means you’re alive.”
Isn’t it better to be alive than look like a petrified tree? In the Tao, it says you’re better off swaying like a willow than remaining stiff like an oak. That’s good advice. Willows are pretty smart trees. We should be more like willows.
Robert Cormack is a satirist, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Skyhorse Press or Simon and Schuster for more details.