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Humanity is often its wittiest when things are at their worst. It's a basic response to death, I believe.

Which is why humor and Really Bad Things (tm) so often go hand in hand, and defines a sense of gallows humor. M*A*S*H was all about gallows humor, and in fact, the medical profession itself is full of it. Most people look at a surgeon with a bit of awe and fear. This is a person whom you're entrusting to carve you up like Thanksgiving's turkey. You expect them to be somber. Serious.

Wait until you're unconscious. If your bones stink more than is expected when the bone saw is a'workin' on you, you're going to be the butt of a joke or two. It's got to be done, a joke must be cracked. That smell (and sound) is nerve wracking, not to mention gross. I hope you never have to find out.

The one time I found myself in a life threatening situation--my own life, that is--was during a visit to Carlsbad Caverns. A friend and I had hiked the whole way down, took the tour, had a little snack, and then took the elevator back up to the surface. I'm not sure of the length of the elevator shaft, but the deepest cavern in the park is about 1600 feet. That's taller than the tallest building in the world...

The elevators were large and speedy, manned by a US National Park Ranger. The car my friend and I boarded was fairly full.

Thus, it dropped quickly when all the power in the caves, including the elevator, suddenly shut off. Thankfully we were closer to the top of our ascension rather than the bottom.

We didn't drop very far, but it was terrifying. Lights were flickering. The digital display telling us how far we had risen turned into a nonsensical display of imminent doom just like in the movies. People were screaming. A big jolt rattled us when the car finally halted.

All in all, a really tense situation. Even the ranger was scared: he fumbled the emergency phone, and his voice was pushed up a couple of octaves by terror. When he made a request for a pizza to be sent down to us, it sounded very rehearsed. As I'm sure it probably was. A woman panicked, hyperventilating and demanding that everyone stop breathing. She soon regained a bit of composure and started sobbing quietly and everyone was a bit disgusted with her outburst, though I think everyone was really just a bit jealous that we didn't have it in us to just collapse like she did.

I turned to my friend and said, sotto voce, "Well, this will be a story to tell our grandkids, eh?"

Our lady friend found the strength to shriek, "If we ever HAVE grandchildren!"

The ranger, in an amazing comeback popped off with, "Lady, I have every intention of getting out of here and having grandchildren. I'm going to bore generations of my family with this story."

That did the trick. The tension, and sense of near hysteria broke. People laughed, and re-affirmed their status as living beings. Even the hysterical woman managed to give a weak chuckle for the team. And fifteen minutes later, we were back on terra firma. Apparently a freak storm had taken out both primary power and the generators at the same time. We were all given a free meal or something by the Park Service, and went our separate ways.

The experience taught me a valuable lesson. The ability to laugh, even in the worst of situations, indicates just how much we value humor. At some deeply ingrained level, our ability to laugh reminds us just how deeply we are alive.

If there's a heaven, it's got to be stuffed with comedians.

It’s important to laugh.

It’s probably somewhere on the list of things that separate us from animals. Humour is the great leveller, the bridge between class and culture. And the great thing is that it stops nowhere: there’s no real barrier between what’s funny and what’s serious. Gallows humour is proof of that: they are the jokes people make on the way to the grave. They are how we laugh at death itself.

One of the scriptwriters of Yes, Minister once wrote an article about how everything is funny, and as proof he gave the story of his own father and his battle with cancer. His father was on his deathbed, a decaying corpse-in-waiting with tubes attached to every orifice. His family were gathered around him, trying to comfort him as he passed out of this life. As he shuddered and convulsed, his wife said to him, “is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable.”

With one of his last breaths, he replied, “any chance you could lick my balls?”

I get a little annoyed when people tell me that certain things aren’t funny and shouldn’t be laughed at. I believe in the transformative power of laughter, and I think that’s its most necessary in the places where it makes us uncomfortable. I love that Wilde’s last words were “Either the wallpaper goes, or I do”. I love that Spike Milligan’s gravestone says “I told you I was ill”.

Today, I sat for a few hours with an Algerian friend of mine. When we’re alone, we usually talk about Islam and politics. He likes to tell me that the main victims of Islamic fundamentalism are Muslims living in Muslim countries. New York, Madrid and London are mere blips, nice days out for the jihadists, compared to what he had to put up with.

Fundamentalists rule Algeria unofficially, and the compulsory national service means that every fundamentalist is a trained soldier. They genuinely terrorise the Algerians. If you stray off the reservation a little bit there and end up in a fundamentalist area, you’ll be killed for not following their strict Islamic code.

About twenty years ago, the fundamentalists started setting up road blocks. They completely look the part: they have uniforms and police cars and everything. The only difference from the offical police road blocks is that they are searching for contraventions of their strict Islamic law. If you are drunk, if you have an immodestly dressed woman, if you don’t have a beard, if you have a packet of cigarettes, they take you out of the car, kneel you down at the side of the road and slit your throat.

They’ve done this to a lot of people. More than the 50 people who died in London, the 350 who died in Madrid or the 3,000 who died in New York. 200,000 people have had their throats slit in Algeria. There is a record level of diabetes in Algeria, mainly caused by the stress of living in a country where you could be brutally murdered at any point.

So I was surprised when my Algerian friend started laughing and said, “in Algeria, we have a joke about this situation”. As liberal as I am about humour, I don’t see anything funny about a single throat-slitting, let alone 200,000 throat-slittings. But he laughs and he says:
“An Algerian guy gets really drunk and gets in his car. He’s driving along the road, and he gets pulled over at a checkpoint. He staggers out of his car, waves his hand at the officers, and says: “Okay, before you speak I want to say two things.

“If you are fundamentalists, then there is no god but Allah, Mohammed is his prophet, and death to the unbelievers.

“If you’re cops, pay no attention to me. I’m just really fucking drunk.”
You have to laugh. You really have to.

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