COLUMNSExistentially Speaking

Having a Hearty Laugh Until it Hurts – at Your Expense

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“Laugh, laugh, I thought I’d die
It seemed so funny to me
Laugh, laugh you met a guy who taught how it feels to be
Lonely, or so lonely”

–Beau Brummels

By Richard Cirulli

Few may be able to recall this 1964 song of comeuppance, aside from the author and possibly a few baby boomers, a song that finds laughter and bragging rights inflicted on a former lover for her indiscretions.

In common parlance, it’s a story of karma, basically cause and effect, that rights a wrong by self-inflicted punishment. The storyline of the song offers a life lesson, and to a degree, amorality. What the laughter suggests is a form of humor, where we find laughter in other people’s suffering, misery, misfortune and status in life.

It is also the basis of ethnic humor, and administered by those who think of themselves as wealthier, better looking or more virtuous or wise. Hence, finding it quite humorous to mock other people they believe they are better than while   forgetful of the fact that in their “superiority” they, too, are not immune to death, accidents, unfortunate events and morbidity.

To place this in perspective, when the conquering Roman legions returned home from their triumphs and plunder, they paraded their booty, and prisoners – now slaves – in shackles through the streets to a jeering crowd. The Roman centurions would then have the prisoners shout to their captor “and you too will die,” to humble their captors to life’s reality.

Superiority humor is also found in the form of slapstick humor, where some people find it quite funny watching someone fall, believing it will never happen to themselves. And, when it does, they fail to see the humor in their pain. Well, he who laughs last, laughs the best. (Darn cliches!) It does make the point, that other people’s pain and embarrassment is amusing to some sadistic people.

“Laughter without a tinge of philosophy is but a sneeze of humor. Genuine humor is replete with wisdom.”

–Mark Twain

Well, philosophy has a lot to say about humor. Superiority humor goes as far back as Plato who believed what makes a person laughable is human evil, folly and self-ignorance. He also went on to say that superiority humor is derived from maliciousness.

This does beg the question: Should we laugh at Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise? Just think, there’s Adam and Eve living in paradise, clad in total bliss, before having an existential breakdown and deciding to eat the fruit of the scared tree to gain all wisdom, only to be thrown out of paradise for their stupidity. This beats any “Survivor” episode by a long shot. Hmm, maybe it was the pilot for “Naked and Afraid.”

The good news is this fall from grace was the genesis – no pun intended – of being an intellectual reaction to something unexpected, illogical or inappropriate in some way. This form of humor eliminates the zero-sum nature of superiority humor – I win, you lose – because I believe I’m better than you. 

“And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche

Below is a quick story by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who had a quick wit when it came to incongruous humor.

The heir of a rich relative wished to arrange for an imposing funeral but lamented that he could not properly succeed, for (said he), “the more money I gave to mourners to look sad, the more cheerful they look.” Bada bing! Jerry Seinfeld, look out.

The quotes of Yogi Berra are excellent examples of incongruity humor, as we can see from a couple of his sayings below:

  • “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
  • “It gets late early out here.”

Sadly, a reporter once told his audience after Berra was hit in the head by a foul ball, he was rushed to the hospital for X-rays, which showed nothing. A good example of superiority humor. But Yogi truly has the last laugh since his wit lives on in history, whereas the reporter is an unknown to history. Yogi was a true master of incongruity humor.

“God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.”


I’m going to add to Yogi’s quote my stating that nobody goes to (superiority) humor anymore, it’s too crowded. Because laughing at the physical and mental defects in others is simply grotesque. When someone stoops to such a low level, it is so sad and too painful to laugh at. 

Be well. Be safe. Be happy. Be nice. Amor fati!

Dr. Richard Cirulli is a published author, playwright and retired professor. His body of works can be viewed at He looks forward to your comments and can be reached at

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