Tom Purcell: Laughter really is still the best medicine

Published 12:13 am Friday, July 31, 2020

I missed it again. So did the rest of America.

July 1’s unofficial International Joke Day came and went without fanfare.

That’s regrettable, because we could all use a good belly laugh right now — which gave me an idea.

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The other day, after hearing more doom-and-gloom news while driving, I said to the Apple CarPlay app on my truck’s stereo, “Hey, Siri, tell me a joke.”

Siri, Apple’s voice-activated digital assistant, replied, “My cat ate a ball of yarn. She gave birth to mittens.”

That’s an awfully corny joke — but I laughed so hard, I accidentally steered my truck onto some roadside gravel.

When you laugh like that, it’s impossible to be angry — or to dwell on whatever personal or business challenge may hang over your head

A belly laugh is an antidote to the self-seriousness that’s one of the greatest afflictions of modern times. And with a pandemic killing thousands and crippling the economy, plus protests and social unrest, we need belly laughs more than ever. One psychologist suggests practicing laughing with a friend because “utter seriousness can drive us to despair.”

Social media gives everyone a platform to share thoughts, which is good. But some self-serious people get awfully huffy with others who disagree with or challenge their thinking. They’re so serious and so certain that those who disagree with them are wrong, even evil, that they demonize their detractors.

They don’t try to converse, debate or understand differing viewpoints. “OK, boomer” and “OK, Karen” memes offer cases in point.

Humor and laughter, wonderfully infectious, keep us from falling into the trap of self-seriousness, promoting goodwill, thoughtfulness and civility. “Humor is an elixir, a tonic that is good for mind and spirt,” says an executive coach.
Laughter’s power is incredible — and that power lasts.

One of my favorite family stories dates to the early 1950s. Freddy, my dad’s uncle on his mother’s side — a real character — had a neighbor who was among the first in their area to buy a VW Beetle. Behind the neighbor’s endless boasting about his Beetle’s terrific gas mileage was conceit — essentially, “I’m smarter than you, which is why I’m getting way better gas mileage than you!”

Freddy began sneaking next door at night to fill the VW’s gas tank. As he did so, his neighbor’s boasts grew louder and more tiresome — the guy was ready to call the Guinness World Records people, as his VW clearly was getting more miles per gallon than any other Beetle on Earth.

After a month, Freddy continued sneaking next door. But now he siphoned gas from the Beetle’s tank — to the point where the neighbor thought his VW was getting worse gas mileage than any other Beetle on Earth.

We’re still laughing at the braggart neighbor who suddenly stopped bragging.

There’s more evidence of the power of laughter. More than 60 years ago, my mother first heard this joke, which she vividly remembers, and still laughs at:

A lady who’d been grocery shopping was walking to her car when she tripped and dropped a paper bag and two eggs fell out of the carton and broke onto the pavement. She was so upset that she started crying. A drunk walked up, surveyed the situation, and told her, “Don’t worry, lady. It wouldn’t have lived anyway. Its eyes are too far apart.”

We all need to laugh more. It really is the best medicine for our current ails.

Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. Email Tom at