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Lecture shares wisdom of tomfoolery

When Randy Pausch gave his famous “Last Lecture” after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he stressed the importance of not taking life too seriously.

On Wednesday night, sociology professor Shawn Bingham mirrored that message with “My Days and Nights Researching What Funny Does … Seriously.”

More than 150 students and faculty attended Bingham’s lecture at the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater. 

“I want to start by saying and warn you that I am not very funny,” Bingham said. “I know there’s some uncomfortable laughter there. I’m an academic — we deal with theses, not jokes. Theses are the antithesis of jokes.”

Though Bingham said he isn’t dying anytime soon, he lectured as if it was his last chance on earth. 

The speakers of the Last Lecture Series are asked to give a presentation based on the question, “If you were to have one last chance to speak to a group of students, what would your message be?”

Bingham’s message was clear: “Humor reveals important boundaries in everyday life.”

“If it’s true that people who don’t like sports become sports journalists, and frustrated novelists become English professors, people who are not funny study humor,” he said.

Nonetheless, the audience was kept entertained throughout the hour-long lecture while Bingham discussed forms of humor and their uses. 

Relief humor helps the user navigate life and issues. Incongruity humor points out the difference between expectation and reality. Self-deprecation asks us to not take ourselves so seriously. There’s even police humor that is developed to defuse hostile situations without resorting to violence.

“I have a serious bias against people who take themselves too seriously,” Bingham said. “These people have shorter life expectancies, are less accepting, less flexible and while they are around they want the rest of us to be miserable with them.”

Bingham said the absence of irony in academia is disturbing. Logically, an industry that prides itself on critical thinking should embrace the ability to laugh at oneself. 

For 1.73 million published articles about depression, he said there are only 280,461 about humor — a 6-to-1 ratio. 

“One of the critiques mounted against looking at humor has been that like analyzing a poem, having to tell why something is funny kind of kills it,” Bingham said. “But like a flower or an animal, you have to kill a joke in order to study it.”

In his classrooms, Bingham said he uses humor to break up the illusionary hierarchy that separates students and professors. 

“Some humility and some self-deprecation makes you — and there’s research on this — more likeable,” he said. “I could suggest that academia could use a little more of this.”

When used correctly, Bingham said humor is a tool for dealing with other human beings.

“Humor can be a shield, an invitation, a way to process and make sense of everyday life,” he said. “It can be a way to connect things that are seemingly unrelated. It can be a flashlight that unveils hypocrisy, inconsistency, or even the fact in my case, that someone is taking something (more) importantly than it needs to be.”