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Laughing alone, together: humor in quarantine

“My camera operator is my wife … and uh, we have my dog, Gary. My dog Gary is my first guest,” Jimmy Fallon announced to the camera in his March 17 episode of “The Tonight Show: At Home Edition.” When the camera pans to Gary, he sticks his face in the camera. 

This episode of the show, posted on YouTube, was the first of its kind from Fallon but is just one of the many examples of how entertainers and comedians have adapted to the constraints that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on the world. 

In times of high stress, tragedy and anxiety, people often turn to humor for a little comic relief, and as the coronavirus has spread throughout our world, temporarily altering life as we know it, the need for humor is clear. Within the broad realm of comedy, there is a specific brand that applies to situations like this. It’s called coping humor, and its uses and effects are numerous.

Coping humor is known to be used by ER doctors, firefighters and in plenty of other stressful work environments. It can also be traced back to times of tragedy, such as wars and the Holocaust, among others, and it often has a dark tinge to it as it employs the tragic material directly for jokes. But despite its dark roots, coping humor has a knack for bringing people together and creating a community out of tragedy. It speaks to the fears and anxieties of people involved and has a bonding effect. 

In these times of quarantine and COVID-19, well-known entertainers, such as Fallon, have adapted their shows to provide some comic relief. Fallon’s show from home not only provides his viewers with laughs from the intentionally-awkward scripted jokes but also provide a community feel, a notion that we’re all in the same boat, even celebrities. As he performed his monologue with his wife behind a hand-held camera, fending off his daughter’s occasional questions and dealing with her slight lack of cooperation, he shows his viewers that during this time, he’s just like the rest of us.

But Fallon and his late night counterparts (Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien, who all filmed from their homes as well) are not the only ones bringing some coping humor into the world right now. The University of Maine community’s own “UMaine Memes for Drunken Teens” Facebook page has highlighted the creativity and sense of humor from UMaine students during this unique situation. The page, unaffiliated with any official University of Maine System campus or administration, has given students an opportunity to turn frustrations and fears into humor, with jokes about room and board refunds, uncertainty regarding online classes, boredom during quarantine and more. 

Delving briefly into humor theory, there are a few explanations for jokes about these unusual circumstances, but to keep this out of scholarly article territory, we can stick with just one: the transfer of excitation. This concept maintains that when there are heightened emotions present from one stimulus (something causing anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, etc.), it will amplify the result of another stimulus. In plain terms, this means that when we’re feeling any of those aforementioned emotions (or others) to a great degree, if someone presents us with something funny, we’ll find it funnier than usual. So right now, these jokes, amplified by the boredom of quarantine, are providing some serious comic relief, as we’re using our built-up negative emotions for laughter instead.

There are a handful of other routes to take that display the importance of humor in these unusual times, but perhaps the main takeaway is that humor brings people together. While Jimmy Fallon used his platform to show himself as an average man in the same boat as the rest of us and UMaine students are cracking jokes about the current situation to ease their own frustrations and fears, it all gives us something we can laugh about. Humor in weird and uncertain times, humor about our own frustrations, fears and anxieties all falls under the umbrella of coping humor, and it helps us maintain a sense of community while we all laugh together, alone in quarantine. 

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