Taking Humor Seriously

Taking Humor Seriously

October 21, 1999

With summer coming to an end, we at CEI have been spending some time mulling over some of the great questions facing our country. Among these: Should think tanks be funny? No, I don’t mean funny like Aunt Ida, or that smell coming from the basement. I mean old-fashioned humor.

It is a serious question. Think tanks, conservative and free-market ones especially, are seen as dreadfully serious. How many free market analysts does it take to screw in a light bulb? Probably just one. The facts are right, but it’s pretty boring.

That’s unfortunate. First, it means we get invited to fewer parties. Even worse, it means we squander an important major tool for getting our message across. The fact is, no matter how good your graphs and numbers are, sometimes the best way to get your point across is through a laugh. This was true when Aristophanes first poked fun at Pericles and it is true today.

One reason for this is that laughter is involuntary, and thus can get through the mental defenses people put up to arguments they simply don’t want to believe. No matter how strong the logical argument, sometimes you can’t break through that psychological wall. But make them laugh at an incongruity or an absurdity, and you’ve gotten through.

I remember a college professor of mine who authored a book on Soviet humor called What’s So Funny, Comrade? I hadn’t even known there was such a thing as Soviet humor. His point was a serious one, however. While Russians couldn’t – or wouldn’t – criticize the Soviet regime, they couldn’t help but laugh at stories about its problems.

This made it harder to deny problems existed: After all, why was it funny if there wasn’t a grain of truth somewhere?

For this reason, CEI sometimes lightens things up a little when making our policy case. That’s why last year we republished R.W. Grant’s Tom Smith and The Incredible Bread Machine, which tracks, in poetry and with illustrations, one inventor’s antirust travails. The result is, according to the National Journal, a combination of “Milton Friedman and Dr. Seuss.” We’re not sure whether that’s good or bad, but the book better conveys to readers the problems of antitrust than many weightier tomes.

Sometimes the mere choice of topics is enough to get the point across. That may explain the enormous attention CEI analyst Ben Lieberman has received for his attacks on federal regulations that limit the size of the American toilet. Ben was a bit startled by all the attention, as federal standards on other household appliances were just as extensive. (And, frankly, he probably feared being known forever as the “toilet guy.”) But somehow, the ludicrous nature of federal toilet controls seems to convey the problem of regulation run amuck as few other issues can.

Don’t get me wrong: CEI is a serious institution, and will always turn out thoughtful, factual analyses of public policy issues. But if we can make you smile, too, that’s not bad.