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What’s so funny about tragedy? Some new books try to answer

At a Saturday afternoon memorial service for journalist Wade Nelson, many funny stories were told and much laughter echoed through the stately Unity Temple in Oak Park.

There were also plenty of tears.

That’s the way it is, isn’t it, sorrow and humor often in some existential balancing act?

But why?

Mel Brooks has argued that we need jokes “as a defense against the universe.”

Gini goes on to write, “We need humor to fight off our fear of living. Joke-telling is an attempt to keep at a distance our fear of the unknown, the unanswerable, and the unacceptable.”

And since life keeps throwing the unknown, the unanswerable, and the unacceptable at us with ever-increasing frequency, do we need humor more than ever?

It is all but impossible to argue with Bert Haas, who has heard millions of jokes since he started as a waiter at the first Zanies comedy club in 1980 and is now executive vice president of the four-club operation. He told me years ago, “When we are confronted with tragedy we use laughter to release tension.”

explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, a tragedy that killed seven people.

The comic, whose name I can no longer recall, happily obliged:

What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts.

And laughter filled to room, as it did on another night when the late Sam Kinison took on the story of the Crucifixion, saying, “So, there are 40 Christians standing around, saying, ‘It’s such a shame that he has to die.’ And Jesus is up there on the cross, saying, “Well, maybe I wouldn’t have to if somebody would get a ladder and pair of pliers.”

Jim Brogan was

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