Pandemic is tragedy but it is being turned into humour to make pain bearable

‘Laughter is the best medicine,’ is one adage that has survived generations. And, it’s not without reason too. 

Modern research is throwing light on how indulging in bouts of humour can bring down stress levels and uplift moods. Not just yours, but the people around.

In the ongoing Pandemic, stress and fear are weighing heavily on us. During 2020, COVID19 spread across the world and pushed humanity into a state of swinging between hope and despair. Yet, somewhere it also tickled the funny bone of the Homosapien and led to a bit of humour. 

COVID LoL

Social media platforms particularly saw a deluge of humorous memes, jokes, videos, GIFs, and more – all related to the universality of the pandemic. Though, the scale and impact of the pandemic continues to be no laughing matter, even as we are completing the first quarter of 2021, with a handful of vaccines promising to protect us from the scourge. 

Delving into the humour side triggered by the pandemic and role of humour in general, the IIIT-Hyderabad has come up with some interesting results that should lift up our moods.

Using data extracted from tweets, a study done by a team from the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad  (IIIT-H) found that the type of humour derived out of someone’s misfortune or ‘schadenfreude’ was the most common type present irrespective of the time period. 

The Trump Case 

They cited the example when the former US President Donald Trump and the first Lady Melanie Trump tested Covid-positive. ‘Schadenfreude’ jokes reported an all-time peak then.  

In the Indian context, whenever governments announced new lockdown guidelines or policies with respect to the pandemic, satire and sarcasm were the most popular humour techniques deployed. 

“It’s similar to cartoons that we typically see in newspapers in response to official announcements, like petrol or LPG price hike. Sometimes, you feel helpless and resort to humour as a coping technique,” say Dr Radhika Mamidi and her dual degree student Gayatri Purgilla, who conducted the study. 

The IIIT-H team set out to analyze the type of humour that went viral at every step of the development of COVID-19.  “We wanted to understand if it is possible to deduce a trending topic, either universal or culture-specific based on the humour type,” says Gayatri. 

For instance, when the US reported a massive shortage of toilet paper as a result of panic hoarding in early April of 2020, it led to a surfeit of jokes on the same topic. “As was the case with Dalgona coffee or Work-From-Home memes,” remarks Dr. Mamidi, explaining how the frothy concoction born out of social isolation as well as the WFH acronym earlier restricted to only a handful became a universal phenomenon. 

According to her, while cartoons on animals taking to the streets as humans looked on from behind grilled windows were universal, toilet paper humour is culture-specific (thanks to its deemed irrelevance in our local context) just like the summer-induced papad and pickles memes during the lockdown was specific to India.

Humour Therapy

Joking one’s way through a crisis has long been considered a coping mechanism. Some doctors give friendly prescription to try humour therapy. Recent research studies are also throwing light on how using laughter as a stress-buster provides the much-needed diversion especially in an unchanging situation. 

In Hyderabad ‘Laughter Clubs’ have sprouted with members meeting in parks or homes and indulging in jokes, satire and laughing out aloud sessions.  My doctor friend, Dr Anirudh K Purohit, a leading Neurologist and Expert on Cerebral Palsy and formerly, Head of Neurology, Nizams Institute of Medical Sciences makes it a point to narrate a joke at the beginning of our conversations and end with one too. 

( Pic:Prof Radhika Mamidi at ‘Humour in Interaction’ (HUMIC) workshop at INTERACT 2017. )

The IIIT-H Group’s Work

At the Institute, Radhika, the professor of computational linguistics and her expanding team are exploring the role of machine learning into the world of semantics and linguistics of humour. 

There are two things that need to be focussed on in computational humour: recognition of text as humorous and automatic generation of such humorous texts. 

The IIIT-H team study on the Covid humorous tweets was presented virtually at the 11th Humour Research Conference (HRC 2021) organised by Texas A&M University, US recently.

Witty Chatbot

With one of her research areas being Dialog Systems, Dr. Mamidi is keen to bring in humour in a chatbot. The basic idea is to build a dialog system that not only understands humour but also makes humorous remarks. 

 “We were thinking of sarcasm. We used IMDB database and integrated a Q&A dialogue system into it. A simple non-humorous version would retrieve the answer to ‘Who is the director of this film?’

Now, insert the component of sarcasm and, if you ask, “What is the name of the last film that Dev Anand acted in?”, it will not only provide the relevant answer but end it with a sarcastic quip about your purported age or remark about your taste!,” says Dr. Mamidi. 

Further, she feels , “Humour being the toughest area for computational intelligence to grasp, it will make Human-Computer interactions much more natural and interesting. With humour enabled, the machines will be more human-like”.

Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad

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