Andrew Horton believes the best way to understand a country’s people is to learn what makes them laugh.
“Laughter crosses borders,” he says.
Horton, a professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Film and Media Studies, is currently working on a documentary titled Laughing Without Borders. The film features the organization Clowns Without Borders, who sends clowns to entertain children in stressful environments, like refugee camps, across the world.
Twelve different countries send clowns to the program, including the United States.
Horton met and filmed four Swedish clowns as they visited Syrian refugees camps in northern Greece. He could not pass up the opportunity to showcase the importance of humor.
“We made the film and it was so important for me to see how laughter and these people could make these young people enjoy life again,” Horton told KGOU’s World Views.
“The focus is children,” Horton said. “But as you will see in the film, the parents are there, too, and they’re smiling and laughing.”
The clowns put aside their lives to create laughter in tense atmospheres. Horton says they are humans who want to help.
“Three of the four are actors,” Horton said. “But they had to put on a red nose and go out there and do their thing.”
Horton says the clowns “are the opposite” of the scary,creepy clowns that have gathered media attention in the United States. One clown, he says, would spend an hour “airplaning” kids by lifting them up with his feet.
“One clown would paint red noses on the children,” Horton said. “Another would play a ukelele and help them sing.”
Horton has written books over various subjects such as Screenwriting for a Global Market and The Films of Theo Angelopoulous. Horton’s films include the award-winning Something in Between and Brad Pitt’s debut feature film The Dark Side of the Sun. Horton served as the Founding Director of the New Orleans Film and Video Festival from 1988 to 1991 and has received many awards, such as The Jeanne H Smith Professorship in Film and Video Studies from OU.
Horton says laughter has been medically proven to make you live longer.
“People don’t get that humor is so important, so I think it’s something that’s got to be taught and get the word out there,” Horton stresses.
In Horton’s courses, he asks his students what they want written on their tombstone. In other words, what will be their “last joke.”
When KGOU World Views asked Horton what would be written on his tombstone, he replied “Mine comes from Preston Sturges, the great writer that I’ve done a book on from the 1930s and 40s.
“Everything was perfect except for a few details.”
Andrew Horton on the two questions he asks his comedy classes
So humor isn't just a joke. Humor takes a variety of forms and it can also get you thinking. One thing I often do at the beginning of a comedy class is to ask two important questions. When you were a child, who made you laugh in your family? Your crazy uncle? Your grandmother? Who was funny? And then they explain the family humor. And then the second question is: What do you want on your tombstone? It's your last joke. And I give examples. Larry Gelbert wrote MASH, Tootsie and everything, and his tombstone says “Finally a plot.” And none of the students have thought about a tombstone or they say, “I want to be cremated.” Fine, but have a tombstone, too. And they come up with good things. And our son wanted Warner Brothers, "That's all, folks."
Andrew Horton on the humor in the Greek economic problem
We need humor in life. That's what we're talking about. Well, we're talking about Greece and refugees so a Greek joke. People ask me, because I go to Greece every year and speak Greek and so forth, what's the Greek problem that they're having the economy and everything? And I said it's very simple. Think of it this way. One Italian, a serenade. Two Italians, an opera. Three Italians, a military retreat. One German, a scientist. Two Germans, a beer garden. Three Germans, a war. One Englishman, a fool. Two Englishmen, a club. Three Englishman, a colony. One Greek, one prime minister. Two Greeks, two prime ministers. Three Greeks, three prime ministers. That's their problem.
Suzette Grillot: Welcome to World Views.
Andrew Horton: So happy to be here.
Grillot: I've known you for years pretty much my whole entire career at OU. Every time I see you, you tell me a joke. We're starting with a joke.
Horton: We need humor in life. That's what we're talking about. Well we're talking about Greece and refugees so a Greek joke. People ask me, because I go to Greece every year and speak Greek and so forth, what's the Greek problem that they're having the economy and everything. And I said it's very simple. Think of it this way. One Italian, a serenade. Two Italians, an opera. Three Italians, a military retreat. One German, a scientist. Two Germans, a beer garden. Three Germans, a war. One Englishman, a fool. Two Englishmen, a club. Three Englishman, a colony. One Greek, one prime minister. Two Greeks, two prime ministers. Three Greeks, three prime ministers. That's their problem.
Grillot: That is a very interesting cross-cultural comparison with humor.
Horton: Stereotypes with humor.
Grillot: There you go. But that's an interesting point. When you say that stereotypes with humor, because often we tell jokes that are based on some sort of stereotypes. And so how about that? I mean first of all why humor? What brought you into humor? Why do you use so much humor in the work that you do? What does it do for us?
Horton: In my life, in my teaching. I'm in the film department. I love teaching of course in Global Film Comedy 15 weeks 15 countries. The exam is easy. Choose your three favorite films and explain why in relation to the countries. So when an Oklahoma student who's never been anywhere says, "My favorite is the Bosnian comedy that won the Oscar No Man's Land.” Two soldiers going into battle one says to the other “what's the difference between optimist pessimist.” He says, “it's easy. Pessimist says things are as bad as they can be. The optimist says they can be a lot worse.” And for the rest of the film everything gets worse. Bosnian humor. As I say, you want to understand a country. Find out what makes them laugh. Laughter crosses borders and that's what we're talking about.
Grillot: Well certainly laughter is universal. Everyone laughs, right but we don't always laugh at the same things. That is what is interesting when you study cross-cultural humor or international you know issues and what makes people laugh. And we've had comedians on this show before. We've had guests and visitors that study global comedy and those are always my favorite shows because it's always so interesting to hear about what makes people laugh. So what are the dividing lines what is funny in some places and not funny in other? That stereotypical joke you told, could you tell that joke in Greece?
Horton: Well yes. Yeah. The Greeks are able to laugh at themselves and that's part of what humor is about. And by the way medically, they prove that laughing you live longer. That is that is part of it. The Russia at the end of the 20th century when communism had collapsed and everything and they did a survey of the most popular image of a face in the 20th century the most popular image was Charlie Chaplin not Stalin or Karl Marx or anyone else. So that says a lot. And who was Charlie Chaplin. He was funny but comedy crosses the line with the sad and the tragic too. As Socrates points out there are often these in the symposium but look at Chaplin. What's he doing at the end of most of his films, he's alone. He doesn't have money and he's walking down the road.
Grillot: And this is somehow funny to us.
Horton: Well,no. He's given us the laughter but then he's ending with his continuing life.
Grillot: Moving on the next joke.
Grillot: Yeah. You know we just move from one joke to the next. I mean you said laughter you know keeps us makes us healthier. I mean study after study after study has shown that that humor is a method for de-stressing. It is definitely something that is good for our health. But again as I as I talk about some things really aren't funny and we're talking about war which refugees we're talking about very difficult subject. So how do we how do we work you know funny lines into that?
Horton: We're talking into that. We're talking about my film that will premier. Laughter Without Borders It's about Clowns Without Borders which began a few years ago. 12 countries send clowns trouble places in the same spirit. What they're winking to is Doctors Without Borders. And a year ago when Syrian refugees were coming through Turkey and landing on the Greek island of less force the news said American are there to help them laugh and enjoy life. I immediately went online and found the American clowns and got in touch with them by email and then by phone and then I went to New York and met them saying I go to Greece every year. I speak Greek. I love comedy. I have to make a documentary about you all. They said well thank you. But wrote the clowns rotate. And this year, 2016, it's Swedish clowns in northern Greece. They put me in touch, got in touch and with one of my alums, film alums from OU, Brady Foster, who has his own film company in Oklahoma and has been to Greece a number of times and loves it too. We did a fundraiser in Oklahoma City and wonderful people in Oklahoma helped contribute. OU contributed, Clark Stroud and others. And we went, we made the film and it was so important for me to see how laughter and these people could make these young people enjoy life again.
Grillot: So the focus is on children obviously.
Horton: The focus is children. But as you will see in the film, the parents are there too and they're smiling and laughing and there's scenes where a burka covered mother hands the child to one of the clowns and said, I'll come back later and said Life doesn't get any better.
Grillot: So what did you learn from this project in terms of the things you already know that laughter is important. We need to laugh at ourselves. But did you learn from this project?
Horton: I've been of course studying comedy in many ways, film, TV, life and taught a wonderful course with Joanna Rapf, a dream course here at OU a few years ago called Laughter in which we had experts come in - an expert on laughter and religion, rating the religions. The top of the list for laughter is Buddhism because a Buddhist don't believe in gods and punishment and hell. But the others do. And we did laughter and death. Alan Klein came and he explained what it's like to help people at the end of their lives deal with laughter. And we did all of that. What did I learn this time around meeting the clowns? A) That the four clowns and that's typical of what the Clowns Without Borders do. They tried to send two women two men the American clowns did that. With the Swedes.They wound up with three women and one man. But none of the people who were there are clowns. These are all human beings who want to help. They are basically three of the four are actors. But they had to put on a red nose and go out there and do their thing.
Grillot: Now clowns have been in the news lately. So tell the impact of that is pretty significant, right? I mean the fact that clowns have always been a symbol of something funny something that enlightens our life and it enriches our life and that it makes us laugh and although there have always been kids scared of clowns did a little freaky but now adults are scared of clowns. So do you foresee that this type of project the Clowns Without Borders and this type of work will transition perhaps to just focusing more on the comedy and less on the appearance of clowns showing up and working with children?
Horton: I think and we want our films to get out and people to see it everywhere to get the idea that this is the opposite of what these negative clowns are doing. People who see the film and see what they're doing, they have a tear in their eye and a smile and say, “How wonderful to see the faces of the children that we are seeing” and each clown does something different. One clown would paint red noses on all the children. And another would lift them up in the air. Another would play a ukulele and help them sing. They would spend the time and you would see the community. The parents are agreeing to all of this and you're saying “this is positive energy. This has to continue.”
Grillot: It's not only a distraction from what they're having to deal with but it's giving them a coping mechanism perhaps a way to you know tools to work through very difficult situations. Is there any connection to being able to address this problem in some other way other than just giving them a distraction? I'm just curious.
Horton: Well I have felt strongly that we have to pay more attention to humor in comedy. I would love to see several courses required to get out of American high school. One would be you have to learn the Native American language because we've been in New Zealand our children had to learn Maori. It's required. Hello. That would be one course but the other one would be comparative humor. Two that children should learn from the beginning how important it is. Remember since we're talking Greece, Aristophanes came up with Lysistrata. The sex strike comedy that was wonderful. It didn't stop the war but it got people going.
Grillot: It brings attention to it because it draws our attention.
Horton: Spike Lee winked to Aristophanes last year with Chi-Raq. His film about blacks killing blacks in Chicago and he made it totally like Lysistrata, the black women go on a sex strike.
Horton: And it starts with a statistic. More blacks have killed each other in Chicago than American soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan for the number of years we were fighting humor. We have to get the word out more. People don't get that humor is so important so I think it's something that's got to be taught and get the word out there. And the fact that there are 12 nations I see that will double in the next couple of years I'm sure that the 24 nations with clowns and once again these are not clowns. These are people who want to help. And in my film they explain that. I get one says I get depressed reading the news what can I do? This is one thing I can do.
Grillot: Well you and I collaborated on a program last year or a year or two ago where we brought in an expert who talked about global humor that wrote the book "The Humor Code." Peter McGraw Yes. Really really nice interview that we did with him. But at the time we asked the question about kind of what's funny and what is it. And particularly across borders. But this notion of he argued that it has to be a benign violation that you can't measure as you're referencing Spike Lee's work and other things. I mean there are things that people might not find funny right about refugees or as we were talking with with Peter McGraw sexual assault or war conflict those sorts of things that aren't funny but so. So they have to be benign violations. But that's pretty tricky. I mean you as a humorist as a comedian and as a as a screen writer that focuses on comedy you know how do you know where that line is?
Horton: Well it's kind of fun the way things come together in life. I'm just back from two weeks ago at the 22nd Buster Keaton festival in Michigan in his town where he used to live, Muskegon. And you realize, hello, slapstick is important. Watching people fall. It's someone else who slipped on the banana, not you. And it's funny. Buster is called Buster because his father threw him across the stage. So slapstick is part of what the clowns do. And just the image we have on the poster of one of the clowns lifting children up in the air. There's a line of children standing behind they all want to be lifted up into the air.
Grillot: And just to give a picture of this it's lifting him up in the air with their feet in the clouds laying on the ground with them using his feet, what we call an the airplane right kids like airplaning on the clowns' feet.
Horton: And they would average an hour of lifting them up in the air and you know 20 kids waiting to be done that. So humor isn't just a joke. Humor takes a variety of forms and it can also get you thinking. One thing I often do at the beginning of a comedy class is to ask two important questions. When you were a child who made you laugh in your family? Your crazy uncle? Your grandmother? Who was funny? And then they explain the family humor. And then the second question is What do you want on your tombstone? It's your last joke. And I give examples Larry Gelbert wrote MASH, Tootsie and everything and his tombstone says “Finally a plot.” And none of the students have thought about a tombstone or they say I want to be cremated. I say “fine but have a tombstone too.” And they come up with good things. And our son wanted Warner Brothers, "That's all, folks."
Grillot: So as we end, Andy. And I almost hate to end it here. What's going on your tombstone?
Horton: Mine comes from Preston Sturges the great writer that I've done a book on from the 1930s and 40s: “Everything was perfect except for a few details.”
Horton: And yours?
Grillot: Oh my gosh. I'm going to have to think about that. Get back to me later I. I think that's what's going on. All right. Well Andy thank you so much for being here and making us laugh as always.
Horton: Thank you. We have to.
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