Gallows Humor: Famous Last Words

The funniest chimp alive.

This week’s Prompts For The Promptless topic is gallows humor:

Gallows Humor is humor that makes fun of a life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situation.

Humor, and the sense of it, is what sets the human animal apart from all the other animals. Well, to be fair, chimpanzees have exhibited a sense of humor, but it’s much less sophisticated than ours. It’s more of a pratfall type of comedy. Chimps do not understand sarcasm, because their language isn’t as developed as ours. They don’t tell jokes. Their idea of hilarious is mooning, making faces or putting something on their head.

The funniest chimp alive.
The funniest chimp alive.

So, yeah, humans and the funny. We got it. We rule the comedy game. Since we have such advanced language skills and we have always had a sense of humor like our chimp cousins, it makes sense that our language would contain and convey humor, too. Like chimps, we also enjoy a good pratfall, but our humor has evolved into language. There are some words that are just plain funny in a juvenile way like “poo” and “blumpkin.” I wouldn’t advise looking up the definition of blumpkin. It’s definitely not safe for work and there are some things you’re better off not knowing, but the word itself is hilarious.

Our language covers all conceivable situations. If it doesn’t, we make up a word for it on the spot. And since some of the words that make up our language are inherently hilarious, it follows that we can find humor in all situations.

Originally, the term referred to the last statements of condemned men before death by gallows. A gallow was a structure of two uprights and a crosspiece with a trapdoor used to hang criminals.
Image from wikipedia.
Image from wikipedia.

Gallows humor is one of the reasons why public executions drew massive crowds. Everyone wanted to see what the condemned man would say. Here are some great examples:

At his public execution, the murderer William Palmer is said to have looked at the trapdoor on the gallows and asked the hangman, “Are you sure it’s safe?”

When asked for his final request before a firing squad, convicted murdered James W. Rodgers said, “A bulletproof vest.”

However, the term has long since taken on new meaning and venues. Gallows humor is the exact type of humor that causes us to laugh at ourselves when we trip over something and fall squarely on our behinds. I don’t know about you, but when I trip and fall, I can scarcely get up because I’m laughing so hard. Humans find failure funny, either our own or others. It just is. I already wrote about that in the post Schadenfreude. We can find humor in absolutely everything.

It’s not that we find awful situations funny; it’s that humans use humor as a way to relieve stress. When you are in life-threatening circumstances, you really need something to relieve some of that stress, and voilà, along comes a joke.

In the modern age, gallows humor is most commonly associated with war. When you have people shooting at you with the intention of killing you and blowing things up around you all the time, it is incredibly stressful. Humans can only deal with that kind of stress for so long. If we don’t relieve some stress, it will kill us without the need of the enemy blowing us up. Plus, in that state, soldiers usually become sleep deprived, which is exactly the type of scenario where the word “poop” is at its most hilarious. Poop poop poop.

The jokes don’t even need to be true. This is an example of the type of jokes that make their way around the military: A young, freshly minted lieutenant was given a briefing on land mines. The captain asked for questions after the briefing. The lieutenant raised his hand and asked, “If we do happen to step on a mine, Sir, what do we do?” The captain replied, “Normal procedure, Lieutenant, is to jump 200 feet in the air and scatter oneself over a wide area.”

In addition to relieving stress, gallows humor has the added social benefit of boosting morale and camaraderie. It also undermines the confidence of the enemy. If you are in a foxhole being bombed by artillery and the enemy hears you laughing or singing songs, well, they realize they’re not doing a very good job of killing you, or at the very least, making you pants-peeing terrified.

Gallows humor has also led to some great famous last words from those who didn’t die on a battlefield or on the gallows:

When asked by a priest to renounce Satan on his deathbed, Voltaire said, “This is no time to make new enemies.”

“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” –Oscar Wilde

So, if you are ever in a stressful, life-threatening situation, go ahead and crack a joke or two. It will help relieve your stress and the stress of those around you. It will bring you closer to those in the same situation and make you feel better about your messed up life at the moment. Just make sure you don’t laugh so much that you put yourself in danger. Keep your head down and laugh away.