“There is no better starting point for thought than laughter. And in particular splitting your sides normally offers better chances for thought than shaking up your soul.”
– Walter Benjamin.
Laughing is a very serious matter. No doubt that’s how a light form of entertainment like cabaret became such an important social commentary at a very meaningful point of contemporary history.
Benjamin wasn’t the only German philosopher who explored the power of laughter. Another one did the same a few decades before and he was often invoked by the supporters of cabaret: Friedrich Nietzsche.
According to him, humour was an indispensable attribute for revitalisation of the human soul, which at the end of the 1800s as well as the beginning of the 1900s was a matter heavily felt by the Western World. In Human, All-too Human (1878), Nietzsche explored how the ‘joy of nonsense’ produces a powerful effect in the ‘overturning of experience into its opposite, the purposeful into the purposeless, the necessary into the arbitrary.’ Which is in essence the fundament of satire.
Satire consist in confronting a person’s stated values with his or her actual practices, placing the discrepancies between ideal and reality to the fore. This needs not be cynical. In fact the less cynical, the more creative and thoughtful it become, what it really may help people see the inequities of the world around them.
On a more general level, laughter may loosen all mental constraints and make room for innovative thought. As Sigmund Freud expressed in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) , laughter lifts both internal and external pressures, especially in a public context, and makes for a more relaxed and objective look at any problem. To Freud, jokes address matters that imply renunciation of any kind, and therefore creates tension: political authority, moral imperatives, the institution of marriage, religion, even reason and logic (which are challenged by non-sense jokes). By making fun of such people and values, jokes provide partial release from the frustration they generate, making room for freer thinking.
Cabaret worked chiefly with this same areas of life, precisely using satire and jokes and generally making light (or so it seemed) of this matters. The more committed and self-conscious cabarets supported such freedom of thought, and so provided an effective commentary of everyday life.
Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993