Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Humour vs bad taste

Al-Ahram Weekly

Some think he is funny. Some rate him the No1 comedian today. Others can hardly solicit a smile in his favour.

His name is Will Ferrell, a graduate of that classic TV institution, Saturday Night Live, which produced such great comedians as Eddie Murphy, John Belushi and Steve Martin who went on to form great careers in film, as has Ferrell. He is not in their class, mostly because his efforts are forgettable.

Nonetheless he is really big in Hollywood, and Hollywood is famous for recognising mediocrities and wallowing in bad taste. For decades its humour was based on denigrating ethnic and religious minorities from Orientals to Native Indians, African Americans, Catholic priests and now Arabs.  Did they ever stop to consider the honour, the dignity of those groups who found their humour, humourless?

Hollywood may possess the art of shrouding vulgarity and bad taste behind a laugh, but to some of us whose demands of life remain high, “We are not amused”, as British Queen Victoria would say.

Much as we appreciate the fact that the humourist must be allowed some latitude on any given subject, we are grateful when it is contained to the periphery of good taste. Once this thin line is crossed, the humour is transformed to tragedy.

And so it was with Mr Ferrell. For the last two years he has been committed to produce and star in a film satirising President Ronald Reagan during his second term, his Alzheimer years.  When the project was finally announced to the public, it created such indignation as has never been seen in tinsel-town.  The media lambasted him, the public denounced it and the Reagan children condemned it in no uncertain terms:  Son Michael said: “What an outrage! Alzheimer is no joke. It kills!  You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Daughter Patti Davis wrote him an open letter:  “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia centres. I have. I didn’t find anything comedic there and my hope that you are a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.”  That did it. The actor backed out!  Our guess is that it was not decency or humanity that moved him, but the fact that he saw his career going down the drain.

Humour is desirable! It eases our toil — lengthens our lives — and adds immensely to our daily pleasures.  But laughter at others’ sorrow robs us of some of our humanity.

Alzheimer’s disease is no laughing matter. To be trapped into a dark labyrinth, where your mind blocks all recognition of time and place, of who you are and who you were… a prisoner in a vast vacuum with no beginning and no end… No state could be more sorrowful, especially for the caretakers. The cause is unknown, so is the cure. Even the disease itself though diagnosed, can only be confirmed after an autopsy is performed on the victim.

Some mistake it for ‘Dementia’.  Dementia is not a disease, it is a condition caused by a variety of reasons, resulting in a group of symptoms affecting memory and reasoning.  Old age can cause dementia, so can depression, stroke, HIV, vascular diseases, drug abuse, head injuries, etc but 70 per cent of cases are caused by Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Alzheimer’s responsible for 50 per cent.

This dreadful word that drives fear in our hearts was discovered over a century ago. A young physician, Dr Alois Alzheimer was born to a Catholic family, June 7, 1864 in Lower Franconia. His father was a notary in the Kingdom of Bavaria. He sent his son to the best schools in Berlin, Freiburg and Wurzburg, where he graduated in anatomy and psychiatry. At the University of Heidelburg he met and befriended Emil Kaeplin, noted psychiatrist.

It was in 1901 while studying as a senior assistant at the Frankfurt Psychiatry Hospital that he came across the strangest case of a 50 year old woman, referred to as Auguste D.  Dr Alois had just lost his wife and had more time to devote to his work.  Auguste D’s husband, no longer able to care for her, admitted her to the Psychiatry Centre. He described her strange symptoms of aggression, depression, sleep-disorders, memory disturbance, progressive confusion and bouts of endless weeping. The symptoms increased in intensity with time.  

Dr Alzheimer committed himself to the case of Auguste D.  He became interested in the symptomology progression and course of illness from the time of her admission. He recorded every symptom, documented it and studied it for years until her death in 1906. Under the microscope, he was able to investigate the brain.  His report noted distinctive plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain histology.  It was a peculiar case of a severe disease process of the cerebral cortex. He combined a 5 year dramatic, detailed study to present to the 37th meeting of ‘South West German Psychiatrists’ in Tubingen.

His report received little interest among the attendants and the press.  Only his old friend and associate Dr Emil Kaeplin was enthusiastic about Alzheimer’s findings and called it Alzheimer’s disease.

Disappointed but not discouraged, Alzheimer recorded two more cases, but he died in 1915 after gaining the chair of Psychiatry in Breslau, but long before his name became a household word.

Would he have laughed at a satire on a disease that devours its victims mind and soul and then kills them? How funny is that?

Do you hear any laughter?


“Tact consists in knowing how far we may go too far.”

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963)

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