Think about the last thing that made you laugh, and exactly what happened when you did. Maybe something or someone caught you by surprise with a gesture or a phrase. In any case, the first thing that happened was that you exhaled as you started to laugh, and that was followed by an inhalation deeper than your breathing had been before the laughter caught you. Laughter makes you breathe. It may also leave you breathless if it goes on long enough, but it makes you breathe. It makes you more alive. And no matter how you felt before the laughter, you feel good after it. Laughter heals you.
Welcome to a continuation of the psychology and physiology seminar series at
The topic today is humor, and particularly how laughter helps us deal with adversity and heal from wounds. My thesis is that Dean Winchester in particular makes one heck of a therapist, because he understands at a very practical level the uses and effects of humor. We’ll explore evidence from episodes supporting this thesis, and I would welcome additional contributions on your part. I would also welcome challenges, if you disagree.
Supernatural carries a high level of angst. After all, the first season opened with the recollection of the death of Mary Winchester, and then went swiftly on to visit John’s disappearance, highlight the divisions within the Winchester family, and progress to Jessica’s death, Sam’s frightening abilities, and the appalling realization that what had happened to the Winchesters hadn’t been random mischance, but demonstrated targeted malice by profound evil. The second season episodes have steadily increased that burden, exploring the impact of John’s death, the revelations concerning the demon’s plans for Sam, Sam’s fears of becoming something evil, the guilt and pain of both boys having killed people, and Dean’s burden of protecting his brother, with the attendant grief of knowing that he can’t protect him from everything.
Supernatural is also known for snarky humor, particularly on Dean’s part. Think of almost any episode, and the best funny lines will almost inevitably come out of Dean’s mouth. I’m certain that all of you will be able to contribute multiple lines to the overall collection.
But Dean is a master of more than just snark. He uses humor as his personal defense mechanism to deflect pain, something the yellow-eyed demon gleefully pointed out in Devil’s Trap, but he also uses it to heal others, especially Sam.
Think back over both seasons of the show, and you will see many examples of both Dean’s defensive and healing uses of humor. The defensive ones are the most common, and occur in almost every episode. I’m not even going to highlight them. I’ll leave that to you, and I know you’ll relish the assignment. Devil’s Trap is a no-brainer, since the demon actually calls him on it there.
The healing uses of humor, on the other hand, are more rare. Dean is often unusually sensitive to the feelings of others, and extends open compassion to them more often than his humor-laced variety, especially to kids or frightened women. Just think of his gentle approach to Lucas in Dead in the Water and Michael in Something Wicked. There was no teasing there; just honesty and acceptance. He was similarly sympathetically direct with Haley in Wendigo, Emily in Scarecrow, Layla in Faith, Jo in No Exit, and Diana in The Usual Suspects, just to name a few.
With regard to humor offered as healing to others, the humor emerged with Haley in Wendigo, particularly when Dean defused the emotional scene where he told Haley the truth by pulling out his bag of peanut M&M’s to challenge her observation that he and Sam had no provisions, and at the very end, when Haley asked how she could thank him, and he responded in trademarked Dean fashion. Dean’s healing use of humor also appeared in order to buck up Kat several times in Asylum.
But I would submit that the humor appears most often in its healing context to bolster Sam, who could be presumed to understand better than a stranger that Dean’s teasing is intended always to be supportive, never destructive. Dean’s healing humor is offered most often to step aside from emotional intensity, to provide for a laugh when tears or a confrontation about feelings and relationships would otherwise appear. We saw healing humor for the first time in the pilot, when Dean, once reassured that Sam was all right, threatened mayhem if Sam had hurt the Impala, and again in Wendigo, when Dean offered, totally against type and experience, to let Sam drive the Impala in an effort to bring him out of his funk over Jess. We saw it very openly in Nightmare, when Dean used his teasing reference to taking Sam to Vegas to reassure Sam that his psychic abilities didn’t affect the way Dean felt about his little brother, even though Dean’s worry factor had gone through the roof.
The healing humor factor also appeared openly in Hell House. Although the prank war began out of a moment’s boredom and a target of opportunity for humor, Dean in the diner was very frank about why he continued it when he told Sam, very simply, You need more laughter in your life. Truer words were never spoken.
Dean’s ability to extend humor to help others took a heavy hit in season two, because the combined stresses of believing that John’s death was his fault and learning that he would either have to save Sam or kill him crippled his own emotional balance. He couldn’t make the usual big brother jokes any longer about killing Sam for being aggravating, because they hit too close to home for comfort. But when he recovered that balance by making his own peace with the burden John had laid on him, his gift of healing with laughter came back full force, and the very best example of it appeared in the conclusion of Born Under a Bad Sign. Despite having been pistol-whipped, shot, and beaten by Sam while possessed by Meg, Dean found the perfect way to pierce Sam’s guilt and shame; he couldn’t help but chuckle, and when Sam, annoyed by his levity, persisted in asking what he was thinking, he answered, Dude – you like, full-on had a girl inside you, for, like, a whole week. That’s pretty naughty. And even Sam, in the nadir of his experience and his belief in himself, had to laugh, and begin to heal.
The lesson I draw from all of this, and want to share with you, is the importance of never losing the ability to find the humor in any situation; the importance of finding something, however insignificant, that will make us laugh, make us breathe, make us live, make us heal. We could all learn that lesson from Dean Winchester. Humor can keep us going when we would otherwise give up, and give us the ability to encourage others to continue past all reason. While we keep our humor, we keep our ability to laugh, to breathe, to live, and to heal not only ourselves, but others.
So laugh with me. That’s your assignment. Laugh, and find more examples where Dean Winchester’s humor helped to save him, or Sam, or someone else.
Class dismissed. So – laugh!