What is the importance of humor and of laughter in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?
In Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, laughter shows that the men on the psych ward are growing towards health and independence. When Nurse Ratched is in control of the ward, the men rarely laugh. However, when McMurphy arrives, he tries to make the men laugh and demonstrate increasing independence from the nurse. As Chief says:
"I think McMurphy knew better than we did that our tough looks were all show, because he still wasn’t able to get a real laugh out of anybody. Maybe he couldn’t understand why we weren’t able to laugh yet, but he knew you can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side to things" (page 203).
In other words, McMurphy tries to build the men up to the point where they can laugh, an act of independence that shows they don't believe everything the nurse and their doctors say. At the beginning of the book, the men aren't able to laugh at all because they are under the control of the nurse and their doctors.
As the book goes on, many of the men grow healthier and are able to laugh. For example, when they go on the boat trip, they laugh together. As Chief says,
"I could...see McMurphy surrounded by his dozen people, and watch them, us, swinging a laughter that rang out on the water in ever-widening circles, farther and farther, until it crashed up on beaches all over the coast, on beaches all over all coasts, in wave after wave after wave" (page 212).
Chief describes laughter almost as a force that shows the men's will to assert their independence and find happiness. The men are able to do so in spite of the nurse, who pins warnings about bad weather on the bulletin board before their trip. Therefore, laughter is a sign of the growing health of most of the men, including Chief, and their movement away from the nurse's unhealthy and paralyzing control.