Saturday, February 06, 2010

Why Do People Laugh? I Turn a Ripoff into a Tipoff for My Reviewing Students

Cover of "Wit and Its Relation to the Unc...Cover of Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious

Here’s something I pulled off the Internet that may be useful in writing about The Office. It’s a summary by a USC English professor of some of theories about why people laugh and what laughter means. These comments illustrate several things:

1) Much disagreement exists about the nature of laughter. That disagreement probably reflects the fact that contradictory ideas about laughter are part of the tension between fundamental ways of looking at the world. Thinking about laughter is a small corner of much larger arguments about much larger philosophical differences.

2) The fact deep thinking about laughter has already been done makes it easier for us, not harder. Someone has already done the heavy lifting! If we find some theoretical insight that seems to give us a better focus on something that makes us laugh (or fail to even though it’s supposed to be funny, we are told) we can use it without trying to justify the insight, though we would certainly present examples from the thing being reviewed. We might write: “I read somewhere that laughter is …, and that helps me make sense of….”

3) Obviously, you can’t do too much of this if you are doing a relatively short review for a relatively broad audience. You are writing a review, not a scholarly treatise. You might educate your audience a little, but you don’t talk down to your audience.

4) Some of the following material I don’t understand by which I mean that I could not possibly put it into my own words. It’s not that I disagree with it; I just don’t get it. Be careful about tossing in jargon for its own sake. You are essentially saying of one or more of the following ideas: You know? That makes sense to me. It puts words to my feelings.

Introduction – Excerpts from The Nature of Laughter, which you can see online at

James R. Kincaid, Aerol Arnold Professor of English, University of Southern California

Some excerpts

One unavoidable issue, however, appears in most theoretical analyses of laughter and must be dealt with before a more general discussion can be attempted: the degree to which laughter expresses (if it does at all) hostility, aggression, the vestiges of the jungle whoop of triumph after murder, and other unpleasant impulses. The corollary to this issue is the debate over whether laughter is incompatible with sympathy, geniality, or indeed with any emotion. (MR: Interesting. Is there such a thing as friendly laughter? Are we laughing at Michael Scott or with him? ) Roughly speaking, the dark-laughter theorists spring from Thomas Hobbes; the genial-laughter theories from Jean Paul Richter. Without retracing the steps of this very tortuous, often confused, and usually truculent argument, one can, I think, accept the reasoning of Arthur Koestler, which is based on the simple fact that nearly all the important writers on the subject have, [9/10] for hundreds of years, noted "a component of malice, of debasement of the other fellow, and of aggressive-defensive self-assertion . . . in laughter -- a tendency diametrically opposed to sympathy, helpfulness, and identification of the self with others" (p. 56) I find this argument and the evidence given by the theorists cited above (see note 24) conclusive…. (MR: Sounds like Kincaid is a “laughing at” guy.)

One of Henri Bergson's most important distinctions, which, if noticed, would silence almost all of his critics, applies here. After arguing that "laughter has no greater foe than emotion", he adds, "I do not mean that we could not laugh at a person who inspires us with pity, for instance, or even with affection, but in such a case we must, for the moment, put our affection out of court and impose silence upon our pity" (p. 63). (MR: So in the moment we have contempt for someone but later on, in another moment, we might forgive his stupidity??? I might be able to do something with this idea in a TV sitcom review.) The key phrase is "for the moment"; our ordinarily active sympathy is temporarily withdrawn in the process of laughing….

Bergson sees the basis of all laughter in the conflict of the rigid and mechanical with the flexible and organic; the key is "something mechanical encrusted on the living" (p. 84). He sees laughter as, above all, a "social gesture" (p. 73), the corrective by which society humiliates in order to preserve itself from the deadening effects of what Matthew Arnold called "machinery" -- political, ideological, social, and psychological rigidity. Therefore, "we laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing" (p. 97) and, of course, at the converse. (MR: Might this have something to do with the ridiculousness of someone who doesn’t learn from experience? “Satire” is an interesting idea if you define it as ridicule that is supposed to promote change.)

(This theory is consistent with) a vision of human beings fundamentally isolated from one another and from their environment, but also because of laughter as a rhetoric tool to enlist (the audience) in a protest against isolation and mechanistic dominance, and in support of imaginative, sympathy and identification with others….

Bergson's clarity and lucidity become simplistic if stretched too far, and one is forced to turn to more subtle and complex theorists, principally Freud. Freud's work on laughter, though by no means universally accepted, comes about as close to that position as any single statement reasonably could. (MR: Freudianism was still quite a big deal as a tool for literary analysis when I was in school. But I thought that wasn’t true anymore. Reminder to self: Ask chum in English department.) More important, his concept of laughter is far more flexible and inclusive than most, and takes into account two factors in laughter that are often separated and treated as exclusive: the offensive release of aggression, hostility, or inhibition and the defensive protection of pure pleasure, joy, or play. Though the complexity of Freud's argument makes it extremely difficult to summarize (there is, however, a successful and extremely useful summary and clarification by Martin Grotjahn), a brief discussion is essential.

The major part of Freud's work on laughter was published [11/12] in 1905 under the title, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious…. He begins with wit, that form of producing laughter which functions most like dreams, and shows that it originates in aggressive or obscene tendencies. The aggressive or obscene idea is activated in the unconscious but disguised by the wit-work (or technique) so that the psychic energy initially aroused can be safely relieved. (MR: Sounds good. Not quite sure what it means.) If the joke is successful, the source of laughter in the teller and the listener is the same: "the economy of psychic expenditure" (p. 180), or in other words, the efficient use of energy previously needed for repressing the dangerous idea by removing the apparent danger and releasing the energy in laughter. In addition to the pleasure aroused from release, there is also play pleasure: the infantile and pure joy in nonsense, playing with words, and combating order. To summarize to this point, then, jokes can be analysed as to technique and tendency, though it is likely that the technique in most cases is mainly the disguise and the tendency the cause of the laughter. We laugh because we are permitted to express the energy from hostility or aggression openly; the release plus the infantile joy of word play account for the pleasure in laughter. (Robertson’s emphasis added)

By far the least important and persuasive part of Freud's analysis follows, an account of our pleasure in the comic. Here Freud discusses the laughter at stupidity, the naive, caricature, repetition, and the like, explaining it as differing from wit in its psychic location (foreconscious rather than subconscious), [12/13] in its moving beyond words into action and behaviour, and in the fact that it is based on an explicit comparison of ourselves with another's limitations. The pleasure in this case is provided by the feeling of superiority, (MR: Pretty obvious, right?) as Hobbes had said, plus a release of inhibition energies temporarily unnecessary in the face of such childish action. Freud remarks on his indebtedness to Bergson at this point, and Bergson is clearer and more satisfactory in this area.

Both wit and the comic, Freud argued, are incompatible with strong emotion (p. 371), which is one reason why they must be presented in a disguised form. In the final section of the book, supplemented by a paper published in 1928 ("Humour", International Journal of Psychoanalysis, cited as IJP) Freud discusses humour, which he describes as a way of dealing with pain. His best example of humour concerns the prisoner on the way to the gallows who remarks, "Well, this is a good beginning to the week" (IJP, 1). For the prisoner, this comment represents a way of combating pain by denying its province; it is the rebellious assertion by the ego that it is invulnerable (IJP, 2-3). More important, the pleasure for the listener is derived from an "economy of sympathy" (Wit, p. 374). We are prepared to respond with pity, but pity is found to be superfluous and the energy first called up for sympathy can be released in laughter. More generally, he speaks of the "economized expenditure of affect" (Wit, p. 371), in which the energies associated with any strong emotion are aroused, then shown to be unnecessary, and are thereby available for laughter. (MR: Fascinating. Not sure how it would apply to sitcom humor.)

Actually, Freud recognized quite clearly that his categories were analytical conveniences and that, in practice, wit, the comic, and humour were intermixed. For our purposes, the most important uses of Freud will be: the distinction between technique and tendency, and the general dominance of the latter as a cause of laughter; (MR: Don’t quite understand what the preceding phrase means) the dual pleasure source of laughter; and the concept of economy and its explanation of the way in which aggression, inhibition, and strong feelings of sympathy or fear can be turned into laughter. (MR: I think I get this part, at least the aggression and inhibition part.)

This is the general outline, then, of the approach to laughter to be used here. It does not, of course, constitute a complete theory of laughter, and it is perhaps incomplete because it [13/14] concentrates almost entirely on the laugher to the exclusion of the means of evoking laughter. An appropriate (at least forceful) apology for both limitations is offered by Samuel Johnson, who chides "definers" of comedy for having fiddled with useless definitions of techniques of arousing laughter "without considering that the various methods of exhilerating [the dramatist's] audience, not being limited by nature, cannot be comprised in precept" (iii, p. 106) (MR: Yeah. Sometimes we can talk profitably about how the comic bit works. I once interviewed a group of standup comics, and they spent a half hour talking about which numbers are funny and which aren’t.)

To supplement, in a minor way, the arguments of Bergson and Freud, a few subsidiary points should finally be considered:
i. Laughter and order. One of the reasons laughter has always been identified in some way with the form of comedy is that their main impulses are similar: the restoration of order or equilibrium. (MR: I remember this from grad school. I think one of the implications was that much/most comedy is “conservative” and not revolutionary. You would certainly figure that would be true of network TV.)

Behind comedy lie the ritual pattern of resurrection (see Cornford; and Frye, pp. 212-15) and the movement to a new society; though the origin of laughter is not so clear, certainly one of its functions is the restoration of "social equilibrium" (this is the central thesis of Ralph Piddington). Paradoxically, the movement towards order is paralleled by an impulse towards freedom. (MR: But which force predominates? In The Office, no one ever escapes! Right?) Like comedy, which progresses "from law to liberty" (Frye, p. 181), laughter moves from restraint to release and from a world of mechanistic restriction to a world of childhood and play. Though we laugh always in chorus, either real or imagined, the society we create by our laughter is generally opposed to what we ordinarily think of as society; in the desire to cleanse the existing order of absurdity and rigidity, laughter is always dangerously close to anarchy. This is only a way of saying that laughter is a means of having it both ways: it reassures us of our social being (we are part of a chorus), but also, and perhaps more basically, of our own invincible and isolated ego. (MR: Pretty good. Sounds rather manipulative, doesn’t it?) Thus laughter both confirms and denies society and is, from a social viewpoint, implicitly subversive. It moves towards a coalition, but it is a coalition of joyful people dedicated to freedom and play; order is, at best, secondary. (MR: Does this sum up The Office? Or is it just the opposite. Pop. That’s the sound of my mind being blown.)

ii. Vulnerability and immunity provided by laughter. Laughter provides a kind of immunity which may become a special kind of vulnerability. Laughter implies the sort of commitment which is so complete that it is unable to avoid rebuffs; it assumes complicity and sanctity and is therefore especially vulnerable to attack, as anyone knows who has had his own laughter met with icy stares. Having released the energies ordinarily used to guard our hostilities, inhibitions, or fears, we are especially unprotected if the promised safety which allowed us to laugh proves to be illusory. Imagine the fat old man who slipped on the banana peel being suddenly identified as our brother, now seriously hurt; the custard pie containing sulphuric acid; the train really hitting the funny car and killing the Keystone Cops. (MR: Embarrassing example, but I suddenly think of Ben Affleck being killed in Smokin’ Aces. Ugly movie, but I kept watching.)

iv. Laughter and the narrative. Our laughter is conditioned not only by memory but by anticipation of the future. The expectation of a happy ending can induce a mood of comfort or euphoria particularly suited to laughter; conversely, the anticipation of a sad or frightening ending makes us seize all the more readily on nearly any excuse to laugh. (MR: Well, there you go. You are safe, Michael Scott. My wife is always saying, “She’s going to die!” And I’m always saying, “She’s the co-star. The co-star does not die.” But if you are a Star Trek “red jacket…!” Tonight you dine in hell.)

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Anonymous said...

Jesus Christ! I got about halfway through the Henri Bergson stuff and began coughing up blood. Here's a handy definition: Humor is what makes people laugh, in numbers ranging from one to whatever. Any other definition means you're milking a grant or being paid by the word. Why we laugh is another question. For the answer, see Why we cry (Hint--we are both emotional and empathetic). In any case, I cringe whenever confronted with another analytical approach to humor, because they invariably read like autopsies of lifeless wit.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Yes but no. Reading all the theorizing about such fungible qualities as justice and mercy is opaque but useful because our at least some of our theorizing precedes action. Our decisions about justice and mercy reverberate in the real world. But I concede that when we start gassing about things like beauty and laughter, the point is the game, not the remotest possibility something practical will come of it. Still, why we laugh is a mystery, and trying to sort through the reasons may chasten us even it does not enlighten us. But whoa! It certainly is true that sometimes laughter is a way to demean, abuse and marginalize. Acknowledging that implicit cruelty might take the smile off some smug faces. Most theory of the social science persuasion, like most anything, is crap. I haven't completely given up on it, though.