What makes us laugh

Humour has its uses. Laughter can get through the keyhole while seri­ous­ness is still hammering on the door. New ideas can ride in on the back of a joke, old ideas can be given an added edge.”

Terry Pratchett

In Arthur Koestler’s fascin­ating book, The Act of Creation, he exam­ines in great detail the mech­an­isms that underpin laughter. Some of them are social, some are rooted in our most prim­itive impulses, and some of them depend on our ability to make mean­ingful connec­tions where none existed before.

You can see this at work in a school­yard joke. One child asks another: ”What do frogs drink?” To which the informed logical answer would be: “Nothing. They absorb water through a patch on their belly”. The joke answer, however, is: “Croaker-cola”.

Harpo MarxThis weak pun may raise a smile from an adult but it also illus­trates the way most jokes work. There is a logical progres­sion or set of asso­ci­ations (what Koes­tler calls a matrix) that is ambushed by another one; in this instance, the name of a popular drink.

The two logics collide with each other and the result is the explo­sion that we call ‘humour’. When we say “it was as funny as a car crash” there is, in fact, some truth in the state­ment. Here is another example of a humorous derail­ment:

I don’t have a short atten­tion span, I just … oh, look, there’s a chicken!”

Of course, the joke doesn’t work unless a connec­tion exists. There can’t be a train wreck unless there’s a level-crossing. The human talent to forge these new connec­tions, Koes­tler argues, is not just the prerog­ative of humour  – it is the basis of all creative inspir­a­tion.

A poet arranges words in a unique combin­a­tion; an artist finds a way to alter our percep­tion of the world; a scientist, after years of fruit­less research, has a sudden moment of intu­itive insight that results in a historic breakthrough.

These are the ‘blue flash’ moments, the occa­sions of illu­min­a­tion; and a tiny instance of that divine spark, he contends, can be found in even the humblest of jokes.

The Darker Side

But this is not the whole picture of course. We are the only animals that laugh and that reflexive reac­tion has a darker side to it. The symp­toms that over­come us; the noise we make, the breath­less­ness, the rictus of smiling; are all, at base, physiolo­gical expres­sions of fear. They are deeply rooted and uncon­trol­lable responses to a threat – or the idea of a threat – which some part of us perceives.

This phenomenon is easy to under­stand when you tickle a small child into a state of hiccup­ping help­less­ness. But it also occurs, at a much subtler level, when you laugh at a joke. Jokes are about incon­gruity (as we said above a mismatch or colli­sion of mean­ings) and that is also threat­ening to us. Laughter is our phys­ical response to that threat

And asso­ci­ated with fear are other dark emotions, partic­u­larly cruelty and hatred. Crowds attending the hangings at Tyburn went there for the enter­tain­ment and laughed uproari­ously at the execu­tions. Nervous laughter at other people’s discom­fort or suffering is a displace­ment or denial of empathy and a very human reaction.

There also undeni­ably exists a species of humour that derives from strip­ping people of their essen­tial humanity and redu­cing them to cyphers or objects. The fat man slip­ping on a banana peel loses his dignity and becomes a machine-like thing at the mercy of the laws of physics.

This is simil­arly and very obvi­ously in oper­a­tion when humour is employed that relies upon, for example, racial or sexual stereo­types. The indi­vidual is robbed of iden­tity and instead conforms to a set of social preju­dices – they become predict­able, auto­matons, unworthy of our respect or sympathy. Such humour brings out the worst and most atav­istic side of our natures.

Case study: ‘Comedians’ by Trevor Griffiths

Comedians, the 1975 drama by play­wright Trevor Grif­fiths, is a ‘serious’ play about comedy that exam­ines the hidden messages in jokes and the some­times doubtful premises upon which much of our sense of humour is based.

A veteran comedian is attempting to teach an evening class of working class would-be stand-up comics the prin­ciples of his craft and instil in them a sense of loyalty to the ‘truth’ that lies at the heart of good comedy. However, he is up against the lure of easy success from telling cheap gags that a visit from a tv talent scout represents.

The Absurd

todoghiojknhvfgkghjmThe stories that appeal to the majority of us are based on certain unspoken philo­soph­ical assump­tions – that we live in a mean­ingful universe, for example, and that cause and effect are inex­tric­ably linked together. Our actions have consequences, often at a karmic level, and the choices that char­ac­ters make in our stories reflect moral values and principles.

But there is another perspective. In this version of the universe our actions are incon­sequen­tial, there is no divine or moral order, and we are really at the mercy of an illo­gical, arbit­rary and often cruel fate. In Shakespeare’s words: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.”

It is a measure of Shakespeare’s genius that he made this connec­tion between the Fool and the King, between the tragic and the comic; recog­nising that the ulti­mate suffering of a human being is to be confronted by mean­ing­less­ness, a sense of the absurdity of existence.

This same connec­tion is explored by dram­at­ists like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Slawomir Mrozek and Fernando Arrabal and film-makers like Luis Bunuel. Their work isn’t humorous in the conven­tional sense, (there are few belly laughs in Waiting For Godot) instead they use the absurd as a philo­soph­ical, and some­times polit­ical, chal­lenge to the asser­tions that we live by. They offer an altern­ative view of reality that is unset­tling and provoc­ative. It confronts us with some­thing we secretly suspect – that the real joke is, and always will be, on us.

Although these writers are no longer fash­ion­able, they were tremend­ously influ­en­tial in their heyday, partic­u­larly on British theatre and cinema. You can see it in the films of directors like Richard Lester and Lindsay Anderson and, in a watered down form, in a lot of 60’s pop culture. The ‘post­modern’ quality of a lot of the comedy that followed, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for example, came from exploiting the idea of absurdity for its shock value in a playful and self-referential manner. Human­kind, as T.S. Eliot once observed, really cannot bear too much reality.

For us, as writers, the lesson to take away is an obvious one: often the best way to engage with dark themes and subjects is through the absurd.  Often it’s only through finding the comedy in a serious subject, the subversive and slightly skewed vantage point of a comic perspective, that you can touch an audi­ence powerfully.


Trans­gres­sion and taboos

Your true comedian, now he is a daring man …”

Trevor Grif­fiths, Comedians

Once upon a time you couldn’t say f**k on a bus … now it’s the only way to get a ticket”

David Hare, Teeth n Smiles.

Lenny Bruce was a strug­gling stand-up comedian hired to do spots between the strip­pers at a strip club. Because no-one was listening to him (the patrons had other things on their minds) he began to do some­thing remark­able, he started to tell the truth.

America in the ’60s was still pretty repressed. Bruce’s frank discus­sions of sex, racism and censor­ship brought him fame and notoriety but landed him in court. Ulti­mately, persistent perse­cu­tion from the author­ities – coupled with drug addic­tion – destroyed him but not before he had broken down many of the taboos concerning what were accept­able subjects for comedy.

Bruce was prosec­uted for saying ‘obscene’ words on stage but he was not merely a teller of smutty jokes. What truly distin­guished him from other enter­tainers was a genuine sense of outrage. He was indig­nant and scornful of many things but mostly at what he saw as the hypo­crisy of the establishment.

There were even occa­sions when he took on some of America’s most sacred cows – Jackie Kennedy, the Pentagon, reli­gion – with humour coloured by a kind of moral indig­na­tion. At such moments, his comedy was truly daring for its time.

Contro­ver­sial stand-ups that have followed in Bruce’s foot­steps have had a slightly easier time but the best of them share a similar talent – to recog­nize and give voice to what their audi­ences really think, even if that some­times does mean saying the unsayable.

Comedians like Lenny Bruce remind us of the trans­gressive nature of comedy. Even at its most inof­fensive, comedy breaks the rules. When it comes up against social taboos and censor­ship, it can assume a more important func­tion. In the most oppressed and repressed soci­eties that exist, they still tell jokes  – even if only in secret. It provides an outlet, a way of giving vent to our deepest and most hidden fears.

Cold War comedy

Comedy has often been used in an overtly or covertly polit­ical fashion. You can see this in the work of many East European film-makers during the years of Soviet occu­pa­tion. In the case of Czech directors Milosz Forman (The Fireman’s Ball) and Jiri Menzel (Larks On A String), for example, the target of gentle comedy was both the system of state control and the bureau­crats who mind­lessly imple­mented its rules.

Poking fun at the estab­lish­ment in those circum­stances was not without danger but it was also an effective form of protest. The ‘humour­less’ nature of the system made it vulner­able to such indirect criti­cism; where a more direct confront­a­tion might have invited imme­diate suppression.

Taboos change over time and are often cyclical in nature; license being given and then, just as easily, revoked as soci­eties undergo polit­ical and moral shifts.  It’s good to remember that the most ‘shocking’ comedians of today are prob­ably no more bawdy or outspoken than their Roman or Eliza­bethan counterparts.

The role of comedy however as a chal­lenger of social mores remains constant.  The best kind of comedy causes a thrill of recog­ni­tion, it exposes and allows us to share in our common humanity with all its accom­pa­nying terrors and flaws.


David Clough ©2011

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