Saturday, October 6, 2007

What Are You Laughing At?

I was reading a book the other day that mentioned briefly that no matter how funny you are, there will always be situations where you get shut-down because your audience is all wrong. For example, something that makes a group of teenagers laugh will have an old folks’ home keeling over in shock; something that amuses your little group of friends will only draw blank, curious stares from a roomful of businessmen.

So that got me thinking: why do people laugh? What is it that gives us the uncontrollable desire to burst into hysterics when we hear or see something funny?

According to, laughter is a “spontaneous response to humor that has physiological, psychological and physical benefits”. This is true as far as the benefits it has for us, but it doesn’t really explain what makes people laugh. What is humor?

There’s a book called “Comedy Writing Secrets”, written by Mel Hilitzer with Mark Shatz (what a name), that talks about the element of surprise being one key factor to making people laugh. For example, if you are tricked into doing or believing something inane, you laugh to cover up the fact that you’re embarrassed. Another way this works is in a story in which the audience thinks it can correctly interpret the ending, but are then surprised when the story being told takes an unexpected twist. The audience is surprised; they laugh.

So why is it that sometimes we’re so sadistic and laugh at things that are actually really horrible? I mean, it shouldn’t be funny when someone falls off a chair and hurts himself or you read about some poor individual getting kicked in the teeth by an angry animal of some sort, but you’d be a liar if you said you haven’t laughed at something along those lines. So maybe humor is hostility turned into a joke.

You hear it all the time: comedians making fun of something that is actually a serious issue, or else something that just upsets or angers them. If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you love or at least have seen the Jay Leno show. Most people have seen at least one episode of it, just because you can’t escape it. Personally, I find Jay Leno one of the funniest people in the world. Now, in relation to hostility masked as humor, one thing Leno does quite a lot is make fun of politicians which is something I thoroughly enjoy - mostly because I don’t understand politics at all and so it’s great to hear somebody slaughter them as entirely as he can. “I looked up the word politics in the dictionary, and it’s actually a combination of two words: poli, which means ‘many’, and tics, which means ‘bloodsuckers’.”

Anyway, my point is that different people laugh at so many different things, for so many varying reasons, that you could be the funniest person in the world and still not make certain kinds of people laugh. Some people laugh at cheap jokes, some people laugh at big, comical gags. Some people are tickled by witty remarks, still others laugh at cruel humor. A few people don’t laugh at anything at all, either because they don’t understand hilarity or they think they’re above it in some way. I feel sad for those people, but that’s another story. But whatever makes you laugh and whatever the reasons are for that, I’ve just decided that I need to stop writing about it. It’s like E.B. White said: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. They both die in the process”.

No comments: