Why Do We Laugh?

In what is perhaps the most celebrated sketch of all time, a peeved customer (John Cleese) returns a faulty product to a local shop, seek- ing recompense for the item that he bought just half an hour before. The item in question is a parrot, and the fault in question is that it is dead. Stone dead. Expired. Passed on. It is an ex-parrot. All of which the shopkeeper (Michael Palin) casually refutes. The show is, of course, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

So why do we laugh? is the question at the heart of comic theory, by which I mean attempts to characterize the nature of laughter and humor, such as have appeared in essays and philosophical tracts stretching back to ancient times. John Morreall’s collection The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor (1986) is the essential primer for this constituted field. Comic theory is very often taken, in academic and popular discussions of comedy, to represent a way of helping us to understand what makes something funny. It would certainly seem reasonable to expect a body of theory dealing with the question of why we laugh to be of some assistance in this task. Students of comedy are accordingly invited to set about analyzing instances of humor using comic theory as an imaginary toolbox.

To understand why something is funny, we need first to consider the main schools of thought in comic theory. Following Morreall (1986) and others, comic theory is usually divided into three types, namely superiority theory, incongruity theory, and relief theory. The school of thought known as the superiority theory is perhaps epitomized by a well-known passage from Thomas Hobbes which claims that “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly”.

The figure of the fool and the phenomenon of ethnic humor are two areas where this notion has been thought to be pertinent. We laugh at a fool, so the presumption goes, because we find ourselves smarter or more agile than him. The classic Fool character knowingly carries out a task ineptly or presents himself as ignorant or unsophisticated, with an eye to flattering his audience. Similarly, we laugh at the stereotype of a foreigner because in our ethnocentrism we find the practices and tendencies represented by that depiction inferior to our own. In each case, humor is thought to offer a kind of massage to the ego, bolstering a pre-existing sense of cultural or personal superiority.

Hobbes finds people who laugh at such humor voracious in their appetite for a confirmation of self-worth: “greedy of applause from every thing they do well”. This is to propose that engaging with a work or performance of humor involves a continuous process of self-other comparison. However, in his formulation, Hobbes adds the superiority he says we indulge may be “by comparison . . . with our own formerly”. This allows the theory to accommodate less tendentious forms of humor, such as wit. Clever wordplay, for instance, might precipitate laughter because we recognize in triumph a connection we had formerly neglected. We thus become superior now to a previously inferior self. And this has to happen in an instant, for the glory to be “sudden.”

An example might be the famous comic moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) when archaeological adventurer Indi- ana Jones (Harrison Ford) finds himself besieged in a bustling Cairo marketplace. The market throng parts to reveal a fearsome-looking Arab swordsman (Terry Richards), dressed in black with a red sash and brandishing an enormous scimitar, which he throws from hand to hand and starts to swing intimidatingly around his body. The crowd seems to be gearing up for a bout of hand-to-hand combat. To our surprise, however, Indy just takes a pistol from his holster and shoots the swordsman dead.