Laugh? I nearly did.

There are plenty of theories about what makes things funny, lots of them stressing the cruel nature of laughter. They suggest it’s an expression of superiority over the person we’re laughing at, but that’s too crude. Laughter’s a shared reaction – and it doesn’t have to be at someone else’s expense.


The theory I like best is the one which says that laughter’s actually about thinking. If you like, it’s intellectual, critical. It’s your mind seeing something happening, assuming it’ll pan out in a particular way then having those assumptions undermined when something unexpected happens. At its crudest, it’s the banana skin scenario.


A person (preferably one of rank and substance – a queen, a president, a supermodel, say) is walking along and suddenly becomes a disarticulated mechanism. If the result is a serious injury, the laughter dies at once, which kind of discredits the ‘laughter is cruel’ theory. If it had been a bent, lame old person heading for the banana skin, there’d be no laughter (or maybe just less, if the observer were a sociopath). Sympathy would interfere with the laughter.

No, what’s happened is that you suddenly have two mutually exclusive sets of rules to handle at the same time. A medal-laden head of state processing along a red carpet is (technically, at least) a dignified, elevated thing, an example of the pomp, ceremony and grandeur of an 'eminent' human being and a representative of the rest of us. Then suddenly, he ends up in an embarrassing, tangled heap. He’s just a lump of stuff that the laws of gravity have dumped on the carpet. (Don’t ask me why no-one noticed the yellow banana skin on the red background.)

It’s the juxtaposition of things which don’t belong together that’s funny. Punchlines in gags work that way. The joke leads you along one path and suddenly, the destination is totally different. We appreciate the gap between the two and we laugh. The laugh shows that our brain has seen the distinction between the two states and it’s capable of judging and assessing situations. So laughing is a result of thinking – maybe unconsciously, but it’s a judgemental, not an emotional thing.


The veteran Scottish comedian, Rikki Fulton, in his role as the Reverend I M Jolly, once told of how, after a trying day, he stopped at a massage parlour and was helped to relax by a young lady masseuse who, after a while, leaned close to him and asked ‘Do you want super sex?’ He thought about it, then replied: ‘If it’s all the same to you, I’ll have the soup.’

If you’ve read this far, thanks for being so tolerant and humouring me. Because that sort of theorising doesn’t really achieve much and definitely isn’t funny. So how do we write funny stuff?

Well, when I used to write sketches (skits in the USA) for performance, the characters used to do the work for me. For example, when Mary (the virgin one) discovers she’s pregnant, she breaks the news to her fiancé, Joseph, who, according to the Bible, is then ‘minded to put her away privily’. I love that. It skates over the whole crucial scene there must have been between the two of them. Imagine you’re an honest, hard-working young carpenter. You’re sawing and hammering away and your fiancée, whose wish to remain intact you’ve respected, comes in and  says ‘By the way, I’m heavy with child’ – or whatever the appropriate expression was in Nazareth at the time. Now how on earth do you get from that to the seeming acceptance of, ‘OK, babe. I’ll just put you away privily’?

Or what sort of conversation would Jude the Obscure share with Tess at the Casterbridge disco? And how did Adam and Eve relax when he came home from a long hard day in the garden? (This was before they were aware of their nakedness and original sin, remember.)
In all these cases, and in others, such as Hannibal Lecter’s quip that he was ‘having a friend for dinner’, it’s the co-existence of two separate levels of  interpretation that generates the humour.

All of which sets me up perfectly for comments such as ‘What do you know about laughter? None of your stuff’s funny.’


Umberto Tosi said…
Don't know much about humour Bill, but I think you nailed it. I enjoyed your piece, especially the one about the soup, which I'll take the liberty of serving up when opportune. After all, the best of jokes, they say, are plagerized, passed on through the ages, I suppose, from the Greak Unknown Comic. Merry Christmas.Ho ho ho!
Jan Needle said…
Two problems with this, Bill. Surely 'You’re sawing and hammering away and your fiancée, whose wish to remain intact you’ve respected' is a joke in itself, while the fact of locking her away in the privy is certainly another. Was she flushed when he let her out, or...oh, I can't go on. Is NOTHING sacred ?
Peter Leyland said…
Oh I like that super sex one Bill. I'll save that for the next dinner party if we ever have them again. In Liverpool we are supposedly famed for our humour but I often find myself striving to make people laugh. Word play is my favourite method these days. Thanks for your cheerful post.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Bill! I do like the idea that when our rational brains are confounded by an unexpected/incompatible set of circumstances, we can laugh rather than get shirty because we weren't expecting THAT. It might just save us...
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks all for your responses.

Surely, Umberto, in your guise as Santa (AE blog, Dec 3rd), you must have been devastated when those lovely wide old-fashioned flues were replaced by narrow-gauge central heating pipes. That wasn’t funny.

As you’ll know, Jan, Ralph Waldo Emerson said ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind’. So I understand your confusion.

Rikki Fulton’s from Glasgow, Peter, so his repertoire should work well in Liverpool, but surely any dinner party held by an Authors Electric member would go to Heidegger or Chomsky for their repartee.

And special thanks to you, Sandra. The notion of laughter as salvation hadn’t occurred to me.
Susan Price said…
Just a note -- Umberto, in his Santa guise, is now wishing us all a Happy Christmas at the top of our sidebar. I wish I could make him more visible but there you go -- we have a Secret Santa.
Susan Price said…
It's that woman again... I once read that 'comedy is about failure.' I think there's a lot of truth in this. Think Steptoe and Son, The Office, Red Dwarf... None of the characters could be called successes in life, and when they aspire to something better, they always fail or give up because it's too hard.

And your dignitary in a heap on the red carpet is funny not only because of the incongruity but because s/he failed to live up to the ideal of 'the dignitary.' -- Try to imagine a comedy about a huge success in life (as judged by conventional standards of success.) A laugh-a-minute comedy about a Bill Gates or a Bezos: it would only really work if they aspired to being a huge success but failed: walked the walk but tangled their feet and fell in a heap.

I don't think this laughing at failure is always cruel, though. (Maybe in The Office it is, a bit. It's why, while laughing, I used to feel like hiding behind the sofa and watching between my fingers.) I think, most of the time, we recognise the failure as our own. Even if we're successful in many ways, there's always some failure that pricks us. The comic characters, Harald Steptoe, Mandy, Hancock are Everyman and Everywoman -- whereas the successful winners and the tragic heroes and heroines who almost suceed but take a great fall, they're Heroes and Heroines. Which is to say, not funny. -- Our laughter at the prat-falling dignitary is often fellowship.
Reb MacRath said…
Well done, Bill. I can't help thinking--maybe in a twisted way--that it would also be fun to see a stooped octogenarian slip on a banana a mind-blowingly youthful and Olympian backflip...then land on his feet, stoop and mosey along as if he'd done nothing at all.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Reb. Good to hear from you, and I agree completely that the image you offer is attractive. However, being now in my own 2nd year of octogenarianism, I think the likelihood of such an occurence is rather remote. Unless perhaps the spritely Umberto...
Eden Baylee said…
Bill! I'm late to reading this, so what else is new? hehe

For me, humour is an unpredictable turn of events or words, but sometimes a childish fart joke will make me laugh too. Not sure what that says about me, but it depends on my mood perhaps.

My preference is dry English wordplay over slapstick, physical antics.

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