NORMAN N. HOLLAND
CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS
Ithaca and London
Copyright C 1982 by Norman N. Holland
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First published 1982 by Comell University Press.
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To all the banterers, buffoons,
cartoonists, clowns, comic or
comedians, cynics, funny friends,
gongorists, ironists, jesters and
jokers, laughing lovers,
mythmakers, parodists, punsters,
quipsters, raconteurs, railers,
satirists, scoffers, wits and
witlings, zanies, and one wise
wife who over the years have
made me laugh*
*But see p 175.
PART I WHY DO WE LAUGH?
PART II HOW CAN WE ASK?
Why Ellen Laughed
Why the Rest of Us Laugh
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THEORIES OF HUMOR
She continued to laugh on some days, to cry on others,
unfolding the design of her identity.
I like to laugh. I always have. I can remember listening as a
schoolboy to such long-gone radio comedians as Joe Penner
and Parkyakarkus, among the first in a line of comics that was
to extend through Fred Allen, Jack Benny, the brothers Marx,
Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Mort Sahl, Ernie
Kovacs, "Laugh-In," Monty Python, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks,
Firesign Theatre, Robin Williams, SCTV, and who knows who
next? They are my tutelary spirits, paradigms for less showbiz
kinds of laughter: jokes around a circle of friends, banter at
work, the hilarity of a party, the joy of sex (Enter laughing),
the efforts and antics of my children, the strong, wise ironies of
one's aged relatives, and all the other levities that salt and
Laughing is a labor of love-or laughter. I am returning to a
happy opportunity of more than a decade ago, when for half a
dozen years I had the good fortune to teach a course called (by
me) "The Comic Sensibility" or (by the students) "The Cosmic
Sensitivity." We studied jokes and cartoons and also the great
comic masterpieces: Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, The Canter-
bury Tales, the Decameron; films by Bergman, Fellini, and Chap-
lin; opera by Gilbert and Sullivan; plays by Aristophanes,
Moliere, Chekhov, Shaw, and Shakespeare.
We asked such questions as Why do we laugh? Why does
something subtle and complicated and mental lead to this
spasm in cheeks and belly? What is the special pleasure of
comedy and laughter? Why is a thing funny at some times but
not at others? Why is something funny to one person but not
to another? And on and on.
These questions lured me like a big-game hunter into the
jungle of psychology, where I bagged great hulking psycho-
analytic theories about responses to literature and published
them as The Dynamics of Literary Response, Poems in Persons, and
5 Readers Reading. But what have I done about laughter, the
most immediate of literary responses?
Laughing marks a return to that earlier, cozier inquiry, but it
is also a personal test: Can I apply what I think I have learned
in these intervening years to what led me to ask about response
in the first place-laughter? If I have learned something about
literary and other responses, can I say something to you about
humor worth adding to the volumes already offered by the
hundreds of theorists and psychologists who have already
studied laughing? These are my own highly personal questions
about this book. Now your response to Laughing will make
them not into answers, but into questions for you as well.
Laughing has two parts. First, an (I hope) exhaustive, perhaps
exhausting, survey of existing theories about the comic. I think
you may feel, as I do, that precisely because there are so many
theories and pseudotheories as to why we laugh, they tend to
cancel one another out, leaving the question unanswered.
The second half of the book reports on some real people
laughing, one person especially, leading to an ambitious an-
swer to "Why do we laugh?" which leads to some questions
that unsettle that answer. The questions, in turn, make it pos-
sible to understand the hundreds of traditional theories and
variations on theories in a larger, psychological framework
within which they can answer the question better.
This, then, is only partly a book that asks (and answers),
"Why do we laugh?" It also asks, "How can we ask, 'Why do
we laugh?'" And answers. For it seems to me that "Why do
we laugh," which joins a sharing "we" and a universal "laugh"
to a highly personal and cultural "why," raises some funda-
mental issues about the way we humans explain ourselves to
For the help they have given me on the first, survey half of
the book and the bibliography, I am much obliged to John
Stuart, David Cooper, Ellen Golub, Mary Childers, Janice
Doane, Laura Keyes, Thomas Albert, and Patrick Hogan, re-
cent graduate students in English at the State University of
New York at Buffalo. For help with the second half of the
book I owe a large debt to several pseudonymous students,
especially "Ellen," who has graciously allowed me to tell in
great detail the story of some of her laughing. Friends and
colleagues-Paul Diesing, Diana Hume George, Patrick Hogan,
Laura Keyes, Arthur Marotti, Joseph Masling, Robert Rogers,
Murray Schwartz, and David Willbern-have read various ver-
sions of the book and offered many suggestions for improve-
ment. I hope I have succeeded in living up to their standards
For the preparation of the manuscript, I thank Joan Cipper-
man for her efficiency and wit and Geri de Santis for her skill-
ful work with HAL and the Electric Pencil. I am much indebted
to Patricia Berens of the Sterling Lord Agency for placing the
manuscript and to Kenneth Heuer of Cornell University Press
for confident and helpful suggestions at a critical moment. I
am grateful to Mrs. James Thurber and to B. Kliban and Work-
man Publishing for permission to reprint cartoons and to Bar-
bara H. Salazar for her thorough and thoughtful copy editing.
The acknowledgment of my greatest debt is tucked away in the
NORMAN N. HOLLAND
Amherst, New York
I WHY DO
1 The Comic
We don't understand it, and we don't quite trust it. Those are
for me the two most immediate and obvious facts about the
The comic is hard to understand because it alone, among the
arts, has a specific physical reflex associated with it-laughter.
We decide something is funny or not by whether we feel like
laughing at it, even though we may not laugh out loud. The
impulse physically to laugh remains the test. And laughter
we distrust. "Having mentioned laughing, I must particularly
warn you against it," wrote Lord Chesterfield to his son in
1748, "and I could heartily wish that you may often be seen to
smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and
loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill manners ...
In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal and so ill-bred as
audible laughter."' Earlier in that decorous century the essayist
Joseph Addison recalled a Capuchin monk who believed "that
Laughter was the effect of Original Sin, and that Adam could
not laugh before the Fall." In ancient times Ecclesiastes had
written, "I said of laughter, It is mad. And of mirth, What
doeth it?" Even the pagan philosophers before Socrates said
that joking was inconsistent with pity-and preferred pity.2
Neither the earliest preclassical writers nor their neoclassical
descendants approved of laughing, yet all these ancients, I
have no doubt, guffawed like the rest of us.
To be sure, the comic is by no means all laughable or funny
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
or, to use a useful synonym from the Greek, gelastic (pro-
nounced like a combination of jelly and elastic). It comes from
gelan, to laugh, a word that imitated the clucking of a (Greek)
chicken-more distrust and disparagement of laughter. We
gelasticists include in the comic not just the laughable, but
almost anything that has a nonpainful outcome, any "serious"
play with a happy ending, such as a soap opera in which
everything comes out all right, no matter how teary it was in
the middle installments. The funny is but one subspecies of the
Laughter may not define the comic arts, but it hovers in their
vicinity, giving a physical aura to the comic enterprise. We can,
after all, cause laughter purely physiologically, as by tickling or
the dentist's laughing gas, nitrous oxide. Babies and young
children laugh a lot, but out of pleasure or joy, not at wit.
They don't understand jokes. They don't laugh when adults
do. They don't, really, have a sense of humor. Laughter, the
funny, the comic all seem to occupy an anomalous psychoso-
matic space, somewhere between mind and body.
Laughter itself involves much more than an automatic phys-
ical response to a stimulus. Not all of us laugh at the same
things, nor are the same things always funny to the same per-
son. Mostly, we laugh at a joke the first time only. A joke does
not usually make its teller laugh. Rather, the teller looks for a
second person to tell the joke to, and when that other person
laughs, the teller can laugh. If the other person doesn't laugh,
the jokester has "laid an egg" and (usually) feels deflated.
Some of the things we laugh at seem utterly inexplicable.
Consider Pascal's problem: "Two faces that are alike, although
neither of them excites laughter by itself, make us laugh when
together, on account of their likeness." Why do we find some-
thing funny in identical twins?
We simply don't know why people laugh. Not one theory of
the comic has won general acceptance. Despite that lack of
success, literary theorists and psychologists keep inventing
new theories, their futile efforts making yet another inexplica-
bly laughable gesture. As mine may, too.
We scarcely have a consistent attitude toward the comic (ex-
cept distrust), let alone a theory about it. We "postmoderns"
tend to regard the comic as less "serious" than the tragic (or,
simply, things with unhappy endings). We iherit our attitude
from the Romantics, who thought of comedy as primarily so-
cial and tragedy as pnmarily individual or cosmic. A Romantic
aspires to a conflict between the individual and society. A Ro-
mantic prefers the isolated individual to the social, ritual, or
conventional. For most intellectuals, alienation is a plus word.
In classical and neoclassical times, however, when thinkers
thought better of society and rituals, the comic and the tragic
stood on a more or less equal footing.
In primitive times, the tragic did not exist at all. Our first
drama was unequivocally comic. Yet, curiously enough, two
thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx and Soren Kierkegaard agree
that the comic is the last word. "The comic interpretation,"
Kierkegaard wrote, "is always the concluding one." And Marx:
"The final phase of a world-historical form is its comedy." We
find the comic most highly developed in the most sophisti-
cated-even decadent-societies and individuals. In another
sense, Kierkegaard's remark reminds me that it is possible to
laugh even at serious things, but if you take the comic too
seriously, you make yourself ridiculous.
Perhaps the comic seems less significant to us because it
limits feeling, and in our post-Romantic era we value strong
emotions, particularly sympathy. In Horace Walpole's famous
epigram, "The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy
to those that feel." We do not laugh, usually, at what we feel
strongly about. A pratfall is funny, but not if it's taken by a
dear friend with a bad heart.
We distinguish, therefore, between laughing at and laughing
with someone, because laughter, by withholding pity, can
serve as a weapon. We use it as a social corrective. We attack
individuals, types, institutions, even deities by laughing at
them. The comic does tend, therefore, to focus on realistic
social situations-another reason it may seem less cosmic than
the tragic. It also tends to deal with low people and to deal
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
with people lowly, as mere bodies. Much of the comic relies on
sexual and scatological jokes, while the tragic operates on a
Very early in the game, Aristotle wrote the definitive theory
of tragedy. It became definitive not because it settled our ques-
tions about the tragic forever and ever, but because so many
people assumed that it did. When writers invented new kinds
of tragedy, critics blithely redefined Aristotle to fit them. As a
result, one needs very few terms to talk about the tragic, but
the terms, such as "catharsis," "tragic flaw," and "recogni-
tion," can mean almost anything. I can scarcely think of a
synonym for "tragic," yet I can scarcely define it, either.
The comic, however, lacks a theory everyone agrees to. Ac-
cordingly, terms proliferate, but their meanings remain dis-
tinct. An ordinary dictionary will yield fairly dear definitions of
such words as absurd, burlesque, caricature, comedy, comic,
farce, grotesque, humor, irony, nonsense, parody, repartee,
sarcasm, sardonic, satire, travesty, and wit. Sometimes, as in
the case of "wit" or "comic," the meaning becomes more com-
plex, but it is bounded, and you can trace it with the aid of,
say, Fowler's Modern English Usage or some of the writers on
the comic who have taken on the worthy task of clarifying
Despite the incompleteness of Aristotle's remarks on com-
edy, sixteenth-century Italian humanists, caught up in the
early Renaissance enthusiasm for all things newly rediscovered
from the Greek, elaborated and developed lots of Aristotelian
theories of comedy,' and these theories lasted well into the
eighteenth century. Later theorists then multiplied explana-
tions of laughter to the point where the mere bibliographies of
theories require a bibliography of their own.' Others go beyond
bibliography and anthologize joke types or theories. Still others
are tempted, as I am, by an elusive will-o'-the-wisp, some glim-
mering of commonality in all these theories, to try to organize
them into a coherent whole or to sort them into meaningful
The Comic 19
Others, confronted with this theoretical Tower of Babel, sim-
ply give up the possibility of theory or definition.7 As the phi-
losopher of fluidity, Benedetto Croce, said, "Who will ever log-
ically determine the dividing line between the comic and the
non-comic, between laughter and smiles, between smiling and
gravity, or cut the ever varying continuum into which life melts
into closely divided parts?" Or we might thump the table with
the redoubtable Dr. Johnson: "Any man's reflections will in-
form him, that every dramatic composition which raises mirth
I prefer to puzzle further, and I would start to sort out the
atticful of theories I have collected by observing that laughing
seems to me the perfect subject for showing that our relation to
literature, indeed to life itself, is dialectic. By that word, I want
to imply only that when we respond to the world, stimulus
and response do not have any simple cause-and-effect relation-
ship. Rather stimulus "causes" response only as one side in a
dialogue prompts another: it cues a response without deter-
mining its particular form. Laughter takes us by surprise, yes,
but it is the same sort of surprise that we feel at our own
sudden imaginings. Our amusement defines a joke as a joke as
much as the joke defines our amusement.
Philosophers less firmly committed to the "common-sense
view" than, say, Dr. Johnson make some such dialectic relation-
ship between ourselves and reality the heart of their philoso-
phies. They are apt therefore to give rather elaborate disquisi-
tions on why we laugh. Similarly, the dialectic between self
and other or self and society stands at the core of the psycholo-
gist's, the anthropologist's, and the psychoanalyst's enterprise.
They, too, develop theories of laughter. Others, less subtle,
pass by the temptations of dialectic and consider only one side
of laughter: the joke, the timing, the bodily act of laughing.
Even these simpler theorists, though, have to find a way to
balance comic stimulus against the response of laughter.
Thus the seemingly simple question "Why do we laugh?"
really leads into much more complicated questions about how
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
we perceive, how we decide what is real, and how we share
values, methods, ideas-and jokes-with others. To ask, "Why
do we laugh?" is also to ask, "How can we ask, 'Why do we
laugh?'" And that is why the first part of this book, surveying
theories, leads to a second part. Once the theories are brought
together, I can ask what frame I can put around them within
which they can explain better than they have. In particular,
how can we confront the individuality of our amusement?
How can we reconcile that individuality with theories that try
to categorize jokes and laughing? What does the reason I
laugh have to do with the reason "we" laugh-if there is any
But first the theories. We can parcel the comic into five seg-
ments. The comic stimulus-what do we find funny? Comic
conditions-under what circumstances don't we find some-
thing funny? The psychology of the comic-what goes on in
our minds when we feel something is funny? The physiology
of the comic-what goes on in our bodies? The comic cathar-
sis-what is the effect after we have been amused? To each a
The question is: What do we find funny? What attributes of a
thing do we think of as comic? In other words, we are looking
to the laughable and not the laugher for why we laugh.
Just about anybody who develops a theory of the laughable
begins with the idea of incongruity. Many simply stop with that
large idea. Others specify.
They say, for example, that people laugh at an incongruity
between the way they see the object now and the way they
know it from some earlier time. People laugh at a "descending"
incongruity between "great things and small"-that was Her-
bert Spencer's theory. People laugh at a big incongruity, at
disproportion, "as a man with an immoderate long nose, or a
very short one (no nose at all would raise our horror)"-that
was a theory of Joseph Priestley, who used his nose to discover
oxygen. People laugh when they discover an unexpected like-
ness between things that otherwise seem unlike-that was a
popular theory during the eighteenth century, a general defini-
tion of "wit."'
As I sort out these theorists of the laughable, they speak of
three general kinds of incongruity. You could call them cogni-
tive, ethical, and formal.
Cognitive incongruities speak to our intellects. Theorists who
believe that people laugh when they sense a cognitive incon-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
gruity say such things as: You laugh when something affirms
and denies the same proposition simultaneously. You laugh
when something creates disorder and then quickly and happily
resolves that disorder. You laugh at the contrast between a
gratifying organization and an annoying disorganization. You
laugh at the incongruity between an intellectual contradiction
and an emotional reaction to it. You laugh if something pre-
sents the limitations of our real world as a way to affirm the
logical order of some other, ideal plane.2 All such incongruities
work with our acts of knowing.
The incongruity might be the jarring of two or more values.
We laugh, perhaps, when something is valued and disvalued
at the same time, for example, when a person is treated as a
thing, as in a slapstick routine at the circus. In such a maneu-
ver, the comic can come cose to horror-the Holocaust treated
people as things-and we do often laugh in horror movies.3
Even so, I do not see how the Holocaust can be comical, no
matter how laughable Frankenstein and Dracula are. (But then
there was Mel Brooks's side-splitting movie The Producers, with
its cheery song "Springtime for Hitler.")
Cognitive incongruities may touch on social issues. We can
laugh at two conflicting values in the social order which apply
equally to the same social situation. This theory covers that
classic comic character, the Fool. He loosens all the human
and social boundaries. He is both boasting man and simpering
woman, willful and helpless, wise and foolish, disciplined and
chaotic, shaped and shapeless.4
Ethical incongruities appeal more explicitly to our sense of val-
ues. This theory says we laugh when we see the incongruity
between the noble and the contemptible, the high and the low,
the sacred and the profane, the splendid and the scorned-
finally, good and evil. The theory comes ultimately, I think,
from Plato. He held that the comic lies in the acting out of the
opposite of the Delphic oracle's injunction: "Know not thyself."
As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, we laugh at the contrast be-
tween "the ideal of right and truth" and "the yawning delin-
quencies of practice." We laugh at the contrast between some-
one's invented self, which is aspiring, glorified, or affected,
and the factual self of body and appetite.'
According to these theories the funny can simply be the ob-
jective reporting of such a discrepancy, and so it was for such
great neoclassic comic writers as Jonathan Swift and Henry
Fielding. Fielding took as his butt "affectation," which he in-
tended in a very broad, Platonic sense as any instance of seem-
ing to be one thing when one is actually something else. In this
vein, humor can become a reaction against hypocrisy. All he
had to do was represent a person with a foible displaying that
foible as intensely as possible. Or you could define humor as
the chronicling of people's failures to live up to standards of
excellence, either their own or those set by society.6
The laughable, seen as an ethical congruity, can seem very
static, even fixed. Accordingly, in 1900, writing under the in-
fluence of the theory of evolution, Henri Bergson proposed
one of the most famous and successful explanations of laugh-
ter. I think of it as a modification of Plato's theory: Bergson
replaced the perhaps static Platonic ideal (contrasted to the
less than ideal) with the rush of life, the dlan vital. For Berg-
son, the comic became "a certain mechanical inelasticity just
where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability
and the living pliableness of a human being." The comic finds
such contradictions when people specialize too much or when
our conventions do not allow for something.' Bergson's idea
works perfectly for the comedy of his contemporary George
Bernard Shaw, who always contrasted the sterile, hidebound,
conventional, pedantic, or capitalist with the living, loving re-
production of human beings fulfilling their destiny in biological
Other theorists have generalized ethical incongruity in other
directions: the contrast between a perception and an image or
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
between a means and an end, between the high and the low,
the noteworthy and the commonplace, between solemn speech
and street slang.$
Still others have suggested a contrast between beauty and
the laughable. According to the idealist philosophers of the
nineteenth century, beauty comes from the unity of an idea
(loosely, an ideal) and its physical opposite. We feel the sub-
lime, they said, when the idea triumphs over the physical, but
we laugh when the physical becomes detached from the idea.'
Perhaps the German philosopher Schopenhauer was echoing
this belief when he defined the laughable as the incongruity
between a concept and the real object to which it was designed
to relate. Thus Schopenhauer found irresistibly funny the ques-
tion "What is the angle between a circle and its tangent?" He
was indeed a German philosopher.
Most other writers who have drawn on the Platonic theory of
the laughable as ethical incongruity have tended to limit the
laughable to the specifically human. Circles and angles could
be funny only to the extent that they resemble human beings.
Under "formal incongruity" I put the theories of the funny
that stem from Aristotle. Comedy, said Aristotle, "consists in
some defect," and he used the same word as for the "tragic
faw" that gives rise to tragedy, hamartia, "some defect or ugli-
ness which is not painful or destructive." We could put it more
succinctly: something harmful presented harmlessly. Essen-
tially, then, Aristotle, in dividing literature into the comic and
the epic-tragic, divides it into the playful, where imperfections
do not hurt, and the serious, where they do. He translated this
distinction into dramatic terms by insisting that comedy must
deal with "meaner" (perhaps he meant typical) humans, while
tragedy must deal with "noble" (unusual?) people. In tragedy,
we look up to the characters. In comedy, we look down on
Aristotle's theory that we laugh at the contrast between the
thing presented and the way it is presented marks a notable
sophistication (1 think) over cognitive and ethical theories,
which limit themselves to the subject matter of the laughable.
Aristotle opens up the question of literary form.
Perhaps that is why Aristotle's theory has proved so impres-
sively durable. Julius Caesar echoed it (as reported by Cicero).
So did Moliere, when he said that comedies "render agreeably
on a stage the faults of all mankind." Neoclassic writers sug-
gested that the comic consisted of linking the admirable to the
base or the beautiful to the deformed or the plausible to the
absurd.'" Aristotle's idea also lends itself to theories of play: the
comic combines the discipline of art with the lack of discipline
In Romantic and post-Romantic times, theorists of the comic
have pointed Aristotle's theory of formal incongruity back to-
ward the thing presented. The laughable presents something
like a defect or failure, but harmlessly. For example, one Ger-
man theorist wrote of "that little thing which behaves as though
it were a big one, that swells itself to do it, that plays the role
of a big thing and then behaves again like a little thing or melts
into something insignificant."'2 (I find his hint that the phallus is
the prototype of the laughable itself laughable.)
Luigi Pirandello gives Aristotle's theory a postmodern turn.
He speaks of a feeling of contrariness that follows one's more
normal emotions as a shadow follows the body. "Ordinarily,
the artist concerns himself only with the body. The humorist,"
and I think Pirandello must have meant the kind of metadrama-
tist he was, "the humorist concerns himself with body and
shadow at the same time and sometimes more with the shadow
than the body. He notes all the fine turns of that shadow, how
it stretches this much or grows that much fatter, as if to make
fun of the body, which all this time does not concern itself with
the shadow or its size."
Our age also turns Aristotle's idea into a psychological one.
Max Eastman's book on laughter, written in reaction to the
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
early influence of Sigmund Freud, created a stir in the 1920s.
He suggested that jokes combined playful disappointment with
satisfaction. They built on people's ability "to make the best of
a bad thing an act of aggressive resignation." The poet
W. H. Auden spoke (less wittily than usual) of a "contradiction
in the relation of the individual or the personal to the universal
or the impersonal which does not involve the spectator or hearer
in suffering or pity" (and I suppose that "pity" provides the
due to Aristotle's presence)."
Inevitably, within this psychologizing, behaviorist theo-
ries arise, treating joking and other "verbal behavior" as em-
bodying the jokemaker's responses to stimuli which then be-
come stimuli to our response-laughter. Says B. F. Skinner,
we find verbal behavior funny if it combines a strong and a
weak response. We will laugh if one stimulus-response em-
bodied in the joke is strong or regular, the kind of thing to
which one would say, "I understand" or "That makes sense,"
and the other element is weak or far-fetched, something from
the fringes of the verbal field. He notes, "Polysyllabic rhymes
are likely to be far-fetched in this sense." Although Skinner
uses the language of "response" here, it seems to me he is
writing something very like an Aristotelian description of the
stimulus: something strong weakly presented.
The theories from gestalt psychology also seem to me crypto-
Aristotelian. In a gestalt framework, humor is produced by a
change in the configuration in which an element plays a part.
Thus, according to Gregory Bateson, when we appreciate a
joke, we are doing something like responding to a shift in the
relationship between figure and ground. An element that had
seemed to be part of the background is now seen as "figure,"
as newly crucial. Laughter oscillates in a ha-ha-ha, because it
comes from paradoxes or figure-ground shifts that have a "cir-
cuit" quality. Within a Batesonian framework, humor uses
many other paradoxes to mesh with and reinforce the funda-
mental paradox: humor sets up a "play frame." Within it, we
know that a given action does not stand for the behavior it
usually represents. It is "only" a joke. What had seemed cen-
A semiotic analysis of laughter would be even more fashion-
ably modern than Bateson's gestalt theory, but only one theo-
rist has taken this tack. G. B. Milner begins by introducing
the idea of a universe of discourse from logic and linguistics.
(A "topic," one might say.) He suggests that the stimulus to
laughter consists of the collision of two normally quite distinct
universes of discourse within a single context. Generally, he
says, some trick of language or situation, some reversal or trans-
position, makes the two topics collide, and we laugh. A pun,
for example, reverses the usual and expected word so as to
make like ideas unlike or unlike ideas like. Similarly, a spoon-
erism inverts the usual, expected structure to the same effect.
"Time wounds all heels."
Milner calls a reversal of the word paradigmaticc" and a
reversal of structure "syntagmatic." Most jokes, he says, con-
fuse these paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes. They mix up,
say, the metaphorical and the actual, as in Groucho Marx's
"When I came to this country I hadn't a nickel in my pocket.
Now I have a nickel in my pocket." Behind all these reversals,
says Milner, stands the human tension between nature and
culture, deeply rooted in the unconscious. We are laughing
because we suddenly see a new set of differential relations.
Hidden patterns rise to the surface. (One of those hidden pat-
terns, surely, includes the dressing up of an ancient incongru-
ity theory in newfangled jargon.)
The novelist and polymath Arthur Koestler offers a useful
metaphor for the incongruous juxtaposition of ideas. He de-
scribes the process as following down one train of thought
while another is visible in the background. Suddenly you come
to a junction where the two tracks intersect. The figure of
speech enables Koestler to show that you can reverse incon-
gruities or jokes. A miser who heard the water running in his
house rushed downstairs and into the street shouting, "I'm
being robbed! Someone is taking a bath." The first train of
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
thought is property and its theft: "miser," "robbed." The second
train is taking a bath, and the junction is the word "taking."
We can reverse the two trains of thought, following down
baths. One thief was standing next to another and he noticed a
peculiar odor. "Say," he said, "have you taken a bath lately?"
"Why?" said the other. "Is one missing?" The reversal works
better, Koestler notes, if the two lines of thought bear some
closer relation to one another than baths and property. (And
any joke works better if it's not in a book that is asking you
why you laugh.)
Koestler's train metaphor and the semiotic theory take us
back from the specialized cognitive, ethical, and formal incon-
gruities to the first and simplest idea. We laugh when we see
an incongruity. One could multiply almost indefinitely the list
of theorists, from ancient times to the most modem, who state
this stimulus-response theory of laughter. As it becomes more
and more difficult to be original, writers simply elaborate some
category that will include all the different variants of "incon-
gruity" or some one incongruity to which you can reduce all
the others. To be sure, when I read over and over again about
sudden contrasts between the particular and the general, be-
tween organization and disorganization, aspiration and fact,
high and low, big and small, I do get a feeling there must be
some one incongruity that will include all the others.
On the other hand, we laugh in so many different circum-
stances that it seems doubtful we can reduce all laughter to a
single cause. Also, these theories are truly "reductive." They
convert all the richness of a Don Quixote or a Decameron to
the same thing-incongruity-happening over and over again.
They leave out the careful analysis of the funny work itself and
settle for filing it in a theoretical pigeonhole: incongruity of one
kind or another."
Also, they leave out the differences in our response. Why
didn't you find the joke about the thieves and the bath funny?
(It appears in all the standard books.) Had you read it before?
Was it too slow? All these incongruity theories assume that the
joke (or any literary work, really) acts as a stimulus to produce
a standardized response. The semioticist Milner even says,
"We do not laugh, but 'something laughs in us.'" What hap-
pens, then, to "'Tain't funny, McGee"?
Yet this impersonal conclusion was inevitable. Given a stim-
ulus-response model of humor, we must all be alike as pigeons
on the grass-alas. There is, however, one obvious way of
taking individual differences into account, such as your having
heard the one about the thieves and the bath before. We can
consider differences in the conditions under which we meet
these various incongruities.
To say that a comic stimulus such as incongruity in and of itself
"causes" a comic result (be it a smile, laughter, or simply an
amused feeling), we have to believe there are guaranteed sure-
fire humdingers that will never fail to get a laugh even from a
mugger's victim lying bloodied in the street. That seems an
We can, however, shore up the incongruity theories by qual-
ifying them. Comic stimuli do "cause" comic responses-if the
conditions are right. Usually people talk about these conditions
only in connection with laughter, but I think they can be ap-
plied with equal propriety to the comic in general. That is, a
thing isn't funny unless it makes us feel like laughing, even if
we don't actually guffaw. Within this set of assumptions, the
two most commonly stated conditions are play and timing.
We feel the comic only in playful situations, not in those we
take seriously.' Why is a situation playful, then? As you might
expect, theorists have provided lots of answers.
A situation may be playful because we need not fear for
ourselves-as novelist John Updike concludes: "Laughter,
then, can be construed as a signal of danger past or dismissed
. within an arena, whether the arms of a mother or the
covers of a novel, where the customary threats of life have
Alternatively, we may feel playful because we do not fear for
another. "The comic," says Bergson, in his famous phrasing,
"demands something like a momentary anaesthesia of the
heart." Or as comedian Mel Brooks puts the matter, passing a
harsh judgment on humankind: "Tragedy is if I cut my finger.
Comedy is if you walk into an open sewer and die."2
One can take "play" in the narrow sense of "playful." You
can also make it a very broad concept, as the great theorist of
play, Johann Huizinga, has done:
a free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life
as being 'not serious,' but at the same time absorbing the player
intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material
interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its
own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed
rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of
social groupings which tend to surround themselves with sec-
recy and to stress their difference from the common world.
Play, in this large, sociological sense, includes games, rituals,
drama, and perhaps all the formalities that touch on love, law,
war, or poetry.
One can also define the formality of play psychologically, for
example, by these two criteria: objectivity--one's emotions and
sympathies are unengaged and isolation-the logic of the play,
game, or joke applies only to that situation and therefore need
not be applied realistically. More simply stated, the conditions
for the comic are compactness, mechanism, and exaggeration.3
Think of tournaments or chess or courtly love. If rules and
distancing define play, then I can understand Bergson's claim
that "our laughter is always the laughter of a group." "It must
have a social signification."
Arthur Koestler suggests that there must be "economy" in
the text and an "implicit riddle character."' The problem is, as
we say, to "get" the joke. Here, with riddles, we touch on play
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
and ritual. To primitive societies, riddles are important ways of
knowing things. Indeed, the word comes from a Teutonic root
meaning "counsel." (Poor Aethelred the Unready was just
badly advised-anrsede.) Primitive societies-like hterary critics
today-engage in elaborate puzzle contests and witty contro-
versies and debates. Certain mythological heroes, such as
Oedipus and Theseus, have as their major claim to that exalted
status some outstanding feat of riddle solving.
As early as the sixteenth century people began to point to
suddenness, unexpectedness, and (particularly) surprise as in-
dispensable prerequisites to laughter. Sustained humor, then,
such as Don Quixote or the Decameron, would reduce simply to
a series of comic surprises.'
Making surprise a precondition of laughter explains why
jokes get old and why they don't amuse the teller. In either
case, the "punch" is telegraphed, and we lack the essential
It is even possible to argue that the condition is more impor-
tant than the stimulus, that timing is the one thing that differ-
entiates the tragic from the comic. A tragedy is just a comedy
slowed down, you could say. Conversely, if we speed tragic or
"serious" things up, they get funny (as Mack Sennett recog-
nized). We can laugh at the most serious music in the world if
the record is played at 78 rpm instead of 33 1/3, and, conversely,
a pratfall in slow motion ceases to be funny. If a silent movie of
Hamlet were projected at sound speed, we would get a kind of
Keystone Kop comedy (the bumbling pursuit of a criminal).
Many tragedies have joke situations at their core: the man who
blinded himself because he heard that blind people had more
insight (Oedipus), the prince who couldn't pull himself to-
gether, so he kept taking other people apart (Hamlet),' or the
man who "pared [his] wit o' both sides, and left nothing in the
middle" (King Lear). Notice how in translating a tragedy into a
joke one makes the personages "low," or at least universal, as
Aristotle insisted they be for comedy.
Assigning preconditions such as playfulness and timing to
the laughable helps open the fairly rigid idea of a comic stim-
ulus to the variability of people's laughter and failure to laugh.
I think we need something more, however. How can we ac-
count for the variability of audience response under identical
conditions of timing and playfulness? In a theater, for example,
dozens of people may be bored even though hundreds are
amused. We need, I think, a psychology of the comic, and
theorists have not been slow to provide it-lots of them.
Over the centuries, a great many psychologists have had a go
at laughter. I can distinguish four large groups of psychological
theories about the comic, based on archetypes, conscious feel-
ings, psychoanalysis, and experiments. They vary widely in
the complexity of the answers they give and in the kinds of
human laws they presuppose. Unlike the theories based on
stimulus and conditions, all psychological theories locate the
source of the laughable in some sort of transaction between the
laugher and the laughed-at instead of in the laughed-at alone.
And all assume considerable uniformity among people. Other-
wise, I suppose, they might not be psychologies.
Some of the most interesting thinkers about the comic in the
last seventy years or so have worked under the influence of
Freud, Carl Jung, and those classicists who, following Gilbert
Murray, have chosen to look at Greece anthropologically. The
facts about Greek rituals come from folk customs, from archae-
ological discoveries, from whatever sources can be found that
will shed light on the unrecorded activities of primitive peo-
ples. Frequently, of course, the evidence reveals as much about
the modem researcher's enthusiasm as those of prehistoric
The basic psychological hypothesis in this study of ritual is
that early humans used rituals to act out aspects of their being
for their own satisfaction and understanding. Though such rit-
uals may become atrophied, disguised, or vestigial, they per-
sist because they express the enduring, archetypal mysteries of
birth, death, and sexuality, of seedtime and harvest, of the
cycles of day and night and the seasons. Many aspects of mod-
ern life, including comedy and the comic, build on these rituals
and, so the theory says, continue their age-old appeal. That is,
a comic work that draws on these ancient rituals taps universal
archetypes in us, causing us to resonate with some deep source
of hidden vitality.
I sort comic rituals into three basic archetypes. The first
seems to turn up everywhere: death and rebirth, the fertility
ritual, the lesson of the seed. Its pattern is: challenge; struggle
and defeat; final victory. It imitates all those rhythms in our
lives which end, after an apparent blackout, in some final re-
covery and resolution: war and peace, winter and spring, sleep
and waking, death and life after death, the sexual act-in short,
all those things that prove that something must "die" so that
something new may come into being.
The prototype of the death-and-rebirth ritual is the sacrifice:
a totem animal, a pharmakos, or a scapegoat (human or animal)
is magically loaded with the sins of the community, then sacri-
ficed by the community and mourned. The sacrifice rises to the
gods and the community is "reborn," that is, cleansed.'
The basic death-and-rebirth plot builds on a conflict (agon)
between a protagonist (spring, life, the New Year, the new
king, the new god, the man of light, the son, the tribesman)
who seems to be less than he is and an antagonist (winter,
death, old year, old king, old god, man of darkness, the father,
the totem animal) who pretends to be more than he is and who
tries to block the progress represented by the protagonist. In
the first round of their fight, the antagonist wins. The protag-
onist is killed and may be eaten. Then the protagonist is re-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
born, drives off the antagonist, is worshiped as a god-and
may be married.2
The pattern, of course, has many variations. One common
one makes the ritual into an initiation in which a child or
naif is taken away from the group, often by means of a long
walk, and after some ordeal is symbolically "killed" (marked,
wounded, circumcised, or put to sleep). Then he is shown
sacred objects, questioned about them, and returned to the
tribe as an adult member. In the fertility ritual itself, banish-
ment can substitute for killing: werewolf myths come from the
banishing of a man disguised as the totem animal, whom it is
death to look upon. In another variation, the agon may be
made a purely verbal battle of invective. Thus Aristotle reports
that the first comic writers wrote simple invectives. These ver-
bal contests, logomachies, eventually ceased to be ritual and
became secular satire, purely literary.'
Tragedy (in its strict sense) is only the first half of the death-
and-rebirth pattern, as Northrop Frye has pointed out. "Trag-
edy is really implicit or uncompleted comedy; comedy
contains a potential tragedy within itself." In one frequent trag-
ic variation, protagonist and antagonist are compressed into
one man with a better half and a tragic "flaw," frequently
pride-the antagonist's pretense that he is more than he is.
To give comedy its due weight in this comparison, one
should remember that the two great ages of Western tragedy
did not allow a tragedy to end with catastrophe. Greek tragedy
took the form of a trilogy (reflecting the three stages of the
ritual drama) which proceeded to "an essentially comic resolu-
tion," in which the hero's sin was expiated. The trilogy itself
was followed by a funny, and very lewd, satyr play.' Similarly,
Elizabethan tragedies never ended simply with the death of the
protagonist, because society must always be brought back to
normality. Elizabethan tragedies contained comic counterparts
to the "serious" plot and were almost always followed on stage
by a comic jig. Tragedy, then, branched off from the basic
ritual plot by emphasizing the struggle and death. Comedy
emphasized the rebirth and marriage.
In the West, our oldest surviving comedy is the Old Comedy
of Aristophanes. These plays (and Aristotle's meager com-
ments on them) still show the ritual structure fairly clearly, as
do the tragedies of the period (fifth and early fourth centuries).
The New Comedy of Menander (late fourth century) seems to
be, says Northrop Frye, "a realistic foreshortening of a death-
and-resurrection pattern, in which the struggle and rebirth of a
divine hero has shrunk into a marriage, the freeing of a slave,
and the triumph of a young man over an older one."6 Plautus
and Terence copied Menander to make Roman comedy. From
them New Comedy passed into the unwritten Italian commedia
dell'arte, which influenced Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Moliere,
and indeed all later comedy.
During Christian times, the concept of the felix culpa (the
happy fault) developed from pagan ritual. People decided they
could look on Adam's fall (as on the tragic hero's defeat) as a
blessing in disguise, for it led to God's priceless gift of rebirth
through Christ. Pagan ritual elements became fused in Chris-
tian rituals, and thence in Christian tragedy and comedy, be-
coming finally the great concept of the commedia, the Divine
Comedy of sin and redemption.'
Any and all of these shadings, pagan and Christian, may be
found in post-Renaissance comedy. Virtually all comedy, how-
ever, retains the old fertility drama in its basic comic plot struc-
ture: situation, complication, and resolution.
The characters as well as the plot structure of the ritual fertil-
ity drama lasted into later comedy. The protagonist, the "white
man," Xanthos, was an eiron, that is, an ironical man who
seemed to be less than he was. A companion, the buffoon,
helped him and played tricks on everybody; he also pretended
to be less than he was. From these two come all the later fools,
jesters, Pierrots, and clowns (painted the white of death), who
pretend to be the least of men, but who are actually wiser than
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
most and sometimes are credited with supernatural powers of
prophecy. They seem free, but the audience knows they are
limited and must die. Even so, they seem to survive every
beating and adversity they suffer as scapegoats. Aristotle used
Socrates as an example of the eiron (an evaluation correspond-
ing to Aristotle's general opinion that Plato did not give proper
value to concrete reality). More immediately, the buffoon be-
came the witty slave of New Comedy and the witty servant in
Shakespeare, Jonson, and Moliere."
The antagonist, the blocking character, the "black man," Me-
lanthos, was an alazon, a man who pretended to be more than
he was (his blackness symbolizing not only death, but also
disguise, frequently disguise as the totem animal). He was ac-
companied by the "impostor," an alter ego. Thus later comedy
almost always attacks pretensions, "affectation" in Fielding's
sense: the dissembling Vices of medieval comedy, the prepos-
terously boastful Falstaff and Wife of Bath and the augusto of
the European circus (as in Ingmar Bergman's Clown's Evening
and Federico Fellini's Clowns).
From these two ancient types later drama developed a full
cast. From the eiron and buffoon came the "young man" (the
hero, handsome, virile, the one we can identify with, the one
who gets the girl at the end), the "parasite" (his servant, who
steals wit, glory, money, sex, and, in general, anything within
reach), and a pedant or doctor (a figure lean, pale, not of this
world, who originally helped to bring the ritual hero back to
life). From the alazon and impostor come the "old man" (the
senex, testy, impotent, rustic, stingy, and restrictive), the "old
woman" (the kordax, ugly, drunk, and amorous), and the swag-
gering soldier (or miles glorious, a braggart who is shown up).
Two other characters have ambiguous origins: the cook (con-
nected with the ritual eating of the hero) and a silent young
woman (married to the eiron at the end).'
A modem version of the eiron-alazon struggle is "The Honey-
mooners," the television skits with the bluff, boasting Jackie
Gleason and the dry, fey, seemingly foolish Art Carney. An
ancient one is the Socratic dialogue. For Plato, the incongruity
between what is and what ought to be represented not just the
comic, but the most basic assumption of his philosophy. He
dramatized this discrepancy by playing off the idealized eiron
Socrates, the riddle solver, the man who looks beyond this
world, against the very real and very inadequate persons of the
dialogues, who tend to overstate themselves, who think they
know all the answers. Indeed, the Greeks themselves seem to
have considered the Platonic dialogues to be comic works."0 So
understood, Socrates' death takes on a new shading. As the
philosophical hero of the new age of abstract symbols and con-
cepts, Socrates reenacts the scapegoat-hero of the age of myth.
He suffers a ritual killing and apotheosis at the hands of his
community in the archetypal comic plot of death and rebirth.
It is significant in this context that Socrates placed foremost
among his accusers "a comic poet," a reference to Aristoph-
anes' burlesque of Socrates in The Clouds.
The most common comic pattern seems to be death and res-
urrection. I think the second most common is the feast. It imi-
tates our all too human chafing at social rules and symbolizes
our longing to return to a golden age when there was no need
for them. A feast propitiates our cruder impulses.
These feasts may be related to the fertility ritual either as the
symbolic eating of the sacrificed hero or as the marriage feast at
the end. Such feasts are institutionalized all over the world-
the Greek Dionysia, the Roman Saturalia, the medieval Feast
of Fools, Renaissance Maypole games, the carnivals caree vale,
O flesh! farewell) before Lent, the Tibetan King of the Years'
ten days of misrule, and our own New Year's Eve, rather fee-
ble by comparison. Such rites penetrated even monasteries. In
medieval times Friar Juniper, the holy clown of the Franciscan
order, would preside over a festus fatuorum, a feast of fools,
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous
visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir dressed as
women, panders, or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They
eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is
saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking
smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through
the church without a blush at their own shame. Finally they
drive about the town and its theatre in shabby traps and carts;
and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the by-standers in
infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scur-
rilous and unchaste."
These feasts could be (in less uneasily religious ages than our
own) quite licentious and orgiastic. They almost always con-
tained an element of parody of existing institutions of govern-
ment or religion. Nothing was too sacred to be turned upside
down and mocked. Customarily, the community elected a Lord
of Misrule to preside over the merriment. This individual, too,
stemmed from the fool or down, the eiron of the archetypal
drama. He was granted great privileges, treated as a king or
pontiff (remember that the fool carried a scepter and wore a
kind of crown), but might be symbolically "killed" as part of
In comic literature, the feast becomes comic license. We al-
low poets to set up a comic world in which everything is topsy-
turvy and none of the rules of everyday life apply, only joke
rules; a world where all the bludgeons are rubber and the most
horrible punishment is to be laughed at. Shakespeare's comic
purgations take place in green worlds of "mad mistaking": the
forest of Arden, the "wood near Athens," llyria, Bohemia,
Prospero's island, where everything is all mixed up but every-
thing comes out all right, and everybody is better for it." So,
too, Molibre's characters, even in the heart of Paris, bear the
names of conventional shepherds and shepherdesses.
The comic uses still a third ritual possibility, marriage. It
imitates the linking of high to low, sun to soil, rain to earth,
male to female, God to humanity, the king to his people:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my
God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he
hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bride-
groom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adoreth
herself with her jewels. For as the earth bringeth forth her bud,
and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to
spring forth; so the Lord God will cause righteousness and
praise to spring forth before all the nations."
Such phrasings may recall Stone Age times, when, some femi-
nists believe, with the discovery of seeds and regular planting,
woman became custodian of the means of food production.
Rituals came into being to celebrate the marriage of the sun
god to the moon mother goddess. The rite frequently took
place in a cattle byre or hut, and the cow mother was identified
with the seed-bearing tree." Woman, so understood, can appear
in any of three forms: the virgin Artemis, the fruitful mother
Aphrodite, or Atropos, the crone who is the custodian of the
Cults of the mother goddess spread far and wide in the Near
East during the Graeco-Roman period, as described, for ex-
ample, by Apuleius in his novel The Golden Ass, which he built
on the rituals of Isis worship. Some phrases from Isis worship
even became embedded in the Roman Missal, the antiphons
for the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
(August 15). Marriage became an ending for the fertility ritual:
a mute woman (the earth goddess) appeared and was married
to the eiron."
Myth-and-ritual readings of modern comic literature trace
the way patterns from prehistoric times apparently persist,
often in such striking particulars as marriage to a silent wom-
an in Ben Jonson's comedy of that name, the Western hero's
white hat, and the march of green, fertile Birnam Wood against
sterile, killing Macbeth. The usual explanation is that we in-
herit-in broad outline, anyway-archetypes of myth and rit-
ual. Therefore literary experiences fall naturally into those pat-
terns. Given the way that many birds inherit knowledge of
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
their species' twittering, given that many mammals inherit as
much or more, I think it possible that we inherit ideas about
black, white, vegetation, and irony.
It makes more sense to me, however, to think that we sus-
tain or recreate these narrative patterns within the larger bio-
logical patterns all or many humans share. Each of us absorbs
these story forms through birth, being mothered, growing, ad-
olescence, love, work, sex, fathering or mothering (sometimes),
aging and dying (certainly). "Comedy is an art form that arises
naturally wherever people are gathered to celebrate life, in
spring festivals, triumphs, birthdays, weddings, or initiations.
It is an image of human vitality holding its own in the world
amid the surprises of unplanned coincidence .. [and] thanks
or challenges to fortune," writes Susanne Langer."
But where do the details come from? One can trace a direct
line of imitation from a dramatist such as Shaw to Moliere to
commedia dell'arte to Roman comedy and so back to the fertility
rituals that underlay the Old Comedy. Hello, Dolly! runs back
through Thornton Wilder's Matchmaker and Merchant of Yonkers,
which are conscious imitations of Roman comedy. Marcel Car-
nd's Enfants du Paradis uses commedia dell'arte explicitly. Hence I
am not surprised that it makes its heroine into a mother god-
dess. Can one account for all ancient echoes in modem come-
dies this way? And their details? The three generations of wom-
en in Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night and in Robert
Altman's 3 Women? The bacchanalia in Federico Fellini's Doice
Vita? It seems, indeed, faintly possible. But why do the mod-
ems imitate the ancient patterns? And why do audiences seem
to like it when they do? There is as much mystery here as
solution to mystery.
Psychologies of Consciousness
In contrast to theories based on deep archetypes in a collective
unconscious stand the common-sense psychologies, those that
systematize our conscious experience. Applied to laughter and
the comic, they yield two characteristic explanations: relief and
For a long time, people have noticed that the comic is a
relaxation or release of pent-up energy. Max Beerbohm re-
marked, as a practicing wit, "To have good reason for not
laughing is one of the surest aids." "Laughter rejoices in bonds."
And every teacher somewhat blushingly knows how easy it is
to get a laugh from bored, restless-and restrained-students.
Immanuel Kant's theory operates at a more intellectual level:
"Laughter is an affectation arising from a sudden transforma-
tion of a strained expectation into nothing." The experience is
one of relief: at a false alarm, at deceived expectation, at finding
one need not expend a large effort of comprehension, or per-
haps "a reversal of what was right up till then the customary
and expected." The body, having prepared for action on the
world, expends itself instead in action by or in the body itself.
Or perhaps laughter is a social signal to other members of the
group that they can relax with safety."
Thus laughter occurs when the same situation induces both
alarm and a quite contradictory attitude of playfulness or indif-
ference. Prototypes are the jack-in-the-box, the roller coaster,
and tickling." William Hazlitt spells the idea out:
The serious is the habitual stress which the mind lays upon the
expectation of a given order of events, following one another
with a certain regularity and weight of interest attached to them.
When this stress is increased it becomes the pathetic or
tragical. The ludicrous, or comic, is the unexpected loosening or
relaxing this stress below its usual pitch of intensity by such an
abrupt transposition of the order of our ideas, as taking the
mind unawares, throws it off its guard, startles it into a lively
sense of pleasure, and leaves no time nor inclination for painful
Kant and Hazlitt represent one kind of relief theory. In an-
other, one might accent not the emotional relief, but the cog-
nitive solution. Thus John Dewey held that laughter is the
pleasure of suddenly attaining unity at the end of a period of
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
suspense, or, as a French theorist put it, "putting objects in
categories that suit them better than our customary categories."
The psychologist D. E. Berlyne sees "arousal" as the key, com-
ing from collativee" factors, that is, attempts to collate experi-
ence despite novelty, surprise, incongruity, strangeness, com-
plexity, ambiguity, puzzlement, or contradiction. Then we get
"some factor that signifies safety, readjustment, clarification, or
Relief theories of this kind seem to me simply to psycholo-
gize incongruity theories of the stimulus. Or vice versa. Thus
the eighteenth-century scientist Joseph Priestley derived incon-
gruity in the object from relief in the subject. "Laughter when
it first appears in children ... is a nascent cry, raised by pain, or
the apprehension of pain, suddenly checked, and repeated at
very short intervals." The checked cry becomes habit until "al-
most any brisk emotion or surprise suddenly checked, and
recurring alternately, will produce it; and at last any strong
opposition, or contrast in things. ... ."'
In 1650, however, philosopher Thomas Hobbes went beyond
relief to produce one of the most famous formulas of the comic.
In a way, you could think of him as refining the idea of relief
by describing the nature of the tension and the nature of the
release: "The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden
glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in
ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with
our own formerly." Beware the man who laughs too much,
Hobbes would say, for laughter "is incident most to them that
are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are
forced to keep themselves in their own favour by observing the
imperfections of other men.""
Hobbes's theory helps to explain the motives and methods of
the satirist; he is really laughing at his own superiority, which
enables him to satirize others. (Both satire and caricature, of
course, are related to magic: satire to ritual invective, and both
to the disfiguring of a person's name or effigy, magically iden-
tified with the person.) Hobbes's theory also suggests a reason
for the physical form laughter takes. As a theorist of the 1930S
pointed out, when you have listed the significant aspects of the
act of laughing (elevation of the head, baring of the teeth,
emission of harsh guttural sounds), you have given the symp-
toms of an animal enraged."
Many people have restated Hobbes's theory many times and
in many ways. The inventor of Lil Abner, Al Capp, for example,
said: "All comedy is based on man's delight in man's inhuman-
ity to man." Joseph Addison intellectualized Hobbes: "Every
one diverts himself with some Person or other that is below
him in Point of Understanding, and triumphs in the Superior-
ity of his Genius, whilst he has such Objects of Derision before
his Eyes." French theorists speak of "a secret satisfaction of
amour-propre," of "malign pleasure," and of a superiority in
Identification could provide a psychological basis for Hobbes's
theory: one identifies with another who shows superiority, and
that other could be an idea or institution or anything that has
acquired dignity. Another psychological basis could be a drive
for "effectance" or mastery. The superior could establish itself
as such by taking on the attributes of a general principle."
Despite these extensions, Hobbes's superiority theory seems
to be limited to the least savory aspects of mirth-until we
realize (courtesy of Kenneth Burke) that we can state the dis-
proportion the other way around, "calling the purpose of laugh-
ter not so much a glorifying of the self as a minimizing of the
distresses menacing the self.""
The comic, then, is "the frustrated menace of things," ac-
cording to a fervent libertarian who converts Burke's "pur-
pose" for laughter into its cause. "I laugh at that which has
endangered or degraded or has fought to suppress, enslave, or
destroy what I cherish and has failed. My laughter signalizes
its failure and my own liberation." Are defeated SS men fun-
ny? According to this theory, they can be, if the fear they once
aroused is truly ended."
Thus the comic, said an influential eighteenth-century psy-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
chologist, is "a surprise that brings on a momentary fear first,
and then a momentary joy in consequence of the removal of
that fear." In the twentieth century, tests have shown that
tickling makes a baby laugh more if its mother does the tick-
ling. The little one realizes more readily that the apparent
threat is no threat at all. From a psychoanalytic point of view,
"most comic phenomena seem to be bound up with past con-
flicts of the ego .they help it to repeat its victory and in
doing so once more to overcome half-assimilated fear." Again,
the one who laughs too much must have much "half-assimi-
lated fear" to overcome."
As a way of dealing with our fear or anger, laughter is adap-
tive. Thus Hobbes's theory admits even religious resignation:
"A cartoon is funny to the degree that it reminds us that we are
. 'mortal men,' and thereby takes the edge off our night-
mares by showing that they contain an element of farce," says
a former editor of Punch. Similarly, laughter can be an adaptive
check to too much sympathy, in the sense of too great an
attachment to the things and people of this world. Alterna-
tively, laughter (still in Hobbes's general frame) is adaptive
"because it calls off those impulses which arise out of anger...
and starts back into action those impulses which belong to
normal activity and normal living." Anthropologists find that
joking relationships occur in a tribe when there is a basis for
conflict plus principles for both conjunction and disjunction
(that is, some reasons for treating certain people with respect
but other reasons for treating them with familiarity). Joking
achieves the right balance to keep the peace."
Otherwise, Hobbes's theory is stern indeed, and there are
gentler souls who would have it otherwise. Surprisingly, Vol-
taire was one. He recalled doubling over with laughter during
his own solitary reading of Molikre's Amphitryon. That showed,
he said, that laughter does not come from "pride," for "one is
not at all proud when one is alone." Oh, no?
Among those who want laughter to be gentle, Thomas Car-
lyle proclaims, "The essence of humour is sensibility; warm,
tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence"; "not con-
tempt, its essence is love." "Humour," says Stephen Leacock,
"may be defined as the kindly contemplation of the incongru-
ities of life and the artistic expression thereof." Others speak of
"good and pleasurable values" or a "natural unschooled good-
ness in the human heart."" At all this kindliness, I suspect,
Thomas Hobbes, Charles II's "Beare," would have growled his
"Hobbes," notes one distinguished psychoanalyst, Ernst Kris,
"is more akin to Freud than any later psychologist."3 Freud's
incisive monograph of 1905, Der Witz und Seine Beziehung zum
Unbewussten (now officially translated as Jokes and Their Relation
to the Unconscious) brings together not only Hobbes's but many
other theories of the comic. In one sense, it is a synthesis. In
another, however, Freud's recognition of a similarity in style
between jokes and dreams (and, to a lesser extent, symptoms
and slips of the tongue) meant that he could establish a relation
between funniness and unconscious mental processes gener-
ally-and that was something new in theories of laughter, or
indeed of the mind. As a result, Freud's is both more general
and more precise than any previous theory of laughter.
In general, says Freud, we laugh when our minds compare
two psychic processes, one complex, requiring us to spend a
good deal of psychic energy to carry it out, the other simple
and short-circuiting the first. The idea of comparison links
Freud's psychological explanation to theories of the incongruity
of the stimulus.
Freud becomes more particular than they can be, however.
Within the generic term "comic" he marks out three nonex-
haustive categories: jokes, the comic (used specifically, not
generically), and humor. There is one easy way to distinguish
them: jokes involve three persons, the comic two, and humor
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
Freud treats jokes as primarily verbal. Most of the examples
he gives are puns, anecdotes, malapropisms, and the like, al-
though a few are pictorial or physical. From an elaborate anal-
ysis of a series of examples he derives a variety of joke tech-
niques, all of which can be put under one or more of three
basic headings: (i) the use of the sound instead of the sense of
a word; (2) "the rediscovery of the familiar" in a new situation;
(3) the use of nonsense as a relief from the usual rules of
intellectual sense. Incidentally, all of these techniques mini-
mize threats: the tyranny of words; the fear of the new; the
demands of logical thought. All of these techniques are thus
comic in the Burke-Hobbes sense.
Freud notes that he has seen these techniques at work in
neurotics and psychotics, in dreams, in slips of the tongue, and
in the other ways in which we reveal unconscious processes.
He concludes that we get a certain amount of our pleasure in
jokes simply from the techniques as such. We enjoy "economy
of psychic expenditure" in getting around the ordinary difficul-
ties of thought.
Freud then distinguishes "innocent" jokes (or "jests") from
"tendentious" jokes. In innocent joking, we get only the plea-
sure of by-passing the rules of thought. In tendentious joking,
not only do we get the pleasure of the word play or jesting, but
we also gratify forbidden impulses. Perhaps most important,
we get pleasure from the psychic economy that makes the in-
hibition unneeded ("It's only a joke"), as in the "relief" theories
of the comic.
Tendentious jokes, even though they give most of their plea-
sure by gratifying forbidden impulses, need innocent jesting
and word play as a formal disguise. That is, only if they are
disguised as word play do we allow ourselves to gratify these
tendencies without anxiety. The playfulness of the joke serves
as a kind of cue to relax the intellect a little and trigger the
much greater relaxation of an inhibition against sex or aggres-
sion. Physical laughter embodies the free discharge of the extra
energy released because the inhibition (for the moment of the
joke) does not have to inhibit.
Freud's view of joking, then, is that it gives us pleasure by an
economy of psychic expenditure in inhibition.
At least the person who is being told a joke gets that plea-
sure. The person who makes up the joke doesn't. In getting
pleasure from a joke, three people are usually involved: the
one who invents the joke, a second person against whom it is
directed, and a third to whom the first tells the joke. Some-
times there is no second person, but the third is absolutely in-
dispensable to the joke transaction. (Think of the way you feel
when a joke you tell falls flat.)
The third person licenses, by his laughter, the forbidden im-
pulse revealed by the joke's inventor. That third person, there-
fore, must not have heard the joke before. Otherwise he will
not dam up the impulse, will have no excess energy to re-
lease-he will not laugh.
Similarly, the maker of the joke does not laugh (unless he
does so vicariously), except in so far as he gets pleasure from
gratifying the exhibitionistic impulse that made him "undress"
his unconscious impulses in the first place. To be a jokemaker,
you need to have strong impulses pressing against strong in-
hibitions; otherwise you will not seek sublimated satisfaction
through wit. A jokester is likely to be, as Hobbes pointed out,
In distinguishing jokes from the comic (in a specific sense),
Freud says that the comic requires only two people: one who
finds (as opposed to invents) something funny, and one in
whom he finds it. The comic is limited to human beings and
their social relations: movements, shapes, actions, or charac-
ters. Freud explains the comic as someone's seeing a super-
fluous expenditure of energy and identifying with it by saying,
"See how I could do the same thing with very little effort" (as
when we find children's efforts ludicrous). Or "See how much
effort it would take me to achieve the same effect" (as when we
laugh at a clown's gymnastics).
Joking gives us pleasure by converting a conscious process
full of energy and tension into an easy unconscious process. In
the comic, however, we compare two conscious (or at least
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
automatic) expenditures of energy. We see an unnecessary ef-
fort and imagine a simpler way. We compare the relative com-
plexities of body and mind, for example, muscular energies
and the ease and swiftness of thought. Or we see an expecta-
tion defeated. We unmask the important to find the common.
We convert the serious to the trivial, as in caricature, parody,
Thus Freud can answer Pascal's question (Why are twins
funny?). Experience tells us that each living being is different
and demands a considerable amount of effort to understand.
When we see identical twins, we halve that effort, and the
extra goes off as laughter."
Freud calls nonsense the comic of words. He gives as ex-
amples "the comic nonsense produced by ignorant students at
examinations," such as "Clio, the Medusa of history," or "For
hours the battle raged; finally it remained inconclusive." Non-
sense reveals nothing about unconscious processes.
Rather, our pleasure from the comic comes entirely from an
economy of expenditure in thought. To be appreciated, both jokes
and the comic ask us suddenly to compare things. The comic,
however, also requires an expectation of the comic, fixed atten-
tion, freedom from strong feelings or interests, and a minimum
of abstraction, so the amused person can imagine freely and
Freud's first and longer essay Jokes and Their Relation to the
Unconscious treats humor only slightly. We find it chiefly in
character situations where we expect to have to give much
sympathy, but then find our sympathies not needed (Don
Quixote or Falstaff, for example, or Mark Twain's brother, who
while working on a road project was thrown ten miles away by
an explosion-and then docked half a day's pay for being away
from the job). Freud defines humor as another kind of com-
parison: an economy of expenditure of emotion.
Freud's 1905 book explains jokes in terms of the first phase
of psychoanalysis: by a tension between "the" conscious and
"the" unconscious. As nouns, these key terms not only de-
scribe awareness ("I wasn't conscious I was doing that") but
imply systems, even locations, in the mind. Slowly, however,
during the next two decades, Freud realized that he was seeing
many things in his clinical work (notably expressions of uncon-
scious guilt) that he could not explain by a simple contrast
between conscious and unconscious systems.
By 1923 Freud had rethought his earlier explanation. He re-
placed this "topographic" model (conscious-unconscious) with
a "structural" one. By "structure" he meant mental functions or
forms that last a long time compared to our constantly fluctuat-
ing wishes, fears, hopes, perceptions, and memories. In this,
the second phase of psychoanalysis, Freud and his followers
explained events in terms not of conscious-unconscious, but of
The ego he defined as an executive or synthetic function of
the mind that from early infancy onward works out compro-
mises among the inner and outer demands on us. Four other
structures represent those demands: id, superego, reality, and
the repetition compulsion.
By "id" he meant the mental representation of basic biolog-
ical drives, sex and aggression, pressing for satisfaction. By
"superego" he meant our positive aspirations toward ideals
combined with moral inhibitions ("thou shalt" and "thou shalt
not"). The superego forms as we identify with our parents and
through them with their culture. The repetition compulsion, in
its most immediate sense, means simply our tendency-the
tendency of any organism-to return to ways of coping that
have previously worked before we try new ones. Freud spoke
of the "inertia" or "conservatism" of the instincts. Reality is the
ultimate question, obviously, but in this context it means some-
thing that constantly poses new challenges and requires the
ego to find new ways to meet them. It balances the compulsion
to repeat (the new vs. the old) as the id counterpoises the
superego (Do it! Don't do it!). The polarity ego-nonego in-
cudes but supplants the earlier polarity conscious-uncon-
scious. Those terms become adjectives. One speaks of "con-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
scious ego" or "unconscious superego" instead of "the" uncon-
In a 1927 essay, "Humour," Freud adapted his earlier ideas
about humor to his new second-phase, structural model, and
he hinted at the way other things we laugh at would fit it. In
humor, a laugher alters the usual relation between superego
and ego. One spares oneself the painful emotions to which a
painful situation would naturally give rise, in particular the
pain of guilt. Thus "humor has in it a liberating element. ... It
is the triumph of narcissism, the ego's victorious assertion of
its own invulnerability. It refuses to be hurt by the arrows of
reality or to be compelled to suffer. It insists that it is imper-
vious to wounds dealt by the outside world, in fact that these
are merely occasions for affording it pleasure." The ego, in
other words, acts like an eiron.
When one adopts a humorous attitude toward others, one
is adopting "the attitude of an adult toward a child, recogniz-
ing and smiling at the triviality of the interests and sufferings
which seem to the child so big." When one adopts a humorous
attitude toward oneself, one is "removing the accent from the
ego and transferring it on to his superego." As in jokes uncon-
scious impulses circumvent the limits imposed by the ego, so
in humor the superego makes the problem, big to the ego,
seem suddenly very small. In a humorous attitude toward
others or toward oneself, the superego takes the role of an
exalted but comforting parent.
Freud's second theory of humor neatly dovetails with his
structural model of the mind. Humor arises in the relation
between superego and ego. A joke allows the id's impulses to
thread their way through the ego's defenses. The comic be-
comes the ego's own comparison between two different ego
processes (of thought, for example, and movement). Thus
humor is to superego as comic is to ego as joke is to id. Freud's
second-phase explanation does not contradict the first. Rather
he has placed the first within a larger theory that explains more
of human behavior.
As he said at the end of the 1905 book, all three types of the
comic are ways we have of
regaining from mental activity a pleasure which has in fact been
lost through the development of that activity. For the euphoria
which we endeavour to reach by these means is nothing other
than the mood of a period of life in which we were accustomed
to deal with our psychic work in general with a small expendi-
ture of energy-the mood of our childhood, when we were
ignorant of the comic, when we were incapable of jokes and
when we had no need of humour to make us feel happy in our
Characteristically for Freud, laughter embodies a frontal assault
on adult reality.
Many people have contested Freud's explanation because he
(like Hobbes) makes the comic rather nasty." Logically, how-
ever, you can't refute Freud's claim that laughter "is" this way
with "It ought not to be."
A more interesting critique, that of Benedetto Croce, says
that Freud enunciates characteristics that apply to "every spiri-
tual process, such as the succession of painful and pleasing
moments, and the satisfaction arising from the consciousness
of strength and of its free expansion." Croce takes one of the
great strengths of Freud's theory of humor and tries to turn it
around: he objects to Freud's being able to relate laughter and
the laughable to other psychic processes, such as dreaming and
symptom formation, which we can understand more thorough-
ly. I don't think, though, that Freud's description of laughter
actually covers other psychic events as well. Rather, it is quite
precise. Indeed, what appeals to me most in Freud's theory is
that one can use his theory to examine details of particular
jokes and cartoons. Croce does not realize this possibility.
A more telling objection to Freud's theory is that much of it
rests on the questionable concept of psychic energy, which has
been falling out of favor in psychoanalytic circles since about
1960. One can, however, state the theory more in terms of
structures and subsequent developments in psychoanalytic
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
theory, ego psychology, and object relations theory (as I do in
Many psychoanalysts have added to Freud's theory without
fundamentally changing its 1905 style. They have included
"Freudian" symbolism in the process and the idea that the
comic is "love checked by hate," hence an expression of ambiv-
alence." Ludwig Jekels pointed to an inverted oedipal triangle in
comedy: in tragedy the son is guilty, in comedy the father.
And quite recently theorists have expanded Freud's analysis in
various nonpsychoanalytic directions: extending it from jokes
to dramatic comedy; allying it with gestalt psychology and
Noam Chomsky's transformational linguistics (the deep struc-
ture contains the "tendentious" wit, surface structure the word
play); making it into a series of propositions that can be exper-
In between, Edmund Bergler linked Freud's early theory to
ego psychology in a very rich and intricate way, suggesting
that jokes represent attacks by the ego on a torturing superego.
He could then compare the form of particular jokes to partic-
ular complicated combinations of defense mechanisms (an
early statement of the idea of "form as defense"). Sidney Tara-
chow developed this defensive idea by comparing the comic to
art in general. The artist magically destroys feared and hated
objects, but replaces them with symbols we can love. The come-
dian, however, simply destroys the object without providing
a replacement. He thereby frees us, but he does not attain
beauty. Art resolves ambivalence; the comic only disguises it.
As part of this defensive aspect of the comic, as every prac-
ticing psychiatrist or psychoanalyst knows, a patient may
smile, giggle, or joke, not because he feels amused, but be-
cause he feels anxious. Conversely, the therapist may use
humor either to relieve or to ward off anxiety. Not only the
feeling of being amused but also the physical act of laughing
can serve as a defense."
Among psychoanalytic writers, no one has worked more
fruitfully than Ernst Kris with Freud's second-phase, ego-psy-
chological explanation of jokes, the comic, and humor. Kris
extended Freud's analysis of verbal wit to visual caricature in
order to answer the historical question: Why did caricature
develop so late-not until the sixteenth century? Because think-
ing in images is so deeply rooted in us that we could not play
with people's images until we no longer felt, deep down, that
the image was the person, and that defacing the image magic-
ally caused actual harm. In true caricature, however, we sense
that the image is only a likeness."
In showing that visual caricature, like verbal wit, depends on
such magical, dreamlike "primary process" thinking, Kris was
enlarging the first-phase theory of wit in the light of Freud's
second-phase, structural model of the mind. Two things, Kris
notes, make it possible to evade censorship: the content satis-
fies the id; the disguise or form satisfies the superego. The
second makes the comic highly specific to a particular time,
place, or topic. The comic cannot deal, says Kris, with the
eternally forbidden (murder, say) or with material to which the
superego is indifferent. It must deal with something repre-
sented now in the superego. Hence the fashion plates of twenty-
five to fifty years ago, our parents' youth, are funny. Those of
two hundred years ago are not.
In general, comic phenomena seem to come from past con-
flicts of the ego. The comic enables us to repeat an earlier
victory and once more overcome half-mastered fear. Therefore
people can enjoy the comic only when they feel completely
secure from danger. Hence to laugh, one needs detachment or
distance. Identification with the person laughed at spoils the
fun. In this sense, again, the comic is a mode of defense, serv-
ing to master and ward off anxiety.
Finally Kris applied ego psychology to physical laughter. In
one sense, laughter is a way of making contact with other
people in the environment; hence it is purposeful. But laughter
is also the sign of a feeling. Hence laughter occurs on the
borderline between purposeful (ego-controlled) behavior and
expressive (id-dominated) behavior. Like other artistic phenom-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
ena, laughter and the comic engage us in a regression in the
service of the ego. That is, we return to more childish aims or
modes of thought, not in a pathological way, but as a first step
in creativity and renewal. A smile suggests that the ego has
won control, while laughter reveals either the weakening of the
ego, as by the presence of other people who are laughing, or
the strengthening of the drives, as by anger at the butt of a
joke. Shades of Lord Chesterfield.
Laughter, Kris notes, involves much the same physiological
processes no matter what its tone: ironic, hilarious, teasing,
whatever. He suggests that it is, as it were, a mechanism pre-
pared in advance. The ego shapes and tones the one basic
physical act to achieve the remarkable range of communication
of which our facial expressions are capable. From this point of
view, laughter, like all expressions of feeling, is a function of
the ego as well as of the id.
In another major psychoanalytic development after Freud,
psychoanalysts began to study children's laughter. Edith Jacob-
son concluded that a child can laugh as it feels free enough to
play with an achievement of the ego (as Kris says). A child can
also laugh because of temporary ego support from a group of
other children who are giggling. And a child can laugh from
the mere simulation of an ego achievement so long as it allows
the child to feel superior to someone (parents or itself earlier).
Martha Wolfenstein observed that as children develop they
progressively incorporate inhibitions against the simple ex-
pression of impulses. Jokes are one of the devices they master
to get around those same inhibitions. (Again the comic as
The work of Rend Spitz, beginning in the 194os, brought a
new sophistication to our understanding of the first smiling
and laughing. In the 192os research consisted mostly of de-
scriptions of children's behavior, beginning with the basic fact
that the child has usually begun to smile and to laugh in a
general way by the age of four months. The experts speak of
"the unspecific, social smile."" Spitz confirmed that the specific
smiling response, directed to the mother, appears around the
third month of life: it is rare to find it before then, and rare
not to find it after the fifth month. There is something special
about that time, moreover. The smile comes at a time when the
infant shifts from passivity to directed activity in other spheres.
The smiling response thus marks the beginning of our earliest
thought processes. It is the infant's sign, says Spitz, for "ex-
pected need gratification." If the baby can expect, then the baby
has been able to establish memory traces of the hoped-for grati-
Such memory traces are a prerequisite for recognition of
all kinds. When they are evident, the infant has progressed
beyond total absorption in self (primary narcissism) to be able
to imagine, in a limited way, another person. In psychoanalytic
jargon, the infant can relate to a "preobject." That is, the child
does not perceive and respond to another person as such (an
"object"), but to certain specific signs of another person: the
combination, in motion, of forehead, nose, and eyes (and two
eyes; just one will not do). If all four signs are present, no
matter how grotesque their form, a baby will smile. Lacking
any one sign, it will not. A baby will smile at a nodding Hal-
loween mask but not at a human profile. Interestingly, the
infant will smile more readily and reliably if one replaces a
smile on the nodding face of the observer "by extreme widen-
ing of the mouth, somewhat after the manner of a savage ani-
mal baring its fangs." What dark vestige of our hominid past
can that be?
Whatever it is, the smiling response does seem to take us
back into our primate history. So far as human infants are
concerned, it constitutes a cluster of muscular behavior (like
laughter itself), an "ego nucleus" that is in its essentials pro-
grammed and autonomous from birth. As such it plays an
important part in the bodily dialogue between mother and
child. Later it will wane, as the eight-month-old child values
different faces differently and therefore shows either anxiety at
strangers or a more chosen smile for loved adults. Yet it seems
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
entirely possible that the early function of the smile as the sign
of "expected need gratification" may provide a meaning for
smiling and laughter all through life.
While American psychoanalytic theorists worked on form
and children's laughter, Charles Mauron, one of the most bril-
liant of the French psychoanalytic critics, returned to content.
He developed a method of studying literature which he called
psychocritique. By, as it were, superimposing on one another all
the writings by a given author, he could point to recurring
patterns that constituted a "personal myth."
In 1964 he applied this technique not to an individual, but to
the whole genre of comedy, and concluded that two basic fan-
tasies underlie all comedies. First, "comic art is founded on a
triumphal game-originally the restoration of the lost mother."
Her disappearance and return form the up and down of the
basic comic pattern. The energy with which the child yearns
when she is absent goes into a feeling of richness, of surplus,
when she returns. This fantasy underlies comic writing all
through human history.
A second fantasy becomes progressively more important as
one traces comedy from Aristophanes to Moli6re: the old man
baffled, which becomes the theme of cuckoldry (the oedipal
issue so many writers have noted). Mauron's theory ties adult
comedy, then, to the two major crises in the personal relation-
ships of the developing child: psychological separation from a
mother and rivalry with a father.
Since Kris and Mauron, psychoanalysis has developed a
number of new psychological ideas that may shed light on the
comic. For example, the so-called English school has explored
in considerable clinical detail the early relationship of baby and
"primary caretaker" (mother, usually) and the way the child
forms itself by compliance with the other who is "there." The
integrity of a self grows from "object constancy" (psychoana-
lytic jargon for the child's ability to think of, to expect, and to
trust in a sometimes absent other). The English thus offer us a
way of talking about the "menace" or "incongruity" of the
comic as a limited threat to the wholeness of the ego we so
painfully and triumphantly consolidated in childhood. The
comic plays with object constancy and with the wholeness of
ourselves. Mauron touches on these matters, but newer theory
allows still more. We shall return in Chapter ii to "the joke as
Otto Kernberg in the United States has studied the child's
development of an ego by incorporating and identifying with
parents and significant others. It seems to me that Kernberg
makes it possible to consider jokes and comic writing as a
drama within the laugher among the representatives of signifi-
cant early others. After all, jokes give us horseplay with father
and mother figures, rivals (analogous to sibs), judges and doc-
tors (modeled after parents), and the like. Further, Kernberg's
distinction between the defense of splitting and the less un-
healthy defense of repression can be related to different kinds
of incongruities. And there are probably other ways of using
his theories to study jokes as intrapsychic dramas.
Heinz Lichtenstein, also in the United States, has developed
theories of personal style and identity as they grow in the early
relation of baby and "primary caretaker." He gives us a way to
approach the individuality of a particular, personal sense of
humor-but more of that in Part II.
In France, Jacques Lacan has related child development to
the network of language-signifiers (loosely, words) and signi-
fieds (loosely, meanings)-provided to the infant by mother,
father, and culture. Here again the theory seems obviously
applicable to the comic. Incongruity-Koestler's trains of as-
sociation-for example, corresponds to leaps and short circuits
among Lacan's shifting and insisting signifiers. Further, an in-
dividual's associations, his characteristic paths through his lin-
guistic network, let us talk about his particular sense of humor.
In the United States, Heinz Kohut has proposed a "psy-
chology of the self," tracing a line of development parallel to
the traditional Freudian sequence of oral, anal, phallic, and
oedipal. The child who at first knows no boundary between
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
itself and the world transforms that first feeling of omnipotence
into grandiose or idealized images of its parents, from which
in turn it builds its own psychic structures. By finding an ori-
gin for feelings of grandiosity or the ideal, Kohut offers ways
of talking in great detail about the "superiority" or "sudden
glory" of Hobbes's theory and the fragmentation involved in
the deflation of an ideal or "incongruity" in general. Like
Lacan, he seems to offer a dual way of talking about the funny:
both as external stimuli (the incongruities of Chapter 1) and as
the individual's shaping of those stimuli to a personal sense of
In short, the last couple of decades have seen a flurry of
developments in psychoanalytic theory which open all kinds of
new avenues for exploring aspects of the comic. So far as I
know, however, no psychoanalytic writers have prowled them
All arts, it is said, aspire to the condition of music. Psychoanal-
ysis, for instance, may be a duet improvised between a piccolo
and a tuba. Experimental psychology must be trying to be the
metronome. Where psychoanalytic theories of humor value the
possibilities and variabilities of a joke, experimentalists prize
the ability to count-but right away they meet a problem.
Basically, there are two approaches." You can measure the
intensity of a person's actual physical laughing, or you can try
to measure a person's feeling that "this is funny." Asking peo-
ple how they feel is easy but unreliable. Measuring laughter is
reliable, but are you really then measuring humor?
For example, one experimenter decided whether members of
a group were witty or not on the basis of the "Observer Wit
Tally." Whenever some member of the group "said or did any-
thing which resulted in an audible laughter-type response [sic]
on the part of at least two other group members, the monitor-
ing observer (0) was instructed to credit that member with a
witticism." Scientific as all this sounds, doesn't a joke that
everybody laughs at count for more than a joke that two people
go heh-heh to? And does a heh-heh count as much as a belly
laugh? And then, as other researchers point out, we laugh at a
joke, but we also laugh just to be convivial, or to hide our fail-
ure to get a joke, or to ridicule somebody, or because we feel
anxious or apologetic or joyful or embarrassed or ignorant--or
because somebody tickles us."
You can, of course, measure how long a person laughs and how
loud, for example, on a scale of o ("no response") to 4 ("audible
laughter"). You can refine that measurement by timing voice
onset and offset and gauging the total speech pressure wave.
You can use a "laryngograph" to measure "intonation contour"
(whether a person is going ho-ho-ho or tee-hee-hee)." But what are
you measuring? To be sure, being doubled over argues more
amusement than a thin smile. But does a two-second titter
mean twice as much hilarity as a one-second guffaw? Does a
loud haw-haw mean the person feels the joke is ten decibels
funnier than someone who laughs a tiny hee-hee?
The alternative (and most experimenters take it) is a "humor
rating." The experimenter asks the subject to report whether
this joke is funnier than that, to arrange cartoons in order of
funniness, to rank comedians on a scale of i to io, and so on.
Unfortunately, this method involves all the uncertainties of in-
trospection, and there seems to be no way of coping with the
possibility that one person's 8 is "the same as" another per-
Common sense would suggest combining the two, and some
psychologists do, even though the one experiment that inves-
tigated correspondences between the two measures seems to
Despite the difficulty in measuring, a great many psycholo-
gists have dug into the topic of humor in the last dozen years
or so. The literature has become enormous, to the point where
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
the very summaries of all this work are too long to summarize.
The most recent "big" book in the field contains 96 articles and
a bibliography of 1,135 items."
Further, much of this literature is written in a strange dialect:
"Experiments now in progress hope to establish whether fewer
than three dimensions of value normative anticonformity suf-
fice to generate incongruity humour, and whether the mini-
mum number of required dimensions anticonformed to de-
pends upon if the norms violated represent ego-involving
values or non-ego-involving beliefs."
Given such problems of bulk and translation, I can do no
more here than sketch trends and issues." The issue that inter-
ests me most in this mass of research is this: A given joke is
the same for everybody, but the responses vary widely. How
can we account both for the variation and for what uniform-
ity there is? In exploring this question, psychologists have
adopted two styles. I call them Huck Finn and the Great White
A Huck Finn follows the bent-pin school of fishing. The psy-
chologist chooses some jokes, picks some people to be sub-
jects, and writes down who finds what how funny. Then he
uses some of the astonishing statistical methods made possible
by modern calculators and computers to try to connect factors
in the stimuli with factors in the persons.
Some studies try to relate aspects of humor to very general
variables, such as age and sex. Others use differences in re-
sponse to explore the sources of humor and the ways we under-
stand it. And still others try to link different facets of humor
with different traits of personality.
For general variables, the experimenters' conclusions have
that helter-skelter look which such haphazard searches for cor-
relations get. For example, the funnier a subject thought a car-
toon to be, the more the pupils of his eyes would dilate. Other
researchers have found correlations between joke preferences
and height or traffic violations. You see? Height as a measure
of "superiority" and speeding as a measure of aggression. Still
other researchers found that women who were dieting were
less influenced by the laughter of others in an audience than
women who were not dieting. (Would I had space to spell out
the logic that makes that correlation important.)'
The second group of Huck Finn studies, those that use indi-
vidual differences in response to explore aspects of humor or
the way we process humor, have confirmed some traditional
categories: hostile humor, impudent humor, humor involving
immortality or transcendence, sexual humor, and so on. For
example, one line of research has demonstrated that if a joke
disparages a positive IC ("the joke recipient's identification
class") or if it esteems a negative IC, the joke will not be per-
ceived as amusing. If, however, a joke esteems a positive IC or
disparages a negative IC, the "recipient" will find it funny.
The conclusion one group of researchers reaches is that re-
search is shifting Hobbes's original superiority theory toward
vicarious superiority and heightened self-esteem, so that one
can conclude, "Necessary ingredients of an adequate theory of
humour would seem to involve a (i) sudden (2) happiness incre-
ment as a consequence of a (3) perceived incongruity." But
isn't this just combining some by now quite familiar theories
and variations on theories? Have we really gotten much farther
than Hobbes's "sudden glory"?"
The third strategy, linking types of joke to traits in the hearer,
seems more promising, but the results are less clear. One ex-
perimenter found that men prefer jokes that express hostility
directly while women prefer subtle verbal hostility, especially
against men. An earlier experimenter, however, found no sig-
nificant difference between male and female senses of humor.
One early study found that strong responses to aggressive,
disparaging jokes went with a generally aggressive personality.
Another study showed that mental patients who could em-
pathize could also recognize "funniness." Yet another found
that extroverts prefer simple and sexual jokes (laughter based
on a consciousness of superior adaptation) and introverts pre-
fer complex and nonsexual jokes (laughter stemming from sud-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
den, insightful integration of incongruous ideas, suitably dis-
One psychologist used factor analysis of responses to subdi-
vide Freud's single category "humor" into subtypes, such as
"loss of face" and "being pursued." A more elaborate factor
analysis of ioo jokes and people's responses to them yielded
busters of apparently related jokes and responses that could be
described by such factors as "good-natured self-assertion," "re-
bellious dominance," "easygoing sensuality," and so on. The
researchers decided that these were not just joke types but
general personality factors, and concluded that people prefer
jokes that are like themselves.* Vague as these studies may be, I
find the conclusion that people use jokes to mirror themselves
both interesting and probable.
Further, these correlations of joke themes with character
traits lead, obviously, to an intriguing inversion-studies not
about humor as such, but about people. Does one's sense of
humor reveal one's personality? Once experimenters could link
particular personality traits to laughing at particular jokes, the
next step was obvious: the use of jokes to discover traits. Thus
were born WHAT, MRT, and the IPAT Humor Test of Person-
ality: the Wit and Humor Appreciation Test, the Mirth Re-
sponse Test, and the Institute for Personality and Ability Test-
ing Humor Test of Personality."
The two humor tests work with joke preferences among three
of Freud's types-humor, hostile jokes, and jests-to assess
personality types. The Mirth Response Test follows a later psy-
choanalytic model: jokes express conflict-ridden wishes in con-
ditions that avert anxiety. If a joke is either conflict-free or
overconflicted for a given person, he or she will not laugh. In
particular, if the theme of the joke is too "hot," the person may
either block perception of a crucial part of the joke (denial) or
distort it by projecting some private motive onto the originator.
For example, the Mirth Response Test used James Thurber's
well-known cartoon "Home." One subject, shown the cartoon,
Copyright 1943 by James Thurber. Copynght 0 1971 by Helen W. Thurber From
Men. Women, and Dogs, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
"failed to see the face, despite hints and prodding, until it was
actually traced out for her. Then she was not amused but up-
set." The Mirth Response Testers concluded that their subject
could not read the drawing of "a very small and frightened
man coming home to a house which takes the form of the large
angry face of a woman waiting threateningly for his entrance"
(note how their phrasings imply their own interpretation). She
could not see the woman's face because she "had extremely
hostile and competitive feelings toward men which she found
difficult to control." Her denial of the woman in the cartoon
enabled her "to avoid the conflict that was so distressing to
her." Her failure to laugh thus fitted into general principles
about humans' defenses against painful conflict.
The same group of experimenters showed Charles Addams'
cartoon of his macabre "Addams family" on the tower of their
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
eerie Victorian mansion while a duster of innocent Christmas
carolers sing at their front door. The Addams family is just
tipping a cauldron of boiling oil on them.
One woman found this cartoon particularly funny. She had
rejected her religious upbringing, and for her the cartoon rep-
resented "emancipation from the repression of her youth." A
young man, however, found the cartoon pointless and disgust-
ing. He, too, had left the church in which he had been active,
but "the cartoon brought out his conflict and his feeling of
guilt." Again, laughing or not laughing relates to a general
strategy for avoiding conflict." Unfortunately, in later papers the
Mirth Response Testers retreated from this sophisticated model
and its promising line of research toward simply relating joke
preferences to diagnostic categories.
These odd responses in lieu of amusement are not elicited
just by psychoanalytically inclined experimenters. H. J. Ey-
senck, a vehement experimentalist, reports a woman's re-
sponse to a cartoon showing a witch in full Halloween regalia,
pointed hat and all, flying along on a vacuum cleaner. The
cartoon was funny, she said, because the price indicated on the
tag attached to the vacuum cleaner was too low." To me, such
responses suggest that we ought to investigate individual,
even idiosyncratic, laughing, but they evidently do not say
the same to experimental psychologists. Both Huck Finns and
Great White Hunters demand categories that submerge indi-
viduality in a class.
The Great White Hunter is the experimenter who comes to
the study of people's responses to jokes equipped with all the
latest thinking about personality: social-psychological theory,
cognitive theory, theory of affect (emotion), alone or in combi-
nation. They do overlap, of course, since personality develops
in a society as a result of skills and feelings.
Theories of society and culture touch on humor in several
ways. For one, they show how people choose certain subjects
for joking. Jews tell Jewish jokes. Soldiers joke about death and
army food. Hospital patients tell jokes about being flat on one's
back. Americans' jokes are apparently more aggressive than
those of other nationalities. On social occasions, men start the
joking whether or not women are present. Women don't.
Different cultures choose different subjects for jokes. The
Chinese joke about social relationships. Nonliterate cultures
joke about the immediate physical environment. The West
jokes about sex and aggression. But at a more abstract level,
all cultures show a structure of incongruity and resolution,
perhaps demonstrating Franz Boas' idea of a primitive mind
in all of us or Claude Levi-Strauss's theory that all humanity
builds on a bipolar, oppositional structure of mind."
Social theories also point to certain contexts for jokes: a night
club, a banquet (the after-dinner speaker), a wedding break-
fast. They may indicate the accepted forms for jokes: "There
was a Scotchman, an Irishman, and a Jew .." "How many
Californians does it take to change a light bulb?" Such theories
also discuss the complex balance of group closeness and dis-
tance required for joking.
At the same time, however, one should not expect much
certainty from these social-psychological theories. The evidence
as to the homogeneity of, for example, audience laughter at a
comedy is mixed. Some psychologists find high uniformity,
others don't, and the evidence from producers and directors is
equally mixed. One factor does seem to count consistently: the
smaller the audience, the fewer the laughs." Otherwise, the
response seems as unpredictable as for the philosophers, liter-
ary critics, and psychoanalysts.
Similarly, those who study responses of audiences to such
popular comedians as Bill Cosby, Phyllis Diller, and Don Rickles
find the variability striking. Jokes that the professors find fun-
ny fail with the student subjects of their experiments. Jokes
that get guffaws at an 8:oo P.M. showing of a movie bomb at
io:oo, and vice versa. An audience of people already friendly
to one another laughs more than an audience of strangers (at
least in a laboratory setting). Student "plants" in the audience
(instructed either to over- or to underlaugh) affect group re-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
sponses "enormously." "The major point seems to be that
what's funny is not simply a consequence of comic material.
Rather, the nature of the audience and the comedian's personal
style all combine with one another to produce a given effect.""
Social psychologists have their work cut out for them.
Cognitive personality theory guides humor research into
another large set of inquiries. To be funny, a joke must be
neither too simple nor too hard to understand. Hence an im-
portant supplement to the experiments correlating traits with
jokes are developmental studies that trace changes in what
children laugh at-and these changes, too, are very numer-
ous-to judge from the surveys."
The physical acts of laughing and smiling do not change,
but the number of situations that provoke them rapidly in-
creases during the first years of life. It is as though our ability
to laugh, like our ability to speak, is innate, but we learn our
particular culture's way of doing it. In our society, the bois-
terous, shouting laughter of the child gives way to a more
adult sense of the incongruous or a feeling of irresponsibility
(like the child again).-
Laughter first appears in the fourth month of life, and once it
has appeared, the stimuli that become more and more effective
are those that make the most cognitive demands on the infant.
At first there is the combination of "stimulus-maintaining" and
"stimulus-termination" tendencies (as in tickling or coochy-
coo). Later laughter signals success in meeting cognitive de-
mands. For the two- or three-year-old, "laughter and probably
smiling may be considered as socially acceptable tics or com-
pensatory motor mechanisms accompanying the resolution of
conflicts that have, for a shorter or longer period, kept the
individual on the horns of a dilemma." Laughter, since it is
general-within-the-species behavior, must be adaptive. Perhaps
it may reinforce our ability to deal with new and incongruous
In general, say these theories of cognition, a child or adult
has to be able to "process" the joke. You have to get the right
"set" or expectation. You have to be able to detect an incon-
gruity (and, of course, the joke has to present you with a
whole that is also incongruous). You have to be able to tolerate
the incongruity, to find it "safe." The person who tickles the
baby has to be a familiar person. The comedian's audience has
to feel friendly. To laugh, you need to be free of anxiety. The
joke can't hurt someone you love. You need to know it is "all
in fun."" In short, cognitive psychologists' studies of humor
support the traditional requirement of "play" (described in
The most challenging and extensive work on humor from the
Great White Hunters has combined theories of cognition with
theories of emotion, and in this mode the work of D. E. Ber-
lyne on "arousal" bulks large. We experience something pos-
itively or negatively as our arousal fluctuates. Moderate levels
of novelty or incongruity lead to an arousal "boost" and pos-
itive feelings. Low or very high levels of arousal lead to nega-
tive feelings, but a rise to an uncomfortably high level of arousal
followed by a fall is an arousal "jag" and leads to pleasure.
These quantities can overlap so that we can even have an
"arousal boost-jag." And something can become pleasurable
just because we associate it with an arousal jag.
Berlyne relates the pleasure of a joke to these fluctuations in
the level of our arousal and hence to the way we know the
joke, its "cognitive aspects." Three characteristics of a joke lead
to arousal. First, such psychophysical properties as size, shape,
frequency, and duration play minor roles. Second, "ecological
properties" build on the pleasant or harmful experience a sub-
ject has had with the materials of the joke. Third, our arousal
varies according to the way we process collativee properties" of
the joke. That is, the way we compare or collate information
from two or more sources allows us to arrive in a certain way at
the surprise or novelty or redundancy or uncertainty or com-
plexity of the joke. These three kinds of properties have to lead
to an optimal arousal or an "arousal jag" for the joke to get a
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
Obviously Berlyne's collativee" factors come close to what
most theorists of humor call "incongruity" and its "resolu-
tion." One psychologist, for example, discovers two stages in
"getting" a joke: first, you find your expectations "discon-
firmed"; second, you find some sort of rule that will make the
punch line follow from the body of the joke-that will, in other
words, resolve the incongruity. Naturally, the resolution can
give rise to a further incongruity (as in a comedian's string of
gags), but the psychologists also remark that "even distinguish-
ing resolution from incongruity is difficult."o
To muddy the waters further, other psychological research
suggests that the perception of incongruity alone, without any
resolution, is enough to make us laugh. Sophomores laughed
when they picked up weights that were markedly lighter or
heavier than they had expected them to be-but then sopho-
mores will laugh at a lot of strange things. So also children as
old as eleven or twelve preferred jokes with just incongruity,
One research team suggests a "theory of psychological rever-
sals" to improve these arousal and incongruity-recognition
theories. In our ordinary "telic" state, we choose to get onto
a bicycle to ride to a restaurant to eat. We choose behaviors
leading to goals. In a "paratelic" state we bicycle because we
enjoy bicycling. We choose a goal to support a behavior we
enjoy for its own sake. We laugh because we are feeling hi-
larious already. We are either in a telic, purposeful state or
in a paratelic state, never both. If we are telic, a high level of
arousal makes us feel anxious, a low level relaxes us. If we are
in a paratelic state, a high level of arousal becomes excitement
and a low level boredom. Now think about synergy: two cogni-
tive opposites come together so that each enhances the other.
A man drinking champagne on Skid Row looks better off than
he does drinking champagne on Park Avenue, and the cham-
pagne makes the Sterno drunk on Skid Row look even worse.
Synergies in the telic state arouse and so displease; in the para-
telic state, they arouse and so please.
Now, equipped in true White Hunter style, we can explain
humor. A person feels humor when (i) he is in a paratelic
state, (2) a synergy occurs involving two aspects of one situa-
tion, and (3) it is sudden. Now that seems to me rather like two
old favorites: incongruity plus play (lack of purpose); but this
theory's advocates claim it is an arousal theory superior to
Berlyne's because it allows for two preferred levels: the indi-
vidual goes back and forth between telic and paratelic states. It
is the opposite of the relief theories (see above, pp. 43-44),
because arousal, not relief, makes us laugh, but it is, of course,
another incongruity theory."
In having two levels, it resembles another complicated theory
put forward not by a psychologist, but by a mathematician.
John Paulos suggests that laughter is one of a number of phe-
nomena that answer to the "catastrophe theory" of Rene Thorn:
a three-dimensional mathematical curve (combining a saddle, a
cusp, and a discontinuity) which describes situations of abrupt,
discontinuous change, such as a dog's moving from snarling
fear to barking anger, lightning flashing, a car lurching, a per-
son going crazy-such as laughing. Like the psychologists'
"theory of reversal," this is incongruity writ large through
A further complication: "Any incongruity-resolution analysis
of humour is problematic," writes a reviewer of the field, "in
that, given current formulations, we cannot distinguish the
process of humour appreciation from the process of problem-
solving,"" especially the feeling of exuberance and triumph that
goes with mastery. Hence some psychologists try to make the
emotional side of humor more precise. "How can the combina-
tion of arousal with cognition lead to the distinctive subjective
experience of humour and joy?" ask two theorists of affect."
They answer that each emotion can be thought of as distinct,
unique, and self-evident. Arousal and cognition together make
us laugh if they occur within the feeling that goes with smiling
and laughing. In other words, they argue, laughter involves a
complicated feedback. We feel like laughing (for whatever rea-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
son). The right stimulus occurs-a witch riding a vacuum dean-
er, say-and we do laugh. The laughing is a sign that we have
"processed" the joke within an "emotion category." This is the
reason, they say, we can laugh at something we wouldn't ordi-
narily find funny just because we are feeling silly.
The idea that we have distinct "emotion categories" seems to
me to carry to an extreme one of the difficulties I have with all
these experimental approaches. They gather a whole sequence
of events (each separate and distinct: different cartoons, dif-
ferent people, different laughing) and homogenize them into
one class, category, factor, or trait. Then they start comparing,
counting, or factoring the homogenized class. That feels to me
like trying to cut, slice, and count applesauce as though it were
A notable exception comes from a husband-and-wife team.
Prompted by their clinical work with intractable schlemiel chil-
dren, Seymour and Rhoda Fisher decided to investigate what
makes a child try to be a comic-and succeed. They interviewed
professional downs and comedians, gave them projective tests
(notably Rorschach inkblots), and collected published autobio-
graphical accounts. Then they counted the relative frequencies
with which certain themes appeared in the comedians' phras-
ings of their tests and in their autobiographies.
The Fishers insist they have not been able to isolate a "comic
personality" as such, and they doubt that anyone will ever
draw a neat "trait profile" of the professional comedian. They
did, however, establish "focalized areas of tension and doubt"
shared to a remarkable degree by comedians and not by other,
related types. (Their controls were professional actors and per-
formers, nonprofessional "funny friends," and ministers and
The "most salient theme" had to do with contrasts and op-
posites. The comedian presents himself as reassuringly silly,
yet he conjures up the most taboo subjects. He is superfriend-
ly, but he assails one and all with disparaging remarks. He
wants his audience to love him, yet comics say they get a
feeling of power over their audiences. In the inkblot tests, the
Fishers got a "highly unique 'nice monster' imagery." The
comedian would describe an inkblot figure as a dragon or a
hyena but a few minutes later turn it into a cuddly or mis-
understood pet. Bad things aren't really bad.
In general, comics wrestled with such questions as "Is the
world good or bad?" "Am I good or bad?" And they would
define themselves and others first in one direction, then the
When the Fishers asked about childhood, they found that
comics generally saw their mothers as disapproving and pun-
ishing and their fathers as great guys. From their mothers the
comics got a message that the child was on its own, and its
own was likely to be pretty poor. The child learned low self-
esteem. The fathers tended to be nice but passive.
In other words, say the Fishers, the budding comedian first
finds contradiction in his parents. The world is not a very
predictable or logical place. In the way of children, then, the
child mirrors this contradiction back to the parents, becoming
himself incongruous and double, seemingly clumsy, a schlemiel,
but actually winning from others the esteem and nurture his
mother has denied him. He not only expects illogicality, he
He begins to interpret the world as having something hid-
den. "There is a little lie in everything," said one comedian,
and it is his business to bring it out and master it. As part of
the hiddenness, the comic hides behind his own jokes, evading
direct contact with others. Even so, comics tended to describe
themselves as healers, in language appropriate to a physician
or a priest. And society treats the comedian as double: a low-
status clown who has priestlike magical powers. Robin Wil-
liams and Woody Allen have the same functions as the court
jester and the fool-priest did for their cultures, and we have the
same ambivalence toward them. We tend to think of even big,
rich, successful comedians as petty, ridiculous figures.
At every turn the Fishers encountered the problem of size: in
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
the inkblot responses, in the language of comic performance,
in the imagery of the comics' autobiographies, in the come-
dian's sense that he makes himself small in order to gain power
over his big audience. In a thousand ways the comic says, "I
am small. I am down." Think of Woody Allen on his child-
hood: "I wanted a dog but my parents were too poor to buy
one, so they got me an ant. I called him Spot." Or all the
pratfalls in a Keystone Kops comedy.
The Fishers suggest that some combination of these "ener-
gizers of humor production are, in mirror-image fashion, rep-
resented in the mechanisms of response to humor." "It does
not seem farfetched that there may be a fit between his [the
professional comic's] aims and the 'humor receptors' of those
who respond to him." They list, as possible features of the
Being unthreatening; soothing and healing people.
Attacking standards, creating anarchy, blurring good
Exposing and integrating contradictions.
Venting hostility but concealing it.
Deprecating the self, but occupying a unique status
with special powers.
I see the Fishers' work as an outstanding success. They show
that it is possible to count without losing sight of the indi-
vidual. One can go back and forth from case to category rather
than insisting, like most psychoanalysts, on only the case or,
like many experimentalists, on only the category.
The difficulties I see in most other experimental results say
to me that the psychologists need to be able to deal with the
individual laugher as an individual." The counting and catego-
ries most experimentalists use, however, systematically dis-
tance precisely the individuality they should be seeking. It's
like reaching for a quarter that has slid down between the
sofa cushions: the nearer your fingers get, the farther apart
you spread the cushions, and the deeper the quarter goes.
The more you try to be "scientific" (as that is defined by most
experimental psychologists), the more you have to submerge
the individuality you need to understand into a "trait," a "fac-
tor," or an "index."
Yet has this effort to be scientific succeeded? To me the most
basic characteristic of a science is answers: large principles that
enable us to understand many situations. I do not feel that
experimental psychologists who have studied humor and
laughter have yet arrived at such principles. Neither do they,
to judge from the psychologists who survey the field."
The difficulty comes about because the answers the experi-
mentalists do get are locked into the particular theory or meth-
od they bring to the experiment. They resist generalizing. Yet
to be "scientific" (as the word is usually defined), one needs a
defined, repeatable method. Perhaps, then, the real problem is
not laughter, but finding a defined, repeatable method that will
not smooth out the variety of response.
The writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol (in asserting that
we laugh out of a sense of superiority) remarked, "There are
no sources of the comic in nature; the source of the comic is in
the One Who Laughs." "Tell me what you laugh at, and I will
tell you who you are.""6 Or you could say, "Comedy is in the
eye of the beholder." Carlyle provided the necessary German
authority for this formula: "Every man, says Lessing, has his
own style, like his own nose." I wish experimenters would pay
more attention to the styles and noses that make each of us
different from every other, but "scientific" psychology has not
yet devised a way to take them into account.
Philosophers and psychologists address arousals and incon-
gruities, but finally laughter is a bodily thing. It has a purely
physiological existence, separate from any psychological sense
of amusement, triumph, relief, or gratification.
As a muscular phenomenon, laughter is easy to describe.
It consists of spasmodic contractions of the large and small
zygomatic (facial) muscles and sudden relaxations of the dia-
phragm accompanied by contractions of the larynx and epiglot-
tis. Laughter differs from smiling simply in that the smile does
not interrupt breathing.'
Experiments with electric stimuli show that laughter is reflex-
oid, governed by the "old brain" or "interbrain" (the thalamus
and hypothalamus), along with other reflex activity and purely
emotional behavior (rage, for example). It differs, therefore,
from the cognitive faculties, which the pallial cortex controls.2
Laughter can also result from physical stimuli such as tick-
ling or nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Certain diseases cause
laughter, sometimes quite uncontrollable giggling: Kleine-
Levine syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, Pick's brain atrophy,
pseudobulbar palsy, multi-infarct dementia, multiple sclerosis,
hebephrenic schizophrenia. Kuru, a virus disorder of New
Guinea, involving the cerebellum, can lead to laughter in its
terminal stages. In the rather rare gelastic epilepsy, electrical
overactivity in the left hemisphere makes people laugh without
intention or cause. There have even been epidemics of laugh-
ter. In 1962-64 in Uganda and Tanganyika, young girls suf-
fered from uncontrollable peals of laughter leading to exhaus-
Electric stimuli can cause laughter. Indeed, one assiduous
researcher has gone so far as to produce a set of mildly enter-
taining photographs in which one half of the subject's face is
twitched into a smile by electrodes while the other half looks
thoroughly annoyed at the whole procedure.'
The best premodern treatise on the physiology of laughter I
have found was published in 1579 by Laurent Joubert, physi-
cian to Catherine de' Medici and Henri III. Here is his total
definition of the phenomenon:
Laughter is a movement caused by the jubilant mind and the
unequal agitation of the heart, which draws back the mouth and
the lips, and shakes the diaphragm and the pectoral parts with
impetuosity and broken-up sound, through all of which is ex-
pressed a feeling over an ugly thing unworthy of pity. By these
words I adequately embrace (unless I am mistaken) the whole of
the nature of laughter.
What optimism! Truly a Renaissance man.
Joubert does not care greatly about the psychological causes
of laughter. We see something that should cause us displea-
sure, and it doesn't. Therefore we feel a double emotion, a joy
canceled by sadness. Physiologically,
the heart, moved impetuously in alternating contrariety, shakes
its sheath, called the pericardium. This latter does not fail to pull
abruptly on the diaphragm, to which it is connected with a
strong membrane. The vacillating and trembling diaphragm in
turn shakes the chest, following which there is a similar com-
pression of the lungs, which breaks up the voice.
Joubert reports that when he dissected animals, he found no
connection like that in humans between the pericardium and
the diaphragm, and that, he concludes, is why humans laugh
but animals don't.
Writing not long after Rabelais, Joubert is the only author in
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
the hundreds I have read who addresses the question "Whence
it comes that one pisses, shits, and sweats by dint of laugh-
ing." As for sweating, "it is caused by the agitation and general
commotion, which excite the humors and dilate the pores of
the skin." As for the others, "when these epigastricc] muscles
press a long time and with much violence, soliciting the bowels
and the bladder to give up their contents (as it happens in
laughter), if there is a quantity of liquid matter, all escapes us
indecorously. For the agitation and jouncing is so strong that
the sphincters are unable to resist. .. ."
Less colorful but more informative is the best modem physi-
ological study of laughter I have found, that by Dr. Frederick
R. Steams. Laughing involves the cricothyroid and thyroarten-
oid muscles of the larynx in its voicing and, in its expulsion
of air, the whole system of expiratory muscles: abdominal,
lumbar, internal intercostal, subcostal, and transverse thoracic.
The rhythmic quality of laughter, he suggests (as Bateson does),
may indicate a reverberation through some neuronic feedback
network. (Joubert could have said almost as much.)
What particularly intrigues Stearns is the genetic basis for
this complex of muscular activity. He points out that laughter
appears in all normal children of every race and culture about
the fourth month of life. It must therefore be an inherited ca-
pability (like bipedal gait or, perhaps, language). Because it is
made out of so many muscular actions, a series of genes or
alleles (forms of a gene) must be involved. The trait, moreover,
has complete "penetrance." That is, the genetic potentiality
under environmental influence produces the same effect in
everybody. Either we can laugh or we can't-there is no such
thing as being able only to half-laugh. Moreover, the ability to
laugh is not something like blue eyes or brown skin-everybody
Knowing that laughter is an inherited potentiality, however,
only makes the already perplexing physiological question more
difficult: Why does a fairly specific intellectual stimulus lead to
a complex cluster of muscular actions that can also be induced
by various physiological means? It is as if paradoxes caused us
to inhale deeply or ambiguity made us clench our fists.
Theorists have offered two answers. First, the bodily activity
is an analogue to what goes on in the mind, so that we can
reason backward from the physical effect or the physical cause
to the mental cause. Second, laughter is a vestige of something
that once had (or may still have) an important biological or
Laughter as Mirroring
Aristotle was a theorist of the first type. He said that peo-
ple laugh when they are tickled because the "motion" (we
would say stimulus) quickly penetrates to the diaphragm and
there produces a movement that is independent of the will but
which we nevertheless recognize intellectually. In effect, he
was tracing energy from the body to the mind and vice versa.
In 1561 the Abb6 Domascere outdid Aristotle by correlating a
person's physical manner of laughing with personality. Hi-hi-hi
laughs (he said) signify a melancholic personality, hee-hee-hee a
phlegmatic one, ho-ho-ho (the Santa sound) a sanguine one, and
(I'm guessing now) a nasty ha-ha-ha would mean a choleric
Rene Descartes stated this linkage of body and mind most
exactly. In his somewhat quaint physiology, he interpreted
laughter as blood coming from the right cavity of the heart
through the pulmonary artery and inflating the lungs, driving
the air out of them, and so contracting the muscles of the
diaphragm, chest, and throat, which in turn move the facial
muscles to which they are connected. He noted that laughter
often accompanies joy-but only moderate joy. "In great joys,
the lung is constantly so full of blood, that it cannot be further
inflated by repeated effort."
He gave two basic causes for laughter. One is physiological:
"the mixture of some fluid which augments the rarefaction of
the blood." The other is mental: "the Joy one has from seeing
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
that one will not be hurt by an evil which one does not merit
and by which one had been surprised by its novelty or un-
expected appearance." Thus laughter will come from combina-
tions of admiration, indignation, joy, and aversion.
A number of subsequent theorists took the same tack as
Descartes. Kant, for example, started by assuming that "with
all our thoughts is harmonically combined a movement in the
organs of the body." Then, if we think of the mind as being
transposed now to one standpoint, now to another, there will
correspond "an alternating tension and relaxation of our intes-
tines which communicates itself to the diaphragm (like that
ticklish people feel)." Then the lungs will expel the air in rap-
idly succeeding intervals "and thus bring about a movement
beneficial to health."
Similarly, Hazlitt spoke of "this alternate excitement and
relaxation of the imagination" which "causes that alternate ex-
dtement and relaxation, or irregular convulsive movement of
the muscular and nervous system, which constitutes physical
In our own time, Arthur Koestler attributes the laughable to
"the sudden bisociation of a mental event with two habitually
incompatible matrixes [which] results in an abrupt transfer of
the train of thought from one associative context to another.
The emotive charge which the narrative carried cannot be so
transferred owing to its greater inertia and persistence." Ac-
cordingly it is "worked off along channels of least resistance in
laughter." The real difficulty in transferring, I should think,
comes from the matrixes, charges, inertia, channels, and resis-
tance Koestler posits-as though our thoughts were rumbling
their way through the Chicago switching yard.'
By contrast, Rend Girard is the contemporary theorist who
most lightly reads back from physical laughter to mental laugh-
ter. He begins with the idea of weeping at tragedy. The eye
behaves as though something had to be expelled, a physical
analogy to catharsis. Tears are an integral part of laughter, but
much more of the body is involved in expulsion. What kind of
threat, then, are both tragedy and comedy trying to get rid of?
asks Girard. "An individual is trying to assert upon his envi-
ronment his own individual rule. We laugh when this preten-
sion is suddenly and spectacularly shattered." Thus we claim
our own strength is greater than his. Yet the more we laugh,
the weaker we get. Thus there must be a balance. "The threat
must be both overwhelming and nil; the danger of being ab-
sorbed into the pattern which has already devoured the victim
of our laughter must be both immediate and non-existent." By
this combination we know that "comedy is intellectual tickling."
It is only a hop from intellectual tickling to the most intri-
guing of these theories of amusement as imitation of physi-
ological laughter: the one that says we will laugh if a finger
is pressed five times a second. Dr. Manfred Clynes has in-
vented the theory of "sentics," according to which each basic
emotion, such as joy or anger, has a particular expressive (or
"orthoessentic") form expressed in any of a number of "output
modalities," including tears, sweat, facial expression or body
movement, even finger pressure. One can therefore measure a
particular sentic state by finger pressure, and Clynes has done
just that, graphing the essential finger wiggles for hate, grief,
love, sex, and so on. Naturally individuals vary these forms
within the usual bell-shaped curves (rather widely, I'd say),
but Clynes claims to have isolated the essential forms. They do
not differ systematically for men and women, he says, nor do
they vary from one culture to another.
Works of art and other people create emotional effects by
imposing essentic forms on us. Thus in Michelangelo's Pieta
the folds of the shroud and the angle of Mary's head express
grief, while "the fold proceeding out and upward from the
extended arm (lower center) may be experienced as an aspect
According to Clynes, essentic forms can be experienced ab-
stractly, without any particular content. Thus we laugh (some-
times) at simply the sound of laughter, from a television laugh
track or a guffawing machine in front of a fun house, because
82 WHY Do WE LAUGH?
(says Clynes) we are getting the essentic form of laughter: a
chopping motion of breath or voice at five pulses a second. We
even laugh, says Clynes, if our finger is pressed "at the right
frequency, phase, and angle." Different angles and wave forms
of finger pressing will lead to joyful, malicious, or sardonic
laughter. Conversely, different angles and wave forms from
laughers in response to the same jokes or cartoons reveal per-
sonality. All very neat and put forward with an impressive
panoply of graphs and photographs.
What can one say? I just don't believe that I would laugh or
feel sexually aroused no matter how many times per second
someone pressed my finger, but I freely volunteer to put the
appropriate finger to the test.
Laughter as Adaptation
The second group of theorists, those who explain the physio-
logical syndrome we call laughter by a biological or adaptive
purpose, is larger. The first and one of the most charming I
have been able to find is the Renaissance theorist Madius, a.k.a.
Vincenzo Maggi. "An unexpected appearance of something
ugly without pain" leads to an "involuntary motion of the ra-
tional mind, a consequent pouring out of heat [we would say
energy], an enlarging of the heart," therefore "a constriction
of the midriff ... and a shortening of the muscles which lead
to the sides of the face." "This motion of the heart is
granted men by nature for the relaxation of the mind."
Most of the theorists who explain physical laughter as a pre-
sent or vestigial adaptation are like Madius: their theories hinge
on the idea of relaxation or its absence. Darwin, for example,
suggested that laughter is the opposite of distress. Distress
manifests itself by short, broken expirations and long breath-
ings in. A physiologist amplifies. Laughter is "swift demobiliza-
tion," a full and immediate relaxation, which speedily disposes
of "energizing secretions" that had been called into the blood-
stream-adrenalin, I suppose.'
A psychoanalytically oriented physiologist begins with the
smile: a preparation to suck. Laughter contrasts with the smile.
It is a respiratory disturbance like others that occur when
loving behavior (eros in the broadest sense) is interrupted and
the interruption is then removed. A non-Freudian psycholo-
gist, however, notes that laughter sends a fuller stream of
blood to the brain. Psychologically, it breaks up consecutive
thought, producing euphoria and preventing gloomy thinking.
Laughter, then, is "Nature's antidote for the sympathetic ten-
These speculations based on human physiology contrast
with readings of laughter based on animal analogies. A famous
idea is that of Anthony Ludovici, who pointed out that when
you have listed the significant aspects of the act of laughing,
you have given the symptoms of an animal enraged: teeth
bared, head raised, harsh barks. He therefore suggested that
laughter has a primeval jungle origin in the "showing of teeth"
as an indication of challenge or threat. In this vein (although I
am not sure how true or how.relevant the observation is) Have-
lock Ellis says that the most ticklish regions correspond to the
'spots most vulnerable in a fight.
Elias Canetti gives a different animal analogy: laughter is
based on the feeling of pleasure aroused by prey or food that
seems certain. We laugh instead of eating the individual who
has had a pratfall. This idea echoes Hobbes. We laugh instead
of eating what we are superior to. One can, apparently, induce
laughter in hyenas by putting food before them and taking it
Arthur Koestler has also derived laughter from our animal
ancestry. It is one of many of our physiological responses that
echo threats or promises from the remote past of our species.
We jump at a sudden sound. We get gooseflesh when chalk
screeches on a blackboard so that our long-lost body hairs will
bristle at the attack cry of some extinct beast. We sweat before
an examination to dispose of the excessive heat our bodies
might develop in the coming fight with the examiner. Those
84 WHY Do WE LAUGH?
are "overstatements of the body," and so is laughter. The slight
malice or lust of a joke serves as a "quasi-homeopathic" stim-
ulus to release adrenalin, which triggers a body reaction, laugh-
ter, which is excessive for this slight stimulus, an anachronism.'0
Other writers on laughter as an adaptation accent its com-
municative function (as Freud noted how the laughter of the
joke hearer absolves the joke teller of guilt). The anthropologist
Mary Douglas, for example, contrasts laughter with other
bodily interruptions of speech, such as hiccoughs and sneez-
ing. These spasms disrupt the normal parallelism between the
body as a channel of communication and our speech, but we
screen them out as irrelevant noise. Laughter, however, is
always taken to be a communication, although different cul-
tures allot different thresholds to it and different loads of social
Other suggestions are that laughter serves to show to other
humans a willingness to cooperate and a desire to continue
with whatever activity is in progress, while crying indicates
unwillingness to continue. Laughter was originally a vocal sig-
nal to other members of the group that they might relax with
safety. Laughter expresses, maintains, and communicates a
mood in which the organism feels no need to make any further
adjustment to its environment. Laughter is a disguise within
which one can communicate secret, forbidden ideas, because it
makes people aware of mutual identifications and social rela-
tions. It is thus a reflex of disarmament, "a remnant of ancient
biological adaptational response in the service of communica-
tion, camouflage, mimicry, and the reflex of capitulation.""
The ethologist Konrad Lorenz confirms this last idea, "the
reflex of capitulation," from observations of animals. Following
Kant, he asserts that "most jokes provoke laughter by building
up a tension which is then suddenly and unexpectedly ex-
ploded. Something very similar may happen in the greeting
ceremonies of many animals: dogs, geese, and probably other
animals, break into intensive greeting when an unpleasantly
tense conflict situation is suddenly relieved." From his point of
view, "laughter, like greeting, tends to create a bond." It "di-
verts aggression" and also produces "a feeling of social unity."
Other writers compare human laughing and smiling to that
of apes. Smiling corresponds to the silent bared-teeth display
of apes, which represents nonhostility, social attachment, and
friendliness, and which overcomes uncertainty about the re-
lationship. Laughter corresponds to the apes' relaxed, open-
mouth display, "a metacommunicative signal, designating the
behaviours with which it is associated as mock-aggression or
play." Darwin observed that apes laugh and chuckle on being
tickled. Laughter in humans, then, may be a leftover from our
biological heritage. Disruption of breathing actually disadvan-
tages the laugher in a fight, but as a signal it appeases the
Desmond Morris, the zoologist, points (as Rene Girard does)
to the similarity between crying and laughing: muscular ten-
sion, blood to the head, tears, mouth open, lips pulled back,
exaggerated breathing, and high-pitched, rasping vocalizations.
Laughing evolves from crying. Once the child recognizes its
mother as "special" compared to other people, any startling
action of hers leads to a mixed stimulus: something frightening
from the person who represents security, hence a danger that
need not be taken seriously. "The child gives a response that
is half a crying reaction and half a parental-recognition gurgle.
The magic combination produces a laugh. (Or, rather, it did,
way back in evolution. It has since become fixed and fully
developed as a separate, distinct response in its own right.)"
So the laugh says, "I recognize that a danger is not real." It
thus becomes a signal for play, like the play grunt of the chim-
panzee. As the ape matures, the signal becomes less useful and
dies away, but we, who continually test and explore, go on
laughing. Whenever we shock ourselves without getting hurt,
we laugh with triumph and relief.
According to Morris, just as laughing is a secondary form of
crying, so smiling is a secondary form of laughing. In infancy
we used the smile to develop the vital bond of attachment we
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
needed for survival. The infant smiles at faces long before it
can distinguish other stimuli and thus evokes smiles in return.
The smile in effect substitutes for the fur-clinging behavior of
less naked apes. As adults, we signal the people we meet that
we are mildly apprehensive, therefore not aggressive, therefore
friendly and attracted." Thus Morris arrives at about the same
ethological explanation of smiling and laughing as the other
analogizers between our primate cousins and ourselves: threat
An alternative, however, comes from the efforts to teach
apes to communicate with humans by signs. They achieve, ac-
cording to one observer, "simple forms of incongruity humor."
They can use the word "funny" at least in the sense of funny-
odd. If so, then humor is not a vestige of earlier stages in our
development. Rather, it is something we became capable of
when we first developed a propositional language system." Who
knows, then, what heights the apes may reach if they can be
funny and also call it funny? They may even become theorists
of the comic.
But is that a consummation to be wished? These theories that
attribute laughter to relaxation or communication or even meta-
communication, although fortified by the latest in ethological,
ethnological, and psychophysiological observation, seem al-
most as speculative to me as Aristotle's or Madius'.
In 1897 G. Stanley Hall (the psychologist who invited Freud
to lecture in America in 1905) and Arthur Allin published the
results they obtained by circulating a "syllabus" (questionnaire)
about tickling and laughing. Like so many people before and
after them, they concluded "that all current theories are utterly
inadequate and speculative, and that there are few more prom-
ising fields for psychological research." And what research
they planned! "To apply all the resources of instantaneous pho-
tography to collect laughs and smiles in all their stages." "Sec-
ondly, the resources of the phonograph should be applied to
the vocal utterances of laughter." More "syllabi," of course,
and fourthlyy, a very careful collection of thousands of the very
best ancient and modern jests, on cards for ready sort-
ing" (shades of IBM). Matters seem not to have improved very
much since then; now psychologists survey their work and re-
sort hopefully to computer modeling of the process of laugh-
ter.'5 Does the laughing computer represent an advance over
the laughing ape? Could they both be laughing at people who
theorize about laughter?
Efforts to explain how complex jokes lead to the physical re-
sponse we call laughter by reading from mind to body or body
to mind remain as speculative to me as they did to Hall and
Allin. I am convinced, however, by some of the observations
of the geneticists and ethologists. First, the capacity for this
particular coordinated muscular activity must be innate (like
walking or sneezing). Second, this particular muscular cluster
very probably survives as some part of our primate inheritance.
The big problem, however, remains. What is the psycho-
logical thread that connects this primitive muscular act (which
in an ape could come from being tickled or in a human from
pseudobulbar palsy) with Don Quixote or Le Misanthrope or The
Tempest? It just does not seem likely to me that the overstuffed
Victorian researches proposed by Hall and Allin will yield that
elfin comic thread. Nor has the even more relentless scientism
of today's streamlined psychologists found it. We need to ask
about the way we are asking, "Why do we laugh?"
But I am getting ahead of myself.
If you were to invite to one party all the people who have
written about the catharsis we are afforded by comic art, the
weight of brains could bend the floorboards. Just for openers,
standing there swapping jokes and experiences with jokes
would be Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Coleridge, and Kierke-
gaard. Yet despite all those brains (or because of them), their
remarks on the subject scatter like the conversation at any old
cocktail party. They show nothing like the easy acceptance by
centuries of critics of Aristotle's idea of a tragic catharsis.
Aristotle promised us a definition of catharsis, but either he
never got round to it or it has been lost in the centuries. Trag-
edy, he said, dealt "with incidents arousing pity or fear, where-
with to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions." Pity we feel
because we stand at a distance from the tragic victim, fear
because we identify with him and fear that the same could
happen to us (or so I understand him). Aristotle's concept may
also have a ritual meaning. He may be saying that we push off
our undesirable emotions on the tragic protagonist (like a scape-
goat in a ritual) and kill them with him. He may mean that in
the situation of drama our passions are raised and allayed in a
purer, simplified way, in a "model" situation. Classicists have
been debating for centuries just what Aristotle meant, but in a
sense it doesn't matter, because he gave us a word with which
to settle our thinking: catharsis. Whatever it is, tragedy does it.
So, at least, most theorists of literature agree.'
Perhaps, however, the notion of catharsis does not really
apply to comedy, for so many writers, starting with Aristotle,
have regarded the comic as distinctly inferior to tragedy. "Po-
etry," he said, "diverged in two directions, according to the
individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated
noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial
sort imitated the actions of meaner persons." Both tragedy and
comedy deal with human limitations, then, but tragedy pre-
sents them as large and star-crossed, part of the ultimate struc-
ture of life. Comedy presents them as something more trivial
All this the Preacher said long ago, and most eloquently
(Eccles. 7:2-4): "It is better to go to the house of mourning,
than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all
men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than
laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is
made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." Perhaps, then,
the comic is so earthbound that we cannot say it leads to ca-
tharsis in Aristotle's large sense.
How might his concept of catharsis apply to comedy, though?
Aristotle's treatise on comedy is lost to us, but a diligent clas-
sicist, Lane Cooper, has drawn on the tenth-century quasi-
Aristotelian Tractatus Coislinianus to build an Aristotelian theory
of comedy to fill the gap. In it comedy has a catharsis analo-
gous to tragedy's. Anger substitutes for pity and envy for fear.
Anger we feel through our distance from the comic victim: we
resent his foolishness. Envy we feel because we identify with
him and hope his happy ending will happen to us (or so I read
To some extent, modem psychologists confirm this idea of
catharsis. Hostile humor reduces the aggressive responses of
audiences, but nonhostile humor seems to do so too, and some
researchers report no reduction. A sociologist suggests that in
drama irony in particular helps this cathartic process. When
the audience knows something the characters don't know, they
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
feel safe. Hence they can identify with the characters' fear,
embarrassment, and anger for the catharsis of those feelings.'
A simpler concept of comic catharsis has been in existence
for a long time, the idea that comedy acts out a revolt against
control. The Earl of Shaftesbury gave it an early-eighteenth-
century phrasing: "The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if
imprisoned and controlled, will find out other ways of motion
to relieve themselves in their constraint: and whether it be in
burlesque, mimicry, or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate
to vent themselves." More recently, we would speak of escap-
ing "conformity" or transcending our "inferiorities."'
At the end of the nineteenth century, the psychologists Hall
and Allin announced scientific support for the idea that the
comic frees. "No doubt, like occasional crying for babies, it
[laughter] is good for the voice, lungs, diaphragm and diges-
tion, produces needed increase of blood pressure to irrigate
new forming tissues, develops arterial tonicity and elastic-
ity ." and so on, as though comedy were the snake oil in the
medicine show of life.
Oddly, despite this widespread belief that comedy vents our
rebellious spirits, much the most common idea about comic
catharsis is that comedy teaches us the worldly wisdom of
acceptance. At its best, such writers say, the comic makes peo-
ple urbane, civilized, refined-thus George Meredith in the
most famous English essay on comedy: "The test of true com-
edy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter." Comedy, he
concludes, corrects vanity, egoism, and sentimentality, restor-
ing us to the belief that "our state of society is founded in
common sense," hence to the amused perception of the ways
we fall short of that ideal. I find it pleasingly progressive that
this Victorian man should conclude that in ages when the Com-
ic Spirit has flourished, civilization has treated women as the
equals of men.
Earlier, in Enlightenment Germany, the great theorist of dra-
ma Gotthold Lessing wrote that the comic is a "preservative."
It allows "the practice of our powers to discover the ridiculous,
to discover it easily and quickly under all cloaks of passion and
fashion, in all admixtures of good and bad qualities, even in
the wrinkles of solemn earnestness." "The instruction of Com-
edy," according to his Romantic compatriot Schlegel, is "the
doctrine of prudence; the morality of consequences and not of
motives. Morality, in its genuine acceptation, is essentially al-
lied to the spirit of Tragedy Comedy is intended to
make us shrewder; and this is its true and only possible moral-
Such modem critics as Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye
reach the same conclusion. "Comedy deals with man in society,
tragedy with cosmic man," says Burke. And for Frye, comedy's
"significance ... is ultimately social significance, the establish-
ing of a desirable society." You could say that comedy deals
with the golden mean or, alternatively, that a witticism stretch-
es the values of a group in order to get someone to laugh.
The laughter, however, is a sign that the laugher has reas-
serted those values and hence the solidity of the group to
which they belong. Hence there is a limit on purely psycho-
logical theories of laughter: the laugher may laugh not for
wholly intrapsychic reasons, but in response to the purposes of
the joke teller. You could put it this way: humor has to do with
cognitive development, laughter with social development.'
This view of the comic leads to a merely instrumental idea
of its moral function. Thus the fourth-century grammarian
Donatus says, "Comedy is a story of various habits and cus-
toms of public and private affairs, from which one may learn
what is of use in life and what must be avoided." The comic
becomes simply a social corrective. Therefore it requires poetic
justice, as the Renaissance English poet George Whetstone
said, "for by the reward of the good the good are encouraged
in wel doing: and with the scowrge of the lewde the lewde are
feared from euill attempts."
The playwrights of the English Restoration, beleaguered by
Puritan critics, the Moral Majority of the late seventeenth cen-
tury, took this way of justifying their wit. John Dryden in-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
sisted that comedy does not so much punish faults as make
them ridiculous; it deals with forgivable frailties rather than
obnoxious crimes-but this, too, is a legitimate moral purpose.
William Congreve defined true comedy as the presentation of
characters with "humours" both diverting and excessive, a
"humour" being a "singular and unavoidable manner of doing,
or saying anything, Peculiar and Natural to one Man only; by
which his Speech and Actions are distinguished from those of
One could generalize this point of view by saying that the
subject matter of comedy is "the abnormal" set against a social
norm. Thus, for example, a modem semioticist, who takes the
cause of laughter to be the collision of natural law with cultural
universes of discourse, thinks the comic catharsis purely the
keeping of social balance. Laughter "warns man automatically
S. when he stretches beyond the safety limit in the direction
of either culture or nature."'
Social theories of the comic tend to limit it to one of its
subspecies, satire. W. H. Auden stated the two commonest
satirical devices: presenting the human object of the satire as if
he were mad and unaware of what he is doing, or presenting
him as if he were wicked and completely conscious of what he
is doing, without any feeling of guilt. This second category
takes in such palpable rogues as Chaucer's Pardoner, Ben
Jonson's Volpone, and Shakespeare's Falstaff and Autolycus,
while the first, broader method includes the fools, gulls, and
zanies who are the stock victims of comedy.
From an ethological point of view, Konrad Lorenz sees in
this type of corrective laughter one of the best hopes for con-
trolling our deadly intraspecies aggression, the enthusiastic
wars of nation against nation in the service of some ideal that
could destroy us all. Laughter can substitute for an attack,
because it both creates a bond among those who laugh at the
same thing and draws a line against outsiders who either do
not laugh or are laughed at. But laughter, Lorenz says, unlike
enthusiasm, is always controlled by reason. Hence laughter is
the best of lie detectors. It punctures the pomposity or arro-
gance of those Tartuffes and Hitlers who would have us cheat
ourselves by stirring up our dangerously aggressive enthusi-
asm with false ideals. "Humor exerts an influence on the social
behavior of man which, in one respect, is strictly analogous to
that of moral responsibility: it tends to make the world a more
honest and, therewith, a better place." The twentieth-century
scientist Lorenz was echoing the eighteenth-century philoso-
pher Francis Hutcheson: "Nothing is so properly applied to the
false Grandeur, either of Good or Evil, as Ridicule: Nothing will
sooner prevent our excessive Admiration."
In sum, one major group of theorists says comedy restores
us to social norms. Another major group says just the oppo-
site. Laughter and the comic can have a revolutionary force
and do just exactly what Lorenz thought they would not do-
stir up our aggressive enthusiasm. Thus Bernard Shaw put
teeth in Meredith's bland formulations: "The function of com-
edy is nothing less than the destruction of old-fashioned
morals." Shaw could have been following his mentor, Karl
Marx, who had said, "The final phase of a world-historical
form is its comedy. The Greek gods, already once mortally
wounded, tragically, in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, had to
die once more, comically, in the dialogues of Lucian. Why does
history proceed in this way? So that mankind will separate
itself happily from its past." The comic as defense against
loss-Marx's idea sounds almost Freudian.
Anthropologists have found that some cultures use this rev-
olution or destruction precisely to conserve the social structure.
Primitive societies develop "joking relationships." One person
is permitted or even required to tease and make fun of another,
using speech or gestures that would be outrageous in another
context, and the other is not to take offense. In our society, the
Washington press corps periodically "roasts" the president,
and in this special joking relationship, the reporters are ex-
pected to be irreverent and the president to be amused.
Among anthropologists, however, there is some disagree-
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
ment as to whether one can attribute to such joking relation-
ships the same function in all societies or whether one has to
examine the interactions within one particular society. Struc-
tural anthropologists such as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown compare
joking relations in many societies and arrive at a single func-
tion. These joking relations are ways of dealing with situations
(often created by marriage in cultures less political than that of
Washington) in which taboos separate individuals (such as in-
laws) so as to make their interests diverge. They could easily
become enemies, but the society can require them to have a
joking relationship that keeps them together without conflict.'
Relying on Freud, the like-minded Mary Douglas interprets
the social addition made by jokes this way: "A dominant pat-
tern of relations is challenged by another." "A joke is a play
upon form ... [in which] one accepted [sodal] pattern is chal-
lenged by the appearance of another which in some way was
hidden in the first." Hence the joke gives "an exhilarating
sense of freedom from form in general." In this sense, "a joke
is by nature an anti-rite," and "the joker should be classed as a
kind of minor mystic ... one of those people who pass beyond
the bounds of reason and society and give glimpses of a truth
which escapes through the mesh of structured concepts," a
"ritual purifier." Thus the joke, although it may have no formal
philosophical interpretation in its own culture, may neverthe-
less "be concerned with problems about the relation of thought
to experience which are ... a universal pre-occupation of phi-
losophy." The joke provides "an image of the conditions of
human knowledge." For example, many of the parables in the
New Testament are jokes, she says, but we cannot see them in
this light because we do not know the social structure that
would define them as joking: the owner of a vineyard who
pays his workers the same whether they start work at morn-
ing, noon, or evening, perhaps; the unjust steward who con-
nived with his master's debtors; or the father who rewards the
prodigal more than the hard-working son. Douglas thus shows
that confining the comic catharsis to purely social matters can
nevertheless lead to the other major idea of comic catharsis,
One can expand the idea of comedy as social in still a third
direction, not toward correction or revolution but toward what
Harold H. Watts has called "the sense of regain": "a reposses-
sion of objects that some part of our being should say farewell
to without a sigh." Editor Norman Cousins had old Marx Broth-
ers movies run in his hospital room so that his laughter would
help him fight off cancer. In this vein, the medieval philoso-
pher John Tzetzes called comedy "constructive of life," and this
is also the feeling the modern philosopher Susanne Langer
gives it: "Because comedy abstracts, and reincarnates for our
perception, the motion and rhythm of living, it enhances our
vital feeling, much as the representation of space in painting
enhances our awareness of visual space. The virtual life on the
stage is not diffuse and only half felt, as actual life usually is:
[but] intensified, speeded up, exaggerated ." "This hu-
man life feeling is at once religious and ribald, knowing
and defiant, social and freakishly individual."
If we read the comic as affirming life, we arrive at a catharsis
through enlargement. Comedy becomes "the rest of the bitter
truth, a holy impropriety," says the drama critic Walter Kerr. It
blurts "out the one thing that was on the tip of everyone's
tongue but that everyone was refraining from mentioning." We
enlarge our ideas. We achieve a moment of logical truth as we
find some underlying cancellation.8
The religious critic Nathan Scott, for example, reads the
comic catharsis as Christian in a more modem sense. It in-
volves "a restoration of our confidence in the daily occa-
sions of our earth-bound career as being not irrelevant incon-
veniences but as possible roads into what is ultimately signifi-
cant in life." A comic hero such as Falstaff gives us "joy ... in
the discovery of how stout and gamy the human thing really
is." "The Christian imagination does not shrink from the
tangibility, from the gross concreteness, of our life in time, and
. the limited, conditional nature of human existence." "It
96 WHY Do WE LAUGH?
believes that God's way of dealing with us is by and through
the things and creatures of this world ." "It believes that in
the Incarnation God Himself has affirmed the world .. the
realm of finitude, the realm of nature and of history." The
tragic man finds in his human stuff and his conditional life
"a profound embarrassment and perhaps even a curse." The
comic man admits he is only human, knowing that that admis-
sion "is itself the condition of his life being tolerable."
From another, similar Christian point of view, jokes try to
dose the gap between the finite and the infinite, and "the
comedy lies in the protagonist's final realization of the disap-
pearance of the chasm between the two." The truly serious
man "realizes that the grossly human and the grandly sublime
within himself are wonderfully and repugnantly mixed." Thus
"the structure of dramatic comedy and the structure of Christ's
passionate action bear an analogical relation to each other,"
Christ being, like the comic protagonist, a victor because he is a
In short, the comic lends itself to a specifically Christian read-
ing if one interprets its emphasis on the low and earthy as an
affirmation of what a Christian God has given humans. Another
notion of the comic, however, has it doing just the opposite of
regaining or affirming everyday life: the comic involves a cer-
tain detachment from the things we laugh at, what the philos-
opher Henri Bergson called a "momentary anaesthesia of the
heart" and the poet Richard Eberhart "an intellectual disrespect
to the deepest urges of man."
Comedy, then, involves a duality, a mixture of acceptance
and rejection, or, as Plato said in the Philebus, of pleasure and
pain. "When we laugh at the folly of our friends, pleasure, in
mingling with envy, mingles with pain. ... And the argument
implies that there are combinations of pleasure and pain in
lamentations, and in tragedy and comedy, not only on the
stage, but on the greater stage of human life." "In the comedy
that we call life," says Cervantes' Don Quixote, "some play the
part of emperors, others that of pontiffs-in short, all the char-
acters that a drama may have-but when it is all over, that is to
say, when life is done, death takes from each the garb that
differentiates him, and all at last are equal in the grave." Thus,
even if it ends with death, life is comic, if only we can keep
our cool. "I commended mirth," said the Preacher, in another
mood (Eccles. 8:15), "because a man hath no better thing under
the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that
shall abide with him."
Perhaps, then, the comic catharsis is simply the creation of a
cynical detachment-the ability to feel that "all the world's a
stage." Perhaps we can go further. The literary theorist Wylie
Sypher notes, "From the anthropologist's point of view the
tragic action, however inspiring and however perfect in artistic
form, runs through only one arc of the full cycle of drama; for
the entire ceremonial cycle is birth: struggle: death: resurrec-
tion. The tragic arc is only birth: struggle: death. Consequently
the range of comedy is wider than the tragic range-perhaps
more fearless-and comic action can risk a different sort of
purgation and triumph."
This larger range the great comic writers have known from
the first. Aristophanes in The Frogs sets his artistic consider-
ation of tragedy within the comic framework of death and
rebirth. So also Chaucer, bidding farewell to his Troilus and
Criseyde ("litel myn tragedye", prays for strength "to make in
som comedye" then sends his dead hero up to heaven, where
he laughs at the woe of those who weep for his death and
pleads with lovers to love God and remember that all this
world is but a country fair that fades as fast as flowers. Both
writers set the single tragic episode, as so many of Shakes-
peare's tragedies do, within a larger cyclic, and so more hope-
ful, conception of reality.
The tragic emphasizes the uniqueness and finality of human
experience, claims Maynard Mack, while the comic emphasizes
permanence and typicality. The comic makes us see the things
that are terribly unique and final to us in the larger perspec-
tive of the whole of human life, or, indeed, from the perspective
WHY Do WE LAUGH?
of God. "Comedy, then," writes James Feibleman, the aes-
thetician, "criticizes the finite for not being infinite,""' and we
can ask, with Epictetus, "What else is tragedy but the perturba-
tions of men who value the externals exhibited in that kind of
The comic catharsis thus enables us to achieve a duality of
acceptance and rejection, or as Robert Graves says, "a faculty
of seeing apparently incongruous elements as part of a scheme
for supra-logical necessity." To the same end, Baudelaire could
argue that, since laughter "is essentially human, it is also es-
sentially contradictory, that is to say, it is at once a sign of
infinite grandeur and infinite wretchedness: of infinite wretch-
edness by comparison with the absolute Being who exists as an
idea in Man's mind; of an infinite grandeur by comparison
with the animals." Hence, every effort to represent God must
become ridiculous, but at the same time (from this Augustinian
point of view) representations of humans become ridiculous
because without God humans can do nothing."
Out of this duality of acceptance and abasement, says Ernst
Cassirer, we execute a movement of transcendence. "Comic art
S. .can accept human life with all its defects and foibles, its
follies and vices. .. We see this world in all its narrowness, its
pettiness, and silliness. We live in this restricted world, but we
are no longer impressed by it. Such is the peculiar character
of the comic catharsis. Things and events begin to lose their
material weight; scorn is dissolved into laughter and laughter is
Tragedy, in this view, pins us down to the contradictions of
reality; comedy allows us to transcend them. Thus Hegel saw
in the comic the triumphant self-assertion of the purely per-
sonal soul-life over all other forms of experience. He therefore
made comedy the "very consummation" of the dialectic pro-
cess in art. Nietzsche, too, could speak of the comic "as the
artistic release from the nausea of the absurd."
So also Plato in the good but not perfect republic of the Laws
found a place for comic poets (subject to regulation), for "it is
necessary also to consider and know uncomely persons and
thoughts, and those intended to produce laughter for
serious things cannot be understood without laughable things,
nor opposites at all without opposites, if a man is really to have
intelligence of either; but he cannot carry out both in action, if
he is to have any degree of virtue." Tragic poets, however, he
rejects from society, "for our whole state is an imitation of the
best and noblest life which we affirm to be indeed the very
truth of tragedy." In the ideal republic of the Republic, the
world of pure action, Socrates argues that "even when two
species of imitation are nearly allied, the same persons cannot
succeed in both, as, for example, the writers of tragedy and
comedy," and he banishes all literature as an imitation pander-
ing to pleasure rather than truth. At the end of the Symposium,
however, after Socrates had given his companions a glimpse of
the Highest, "there remained only Socrates, Aristophanes [rep-
resenting comedy], and Agathon [representing tragedy] who
were drinking out of a large goblet which they passed round,
and Socrates was discoursing to them, compelling the
other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the
same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy
was an artist in comedy also. To this they were constrained to
assent, being drowsy, and not quite following the argument.
And first of all, Aristophanes dropped off, then, when the day
was already dawning, Agathon."
This Platonic mingling of discourse and drama, as I read
it, proves that comedy and tragedy are alike because they are,
like the dialogue itself, minglings. Action demands tragic seri-
ousness, while contemplation demands comic wisdom. In this
realistic world, the world of the Laws and the Symposium as
opposed to the ideal world of the Republic, action and con-
templation mingle, as do pleasure and pain. Hence tragedy
and comedy are at bottom much the same, since both represent
these mixtures. Moreover, in this world, contemplation has to
come before action. Hence comedy, which provides a frame of
reference, is more necessary to society than tragedy, which
100 WHY Do WE LAUGH?
shows only the best and noblest (although tragedy is therefore
closer to the dawn of philosophical wisdom).
I think realist philosophers (starting with Aristotle) have
tended to prefer tragedy, while idealist philosophers (starting
with Plato) have preferred comedy. If so, it should be no sur-
prise that the most exalted and delicate idea of the comic ca-
tharsis was produced by Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard regarded
himself as being in the Socratic tradition of the philosophic
eiron, "talking like a madman." For him "the mode of appre-
hension of the truth is precisely the truth." He is therefore dif-
ficult, indeed impossible, to summarize.
For Kierkegaard, "what lies at the root of both the comic and
the tragic ... is the discrepancy, the contradiction between the
infinite and the finite, the eternal and that which becomes."
The tragic leaves the individual pinned to this discrepancy and
therefore suffering. The comic rises above it to painlessness.
Through irony an individual can rise above the "aesthetic" life
of immediate sensation to the intense self-awareness of the
"ethical" man. Beyond the ethical life, the religious man, to-
tally aware of his own inward self and through it totally aware
of the absolute, infinite Idea, insulates himself from all activity
(while not becoming inactive) by humor. It "is always a .
recollecting what is behind, manhood's recollection of child-
hood the backward perspective." "When viewed from
a direction looking toward the Idea, the apprehension of the
discrepancy between the infinite and finite is pathos; when
viewed with the Idea behind one, the apprehension is comic."
Thus one's comic sensibility marks the extent to which one has
transcended ordinary concerns (sensation, ethical conduct) and
moved toward the Absolute." (So that Plato should have shown
Aristophanes lasting into the dawn, not Agathon.)
Kierkegaard is a Western mystic, but Eastern mysticism leads
William I. Thompson to the same trancendence. All comic
forms tend toward the twentieth century's "comedy of the
absurd," which rests on our knowledge that "human beings
who pretend to a knowledge of truth are preposterously fun-
ny." Such is the laughter of Krishna, "a supra-human (or in-
human, if you will) point of view."
The comic catharsis, then, is (from these various Platonic or
quasi-Platonic viewpoints) a resolution through transcendence
of one, some, or many of the incongruities of this world (our
attempts at knowledge, government, virtue, love, or riches).
The Platonic comic is an unmasking, yes, but the effect of this
unmasking is to take the comic butt out of the cycles of folly,
affectation, and imperfection and to put the merely human into
a relation of possibility toward the more-than-human.'
"The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine
comedy of the soul is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as
a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man," says the
mythologist Joseph Campbell. "The objective world remains
what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the
subject, is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life
and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest-
as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot
is to the destiny of the bubble, or as the cosmos to the appear-
ance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars. Tragedy is the
shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms;
comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invinci-
"In humor," said Coleridge, more simply, "the little is made
great and the great little, in order to destroy both, because all is
equal in contrast with the infinite." I might add, as a final
comic note, that Coleridge lifted this uplifting idea from Jean
But what can we lift from this rather astonishing diversity?
We can reduce all these various views to an outline:
i. Social correction
a. Restoration to desired conduct
b. Social revolution
c. Affirmation of life within society
102 WHY DO WE LAUGH?
2. Religious catharsis
a. Affirming life as God's gift
b. Rejection of life as low and sinful
a. Both acceptance and rejection of
i. life as low
ii. the effort to reach beyond life
b. A mysticism that transcends both acceptance and rejection
When set out that way, the ideas seem to me wildly inconsis-
tent. Some theorists say the comic reconciles us to society,
others that it makes us revolt against society. Some say the
comic commits us to life, others that it commits us to reject life.
Some say the comic has only social meaning, others that it
enables us to transcend the merely social, indeed takes us to
mystical levels that go beyond religion itself.
Despite these contradictions, however, I can glean a nugget
of agreement. For one thing, the comic catharsis has to do
either with society (or earthy or bodily life) or with religious
ideas of a plane beyond this world. Further, I think that, by
and large, all the various authors set the comic catharsis in the
context of certain contrasts. One has to do with acceptance and
rejection, the other with transcendence as against being pinned
down to something. And the something? That ranges from
earthiness to the human body to a particular set of social cir-
cumstances to a religious stance to some point of view that
transcends even religion.
These various ideas of the comic catharsis hover between
acceptance and rejection; between being caught in something
as opposed to transcending it; between the earthy or worldly
or social and whatever is beyond our experience of this world.
In other words, we could say the comic catharsis is either tran-
scendence of or submission to or the acceptance or rejection of
society, the body, earthly life, religion, or transcendence itself.
Surely that covers just about everybody at our hypothetical
gathering of writers on the comic catharsis.
What is striking to me, however, is that all these ideas of the
comic catharsis have a shifting, shimmering quality. They don't
stay put. One doesn't just learn something from Don Quixote,
put it in a mental pocket, and carry it away. Rather, the comic
catharsis (unlike, I would say, the tragic) remains a moving,
dialectical thing: one actively submits to or transcends or ac-
cepts or rejects-and one does more than one of those things at
[ notice something else, too, about this collection of theories.
They all derive from, at most, introspection. Unlike the psy-
chologists, none of these writers brings forward any outside
evidence. None of them suggests any reason for saying, "This
theory is right and that one is wrong," except perhaps for one's
own feeling that this or that theory rings true to one's own
experience. Yet none of these writers has made any effort to set
down that experience, either his own or anyone else's. That
says something to me about a road not taken in this march
through the comic.
II HOW CAN
7 Theorists Theorizing
As this thicket of theorists demonstrates, we humans have de-
voted a quite extraordinary amount of talent and genius to the
question "Why do people laugh?" We have been asking that
question for more than two thousand years. And the result?
We could organize these theories of laughter, the comic, or
humor into an outline like that in Table i. We could even
compress the outline into a single sentence:
If we perceive a sudden, playful incongruity that gratifies conscious and
unconscious wishes and defeats conscious and unconscious fears to give
a feeling of liberation, then we laugh.
We laugh-or we don't.
Perhaps, like Queen Victoria, we are not amused. Or we feel
just a little bit like laughing. That is the problem with such an
if-then formula: the stimulus may be as laughable as all get-
out, the conditions may be just right, the joke may meet one of
the comic patterns, and a busful of bishops may have told us
that the joke achieves religious transcendence-but we still
don't laugh. Or perhaps, as Bella Abzug complained of some
political shenanigan, "It makes you laugh, but it's not funny."
Another problem is that a one-sentence if-then does not de-
scribe the timing of even the crudest stand-up comic. It says
next to nothing about the form of the simplest joke. It certainly
cannot tell me anything about the marvels of detailed self-
torment that Moliere's Alceste achieves. It cannot tell me why a