Laughter is the Worst Medicine

While a gut-busting guffaw is the perfect compliment to a comedy, Mikita Brottman considers whether laughing is really all its cracked up to be.

If you’ve been feeling down lately, one thing that’s guaranteed to cheer you up is a trip to the movies for a good, hearty belly-laugh laugh. Or so they say. I wonder how many other people apart from me find this idea to be strange and absurd.

Before I come off as a miserable old curmudgeon, let me hasten to add that I do enjoy comedies, but I enjoy them quietly. This usually means watching a DVD in the peace and calm of my own home, where I am not disturbed by other people’s laughter. You’ve probably noticed that it’s almost impossible to sit through a blockbuster comedy in a movie theater without being assailed on all fronts by public yelps and hee-haws. In my case, this laughter inevitably draws attention away from the film until I find myself focusing entirely on the laughers around me, like an ornithologist identifying various birds by their song.

The loudest laughter, I’ve observed, seems to be stimulated by (i) ribaldy; (ii) toilet humor; and (iii) current affairs, suggesting a public desperate to externalize the comforting distance that protects them from recognizing their own anxieties writ large before them on the screen. Least offensive are the ubiquitous titterers, whose laughter remains flat, never veering from a nervous staccato. More annoying are the chucklers, whose avuncular tones suggest a genial, what-the-hell delight at a joke that, under other circumstances, they might find suspect or unwelcome. Most repellent are the strained whines of those unaccustomed to outbursts of public hilarity; the condescending snorts that form the lazy mask of snobbery; and the hysterical screech that cries out, “Look at me!” Beyond these, there are jeerers and hooters, squawkers and cacklers, the low guffaws of men and the high cackles of women. It’s almost enough to make me yearn for the eerie canned laughter of dead people that accompanies much comedy on television. Canned laughter is disturbing, for sure, but at least it’s carefully mixed and edited to ensure an even tone. The live audience, on the other hand, transforms itself in my imagination into a grotesque image of one dense, self-devouring body with multiple laughing heads, yapping all at once like Cerberus.

Even since Aristotle, for whom tragedy, not comedy, was the superior genre, writers and philosophers from Hobbes and Bergson to Darwin and Freud have pondered the ambiguous dynamics of laughter. To Hobbes, laughter was "sudden glory" – with the clear connotation of crowning glee, especially at another's downfall. Bergson, in his well-known book on the subject, asserted that laughter "always implies a secret or unconscious... unavowed intention to humiliate and consequently to correct our neighbor, if not in his will, at least in his deed." Darwin remarked on the close connection between the fit of laughter and the flow of tears, and Freud regarded laughter as a release which occurs when some experience or observation hits on repressed material, and the psychic energy diverted to the task of repression becomes, for a second, superfluous.

Going back to the movies, comedy differs from other genres in that, for its success, it is uniquely audience dependent, just as an untold joke is not—structurally, at least— really a joke. In fact, the success of blockbuster movie comedies depends to a large extent on the amount of audience laughter they can provoke on first release, with the ideal response, theoretically, being a constant wave of unanimous, uninterrupted laughter. I think the reason why such films are only successful when viewed with a large audience is, at least in part, because this kind of laughter neutralizes individuality, reducing the individual capacity to sit in judgment. An audience that has been weakened and disabled by laughter is an audience that has been made impotent—infantilized, even—and thereby rendered incapable of disapproval.

This neutralizing of the audience then allows the comedy to function as a form of cultural disavowal, a socially acceptable safety valve for the expression of what otherwise cannot be said openly. Naturally, there is a great deal of relief to be derived from expressing concealed truths, and yet this relief occurs, paradoxically, because we laugh loudest and with most abandon at that which, albeit at an unconscious level, makes us most uncomfortable and apprehensive.

Finally, anyone who thinks I should just lighten up and relax ought to bear in mind that there have been times when for a civilized person to crack up in public would have seemed as rude as public spitting (or smoking) today. In 1774, Lord Chesterfield, a connoisseur of proper social etiquette, advised his son: “loud laughter is the mirth of the mob, who are only pleased with silly things… A man of parts and fashion is therefore only seen to smile, but never heard to laugh.”

Mikita Brottman is the author of Funny Peculiar: Gershon Legman and the Psychopathology of Humor (Analytic Press, 2004).