To produce the whole of its effect, then, the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to intelligence, pure and simple.” –Henri Bergson

A few weeks ago I participated in a really thoughtful and stimulating written philosophical discussion regarding the subject of laughter and comedy. It was sparked by a previous blog post in which I mention an essay on laughter written my philosopher Henri Bergson. Below is my last response in the written correspondence:

I totally agree that laughter and comedy are two separate things that, although are commonly associated with each other, shouldn’t be conflated, necessarily. Tickling is not comedy related, obviously. However, I don’t think I can agree that laughing gas causes laughter; I’ve done nitrous oxide quite a few times in my day (I used to love going to hippie festivals as a teenager; even saw The Grateful Dead once before Jerry died) and I can say with confidence that nitrous doesn’t “trigger” laughing. Like most drugs, it creates a feeling of euphoria, of relaxation, of detachment that can certainly make it much easier for one to laugh but doesn’t cause laughter per se. Trust me, nitrous oxide simply calms you down and makes you less aware of any fear or anxiety; in essence, it helps one to momentarily not give a shit. HA! Which is what I’ve been saying this whole time regarding laughter, my basic claim is this: laughter, in some way, is the result of someone momentarily not giving a shit about someone or something. Or, to put it in a less offensive way: laughter results when one momentarily narrows their scope of concern about someone (or a group of someone’s) or something.

I like what you’re trying to do in regard to clarifying the terms we’re using. I don’t necessarily agree, though, that empathy is only taught as we are socialized. I think Freud was wrong that babies are blank slates. The latest stuff I’ve read seems to indicate that babies actually have a baseline sense of morality. Good article on this here in fact.

Now here is how I’m thinking about cognition and emotion:

a) They’re intimately intertwined systems, there is no debating this. Richard Beck indicated this in the article I sent you about Orthodox Alexithymia and I agree. They work together.

b) From what I understand, most psychologists agree that when we talk about cognition we’re talking about processes such as memory, attention, language, problem solving, and planning. Further, many human cognitive processes involve sophisticated functions that may be unique to primates and involve the cortical region of the brain which, evolutionarily speaking, is the newer “higher,” more evolved part of the brain.

c) There is admittedly less agreement on emotion, from what I can tell anyway. I’m less inclined to put all my money on the folks who think of emotions solely in terms of drive and motivation. Being a process-relational thinker, I think the “basis of experience is emotional.” This puts me inline with those folks who think of emotions as somehow being tied to the evaluation of events (conscious or unconscious). I also like how Jonathan Haidt ties emotions to morality, AND I’m also  keen on the evidence that exists which link emotions to the body. Scholarpedia indicates that “Brain structures linked to emotion are often subcortical, such as the amygdala, ventral striatum, and hypothalamus. These structures are often considered evolutionarily conserved, or *primitive*.” In other words, emotions are substratal (might we say more *fundamental* maybe…?) and felt in the body, thus we get the term “feelings.”

d) In accordance with Beck’s article, even though emotion and cognition are complex interrelated systems, the function of emotion is to assign value and salience to events. So, emotion takes the lead in helping us to think correctly and virtuously. In other words, emotion helps us determine if a joke is funny or not: if we feel, or care deeply about the thing being joked about, there is a good chance we won’t laugh.

You may indeed disagree with my assumptions here and that’s completely ok, but at least now we’ll now where we’re disagreeing.

All of this said, I too would modify Bergson’s argument a bit (this conversation has helped me clarify my thinking, actually). Since we both agree that laughter has to be connected with emotion in some way (again, cognition and emotion are interwoven systems) I would NOT want to say, as Bergson does, that emotion is the foe of laughter; this is controversial and overstated, obviously. Instead, my claim (as stated above) is this: laughter results when one momentarily narrows their scope of concern about someone (or a group of someone’s) or something. What I mean by this is that when we laugh we’re essentially “cutting loose,” relaxing, detaching, or behaving in an uninhibited sort of way. The most basic form of primate laughter, tickling, jibes with this theory, I think. When we allow someone to tickle us we laugh because we’re not concerned that they will hurt us. Our scope of concern has been narrowed to NOT include the tickler. Contrast this with a broadened scope of concern in which we might indeed be concerned that the tickler would hurt us; there is less of a chance of laughing occurring in this instance. Let me give you another example of this theory in action. Someone close to me was nine months pregnant. One of her friends cracked a joke, something to the tune of “wow, did your water break yet? You look like you’re going to pop!” My friend didn’t find this joke funny AT ALL, in fact she was offended, and she let the joke teller know this. The joke teller indicated that he was “just joking” and that she shouldn’t take things so seriously. Having an understanding, sensitivity or familiarity of this woman’s past experiences with pregnancy might help one to understand why joking about being pregnant is not cool in her book. Case in point, she has had two miscarriages and has suffered from a sort of deep depression due to this; point being, she takes being pregnant very seriously, it’s something that concerns her very deeply, and it’s no laughing matter.

Now, the emotions I most commonly associate with laughter are things like joy, happiness, and relief. In your last response you bring up surprise as potentially having something to do with laughter. This is interesting to me, and I’m tempted to explain this evolutionarily and equate surprise with relief here to some degree… When something doesn’t kill us we’re relieved (maybe surprised) and we can laugh about it. This sort of ties right in with the whole not-giving-a-shit theory.

So, again, going back to Bergson, I think he’s on to something when he says comedy appeals to “intelligence, pure and simple.” The improv example of the audience making unexpected intellectual connections you shared illustrates this. I think you’re right that, intellectually speaking, a scenario in which a character who never knew his father, but is the same guy who believes he’s a demigod AND has doubts about starting a cult, can be totally funny and work as a joke or improv routine. However, if someone in the audience happened to have deep concerns about fatherless children (or was one), or was involved in a dangerous cult at some point, that person may not be laughing too much at the improv performance. Again, laughing is the result of the narrowing one’s scope of concern. To laugh at the improv scenario/story you gave as an example, one must temporarily suspend their concern about fatherless children and cults.

Your other example, the one in which you come out on stage and give a serious biographical monologue about never being invited to parties in high school, has the same type of thing going on, imo. Yes, after your serious monologue the audience had deep concern for you; they were on your side. Then, at the end of the show, when you surprisingly appeared at a party, the audience made the intellectual connection (a call back), and were happy and maybe relieved to see you there. They didn’t have to worry about you anymore. At first they were concerned about and felt bad for you, but when you appeared at the party they could relax and laugh about it. Perhaps, in their minds, the danger had now passed… I think this intellectual surprise type of thing is big in comedy. Ya know? The whole thing about inconsistency being funny (this ties in with my thoughts on absurdism and comedy). Jokes are sort of like intellectual riddles. If we solve them, and determine the surprise isn’t dangerous or concerning, we can relax and laugh with relief. Know what I mean?

Anyway, we have also been discussing puns. I like your thoughts here about language being pliable and clay-like, and being able revel in the possibilities. I totally agree! As a writer this is one reason I like puns too, as well as other forms of creative writing like poetry, etc. But what I was saying before is that, subconsciously, we laugh at wordplay because we’re NOT taking language SUPER SERIOUS at that particular moment. If we took language super serious all of the time no one would write puns because, like you say, a pun would be a symbol/example of our precious language being denigrated and disrespected. You don’t see a lot of puns in documents with legal language, for instance; that shit is serious! HA!

All in all though, let me just reiterate that I in no way mean my theory to be negative, condemning or disrespectful to comedy or laughing (as something humans do naturally). I think laughing can be good medicine, and I think comedy is a fantastic art form, improv especially. Play is why we’re here, man! I admire improv performers (comedic and otherwise) and think it, along with other forms of improv like Jazz, and various forms of children’s play, are the best metaphors we have for how the universe works: the cosmos is a free-wheeling festival with an ensemble of countless players, some good, some bad, but all improvising as hard as they can go. They play, not for the glory of God, or to celebrate some spiritual ideal of Art; they play only because they *enjoy* it. Yes, sometimes the musicians/comedians/performers/players don’t agree on which chords to strike, tunes to play, or words to say, or stories to tell, or toys to use. Sometimes ugly fights break out amongst them. But rising like a wraith among the screeches, squawks, thwacks, screams and yells, you will hear the cadences and counterpoint of supernal music, joyful laughter, and beautiful prose almost too lovely to bear.

Painting above by June Moon

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