Monday, April 21, 2014

Bound for glory: What makes us laugh, why comedy may not be pretty, and why we can't do without it


"There are definitions of various passions, mostly based on a competitive view of life; for instance, laughter is sudden glory."

                       -- Bertrand Russell, describing Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" in "A History of Western Philosophy" (1945)

Thomas Hobbes got it right about laughter.

In the long history of attempts to define humor and scrutinize what makes us laugh, this almost offhand sentence in the middle of Lord Russell's long discussion of Hobbes' philosophy is the best I've come across.

Why there should be this odd vocal, physical expression of a particular type of joy is puzzling. "Sudden glory" gets it, it seems to me. It explains  why comedy — however fiercely loyal we are to our peculiar preferences — is often vulgar, impolite, offensive, aggressive and, finally, necessary.

Laughter is also bonding, like hardly any other common mode of communication besides prayer, than which it is probably more universal. To laugh feels as essential as eating and sleeping. Need I also mention sex? Of course I must.

You don't have to be as pessimistic as the 17th-century English philosopher to agree that our passions are basically competitive. Lifelong, we are after victory in so many ways, even if a host of them can be justified as benign, or at least harmless. Yet triumphalism is embedded in human nature, and is frequently ugly. And it is often bound up with laughter.

The other Hobbes (right) did, too.
We may train ourselves to love all humankind, but we are always looking for affinities with subgroups, allies in the struggle to be superior, sometimes groups no larger than our lone selves. Jokes are instrumental in this continual struggle. Even when we laugh at ourselves, we are less motivated by humility than by the "sudden glory" of feeling superior to our lesser selves — the part that is foolish, gullible, outlandish, clueless or prideful. The butt of jokes.

When those qualities we aren't proud of are exposed in a joke, we feel so much better than when such exposure in ordinary life surprises us uncomfortably or tangibly diminishes us. The feeling of relief plays a large role in laughter, but it can't be the whole story. Some kinds of relief are sobering. They bring a sudden onset of relaxation after a period of tension — just as laughter does — but the relaxed feeling may merely set up a new situation of anxiety as we deal with what we have just learned.

The explosion of relaxation that is laughter becomes the trumpet heralding victory. Think of any joke you have heard recently: Chances are it led you in a particular direction of understanding up to the punch line, which fooled you by going in a different direction.

Henny Youngman knew the glory.
 A couple of old, short examples: "Man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to" (Mark Twain). "Take my wife — please!" (Henny Youngman). The "set-up" precedes the dash in each example; the punch line follows it. Both one-liners start out as faux-serious statements: Twain seems to be putting forward a biological truism; suddenly it becomes a satirical jab. Youngman seems to be introducing an example; suddenly we've landed in marital woe. The reason you don't take being misled badly is that you are covered in the sudden glory of getting the joke, and that trumps the momentary bemusement.

Longer jokes toy with the misdirection longer. In many theatrical farces, our victory over inadequately informed characters lasts longer than we probably deserve, and we laugh ourselves silly. We're enjoying triumph over an extended misunderstanding the characters are caught up in. Mistaken identity plays a big role: Think of "The Comedy of Errors," "Charley's Aunt" or "The Foreigner." And remember the dialogue in "Lend Me a Tenor" when the diva and the confused title character are talking in parallel streams about making love and doing "Otello" together. (I look forward to seeing another Ken Ludwig comedy, "The Game's Afoot," in an Indiana Repertory Theatre production opening this week.)

Taking in such a play — in the twinkling of the eye, with only the effort of staying alert and being reasonably intelligent — you have won an easy victory. Understanding things is basic to survival. When we get a joke, we are bathed in a triumph of understanding, and we laugh. This explains why it's hard to laugh the second time we hear a joke, even if we found it hilarious the first time. And if the joke heard the first time strikes us as offensive or dull, despite the best intentions of the teller, it means we don't feel a part of the victory he or she is offering to share. The glory has bypassed us; the competition victory belongs to a race run elsewhere, by someone else, to alien cheers.

How often after dreaming does a nightmare seem funny in retrospect! Awake, we enjoy the glory of knowing that the situation we dreamed up isn't true. We need to feel our conscious self is superior to the self that comes up with the dream world's weird scenarios. Glory, hallelujah!

Recently I dreamed that an elderly friend of ours out of state had sent us a greeting card with this handwritten note:  "Happy Easter — we're all doing well these days except for the syphilis." In the dream Susan and I were appalled: we had never had the slightest hint an STD was afflicting her family, thought it extremely unlikely, and thus wondered which family members could possibly be suffering the dire consequences of unsafe sex. Above all, we marveled that such unsettling information would be imparted on an Easter card.

Dreams are unruly, like jokes. The scandalous dream becomes funny when we know that the truth is unutterably distant from what the dream has presented. A psychologist might well have some uncomfortable theories, echoing Hobbes, as to what victory I was after subconsciously in concocting such an unseemly dream about a dear friend. I'll pass by any speculation in dignified silence.

Dreams remind me of another nighttime phenomenon: insomnia.  Last night Susan and I found ourselves sleepless at the same time. It was pitch black outside. We snuggled and talked for a while, trying to figure out how to get back to sleep. She advised: "Think of all the people we know who are probably sleeping right now. Try to think of one person for each letter of the alphabet."

An amusing thought, but undercut by envy. Envy and its cousin, jealousy, lie at the opposite pole from laughter. No tragic hero in Shakespeare has less of a sense of humor than Othello. Even King Lear probably presided over much merriment — he kept a well-regarded Fool at court, after all — before he became obsessed with his legacy. Hamlet is the only figure in this exalted category who's well acquainted with laughter. Significantly, he envies no one, except perhaps the dead.

As I mulled over my wife's advice to think about likely sleepers of our acquaintance, she added: "If you're not sure, call them up."

We both laughed. Envy was banished. We had bested the lucky sleepers, if only in our imaginations.

Ah, sweet victory! Oh, the sudden glory!  Soon we were both asleep again.