Have you ever been to a funeral, or a hospital, and laughed? Ever notice how often people do? Widows will lift their mourning veils to drop a one-liner; patients will respond to their doctor’s diagnosis with a funny story. Researchers have confirmed that people frequently react to distressing situations with humour. Although we don’t immediately associate laughter with sadness, people seem to have long understood that they are not mutually exclusive. An epigram about Democritus encourages the ancient Greek philosopher to “laugh now at life … even more than before: now everyone’s life is more ludicrous than ever.”
That attitude may have fallen out of fashion recently. David Sedaris has written that his live audiences are too afraid to laugh out loud like they used to. Comedians like Dave Chappelle have been slammed for remarks about marginalised groups. And it seems as though every comedy special these days—whether by Chappelle, Jim Jefferies, Iliza Shlesinger, Michael Che, Jimmy Carr or anyone—includes a statement by the comedian pre-emptively defending against a potential charge of offensiveness. My point is not to litigate whether what these comedians say is offensive. It’s simply to remind all of us that it is a universal human impulse to respond to anxious and uncomfortable experiences with laughter—and that we should keep that in mind when evaluating comedy that deals with sensitive topics.
In order for someone to laugh they need to recognize that something is simultaneously out-of-place and inconsequential. This is known as incongruity theory. When we respond to something unusual by laughing—rather than by squirming, gaping or recoiling in fear or disgust—it is because we have intuited that it is essentially harmless. Cognitive scientists Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett and Reginald Adams have hypothesised that the mind pairs the strange and unexpected with mirth as a way of encouraging us. As if to say, Way to go, mind! You just intuited what was incongruous in this situation, and since you’ve realised that it’s nothing to worry about, go ahead and feel good. Go ahead and laugh. What better incentive for engaging with the oddities of this world?
Although this idea has been given new life by twenty-first-century researchers, it’s nothing new. In his treatise on stage plays, Aristotle observes that, while the masks worn by comedians may be twisted and ugly, they are never painfully ugly—audiences will laugh at something ugly only if they don’t find it painful. This explains why it’s natural for two people to respond differently to the same joke. If I think it won’t harm me or anyone else, I might laugh at it. But if my neighbours think otherwise, they probably won’t laugh. It’s why comics have an easier time joking about events that are further back in history. As the comedian David Mitchell has noted, people often find the phrase rape and pillage funny, even though it technically describes some of the most gruesome acts that humans are capable of. Why? It may be because we don’t use this phrase to describe modern horrors. We use it when we talk about the Vikings—no one worries about being attacked by the Vikings these days. (Although, since a Viking cosplayer was among those who stormed the US Capitol last year, some may not find Vikings so funny anymore).
What does bother people is when others laugh at something that they themselves find painful. In that case, others’ laughter can feel like scorn, as if their pain is being judged inconsequential. The first time I saw my young daughter dance with her ballet class, I couldn’t help sporting a large, fatherly grin. She has never forgiven me for it. She normally loves to make me smile and laugh, but seeing me do it when she was anxious and uncomfortable made her even more anxious and uncomfortable. It made it seem to her that her anxiety wasn’t a big deal to me. And in fact, it wasn’t. If it had been, I wouldn’t have grinned. She understood this: that’s why it made her angry. Similarly, I get infuriated when I’m trying to get my kids ready for school in the morning and they are goofing off and laughing. I’m a parent, and I have a job to do. I need to get these little imps onto the bus. That’s why, even if I have never seen anything so gorgeous as the sight of my children’s laughter, very little pisses me off more than seeing that same sight when it seems to trivialize my troubles on a busy morning.
That said, when someone is chuckling, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dismissing your troubles. Your pain or discomfort may simply not be uppermost in their mind at that moment. Elementary school kids don’t generally dismiss their parents’ responsibilities as unimportant—they’re just likely to be focused on other things. A middle-aged dad might well understand that his daughter is nervous during her recital, but he might also believe—perhaps based on his own experiences of humiliation and resilience—that his daughter’s current experience will not prove consequential. Thus, while you may think someone is laughing because they don’t care about your pain, they may instead be laughing because they think, in the long run, you won’t care about that pain either.
Comedy is very good at shifting people’s perspectives from anxiety to inconsequence. Some of the funniest comedians have found ways to make us laugh at life’s most miserable commonplaces. Racism, bigotry, injustice? All—potentially—fodder for a laugh. The point of humour is not to discount the very real suffering in the world, but to draw our attention away from one kind of truth and towards another kind.
When I was traveling in my twenties, I was riding a moped along a country trail and I came upon a man on foot, who gestured at me to stop. After I pulled up alongside him, he began ranting incoherently and waving his arms. While I was trying to make sense of this, he smacked his hand down on my thigh and started moving it toward my crotch. I freaked out, revved the engine, and sped away. When I tell this story, I usually tell it for comic effect—by exaggerating my reaction and emphasising that I was never in any danger—and people usually respond by laughing heartily. Few of them know how scared I was at the time, and how worried I was that my crummy rental scooter, which had been randomly stalling all day, might not restart and would strand me with this person all alone—there was no one around for miles.
The comic version of such an anecdote is not a superior version, but it allows me to convey something that is true beyond my experience of horror and fear. It allows my story to make sense in the context of a larger tale that I tell about what my travels meant to me.
Not everyone will laugh, of course. The situation is less likely to sound harmless to someone who’s lived through a similar experience in which they actually did end up being harmed. And it would be less likely to sound harmless if a woman told the same story—because listeners might be more alive to the potential danger involved. People might also be less likely to laugh if my story were about someone else’s scary experience instead of my own. When I make light of my own experience, people can intuit that I must not find it particularly painful anymore—and thus they can safely judge it to be harmless.
That raises the question of when it is acceptable to make light of other people’s fears and pain. I don’t mean making fun of people—cruelly drawing attention to their suffering to entertain oneself. Rather, I mean making light of someone’s difficult experience in the hope of reducing its sting. This is a delicate distinction. A victim of sexual abuse might interpret my travel anecdote as belittling their trauma. Who are you, they might ask, to be joking about an experience like mine?
As different as my travel story is from stand-up comedy or a child’s dance recital, using humour in all these situations risks offending people for the same reason—because it implies that the experiences are harmless. This is what makes laughter possible—this is what can make laughter joyful. But it is also what can make laughter seem cruel. And this is equally the case whether the person making the joke is a stranger or someone you love. With her own anxiety uppermost in her mind, my daughter could not help finding my smile cruel, even though she knows how much I care for her. Considering how often we misread the laughter even of the people we love most, perhaps we shouldn’t assume that our interpretations of the actions of total strangers are always spot on.
What offends people about laughter is that it makes their troubles seem unimportant. But there’s a positive way to take this. By using humour, it may seem that I am accusing you of exaggerating your pain. But perhaps I am simply implying that—no matter how bad things might feel right now—this will not end in tragedy. Life, in all its absurdity, just might, eventually, triumph over suffering.
I’m not saying that no one should ever find comedy offensive. But everyone is capable of finding the humour in potentially offensive material. Everyone laughs at pain sometimes. If we didn’t, then there would be a lot less laughter in the world—because there are many points in everyone’s lives when things can feel “more ludicrous than ever.”