Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about laughter — what makes people laugh, how laughs differ, how sometimes laughter triggers more laughter in a self-perpetuating cycle — the whole idea that some kinds of mental dissonance cause us to explode into undignified sniggers, or guffaws, or snorts.
The irony of attempting to seriously analyze laughter is not lost on me.
So I’ve been doing a lot of, um, research. I’ve been listening to comedy on the radio, watching some of my favorite artists online and playing cheery music a little too loudly in my headphones. On a recent stop at a Barnes & Noble, I casually picked up a book by a blogger I often read … and then spent 20 minutes on a cushion in the kids’ section, trying not to frighten passersby as I chortled into my sleeve.
Some things, of course, are funny to certain people and not others. During college I once spent eight hours in a minivan with a professor and four other students on our way to a literary conference. Instead of normal driving music, our merry band of English nerds brought books on tape to share, and someone pulled out an audiobook of “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.”
My fellow students and I were overjoyed. It’s a Douglas Adams classic, featuring lines such as,
“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”
That book can always make me dissolve into laughter, even in the most socially inappropriate situations. We immediately put the audiobook on play.
Our professor lasted through one whole chapter before he intervened. The story didn’t make any sense, he said. (We were still gasping for breath in the minivan’s back seats.) The plot didn’t follow, and the characters were inconsistent and confusing. He was glad we had offered the audiobook; but it was time for something new, and would we mind terribly if he turned on a reading of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”?
De Tocqueville, it turns out, is a total buzzkill. You feel as if you will never laugh again after 10 minutes of de Tocqueville on tape.
I’ve been on the other side of the laughter continuum, too. In Oxford, one of my professors interrupted me midway through reading aloud my essay on C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” to say, “No, don’t you see, it’s funny.”
A little humorous, I said; but Lewis is making a few very serious points —
“No,” my professor said. “You have to read it tongue-in-cheek. Don’t feel bad; most Americans don’t get it.”
That was the only essay he didn’t let me finish. I tried to get “Screwtape,” I really did; I enjoy the book. But I always turn the last page thinking about the dire consequences of seemingly insignificant human choices, while the British apparently giggle and toss it aside. I guess? I don’t know. It’s beyond me.
It’s also fun to listen for people’s laughs. Most of us have at least a few — a social laugh, the sort you use when your boss tells a joke that’s only slightly funny; a caught-off-guard laugh, usually accompanied by a quick grin or a sideways glance; and an out-of-control laugh, the kind you use when you’re comfortable with the people around you and something has happened that is so odd, so unusual, so completely confusing and wonderful that you cannot contain the little joy-bomb that goes off in your belly. Those are the most fun laughs, of course. Those are the kind that trigger a chain reaction.
Making people laugh, though, is probably the most fun. I’ve known people that can immediately own a room, making the outskirts smile and lean in at the slightest phrase. Listeners are primed to laugh when these people walk in, and these gifted souls always deliver.
It’s never been that easy for me. But every once in awhile I get the timing right — the right joke for the right crowd at the right moment. The comedy stars align. Some poor unsuspecting soul is hit upside the head by my punchline, and the impact scares a giggle out of him. He looks dazed; I feel accomplished; nobody else knows what just happened.
It doesn’t get better than that.