Thursday, September 13, 2007


In the previous post I may have left you with the impression that I think all laughter is fake. That is not the case. But I do think that laughter in large groups becomes less real and more of a social imperative.

I think that there is something in us that wants to be in step, part of the group. Some atavistic urge to avoid individuality (methinks I have another essay in the offing) to avoid being perceived as "not getting it".

There's an old Charles Addams cartoon that shows a movie audience weeping, tears streaming, handkerchiefs to their eyes. In the middle of the front row sits Uncle Fester with a big grin on his face. I understand that cartoon at a visceral level.

I am so often completely out of sync with any large group, that it makes me wonder how I manage to keep any friends ... oh wait ... well it makes me wonder how I manage to sustain any acquaintances.

Movies are a good example. I have a problem with action/adventure stuff and monster movies because I get distracted by the potential for tangential stories. Does the hero cause a fifteen car pile-up on the freeway while saving the world ... well what happened to the people in the cars? A security gaurd is strangled ... did he have a family? ... will they miss him? Godzilla wipes out an entire block of apartment buildings with his tail ... how many people died?  ... does insurance in Japan cover "act-of-monster".

It's no fun going to the movies with me. I don't suspend disbelief lightly.

There was one movie that I really enjoyed precisely because it did attempt to show the ramifications, the cascade of events. It was a low budget German film called "Run Lola Run". But then, the point of the movie was to show how small changes can make a difference.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Laugh and the world ...

A friend of mine recently told me:

"My dad took up the ukulele after Tiny Tim came out and he did it to horrify my mother. He would come into my room and play that thing so badly and try to sing like Tiny Tim. My dad looked (and acted a lot like) Dick Van Dyke. My mom was not anything like Laura Petrie and she was not amused. ... Anyway, my dad would pick up the ukulele and my mother would protest and complain and yell and beg and my dad would sing and play right over it. He was finding himself. He had read Jonathan Seagull, the only guy in his unit at the insurance company who had, and he thought it would be neat to be sensitive."

This story reminded me that my father also had a heavy-handed sense of humor running mainly to infantile practical jokes. I remember the day he was cured of this propensity.

We lived, at the time, in a third-story walk-up just outside Harvard Square. (In a burst of nostalgia, I will volunteer that this was a large, bright, seven-room apartment within a few blocks of Harvard Yard and it rented for $175/month.)

My father, a workaholic at the best of times, was, unaccountably, at home one afternoon. My mother had gone out shopping. At one point, probably restless at not being in his lab at MIT, he decided to play a joke on my mother. We kids protested as he carefully opened the apartment door a few inches and balanced a book across the gap. Our protests irritated him and he sent us to our rooms.

Shortly thereafter we heard a thud. Then my father's voice frantically calling my mother's name. Peeking out of my room I saw her lying in the doorway, my father knelt beside her patting her cheeks. She seemed to come to, and burst into tears.

That was the last time he ever did something like that. Years later, my mother confided that she had seen the door ajar, knew exactly what he had done and decided to reverse the joke on him.

One of the few things I've said or written that my wife likes to quote is, "If you can't see the humor in it, then it isn't funny." She actually wrote this down and pinned it on the bulletin board in the kitchen. The only thing I've created to gain such immortality.

It's a statement that is made more interesting by recognition of the fact that, for many people, humor is a social imperative rather than a recognition of the truths, or ideas, that it communicates. That's an overly complex way of saying that most people laugh because others are laughing, not because they understand the joke.

Pauses and cadence give us contextual clues that what is being said is meant to be funny. People laugh at the right places because they are afraid of being perceived as "not getting it."

Take my sense of humor for instance. As a wordsmith, the humor I most appreciate has to do with language and meaning. (For those of you looking for psychological underpinnings, this preference pre-dated my father's practical joke.) I love puns, wit, and verbal humor. I don't like slapstick, pratfalls and humor based on embarrassment. It is seldom that I can watch a situation comedy without getting up and leaving the room. George Carlin, Bill Bailey, the Goon Shows, and The Firesign Theater make me laugh; "Seinfeld", "All In the Family", "My Name is Earl", and "The Office" make me cringe. But that's my sense of humor, and not a value judgment as to what humor should be.

The thing I find interesting is that, as I mentioned before, people laugh even when they don't get the joke. Even I do. I'll hear a burst of laughter and my mind tells me "you must react". I'll give you an example.

One of my favorite recordings is an old performance by a pair of British songwriters, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, called "At the Drop of a Hat". Their jokes were intelligent, witty and full of wordplay. Almost ten years after I started listening to them, I read a piece of information that was new to me and realized that I had been laughing for years at a joke that I didn't get. I polled my friends and acquaintances who also enjoyed the album and found out that they also had not gotten the joke.

It would be easy to dismiss this based on my stated preference for complex wordplay. After all, what deep hidden meanings are there in a Three Stooges skit.

But I contend that people often laugh as a social imperative, even when they do not find the joke funny. They laugh at shock language at tragedy, at embarrassment, at degradation, at insults, and they laugh because the social context tells them that they must.

I think that men are affected by this pressure because of dirty jokes, those stupid grade-school jokes about trains and tunnels that we knew instinctively must be acknowledged in order to be counted among the sophisticates.

A sense of humor is not expressed through laughter. Laughter is a social signal. Humor is internal.

It is pleasant to think that my wife recognizes that in my simple statement.