24 January 2007

Laughing in the Face of [BLANK]

So I have this theory. Well, I can't actually claim the theory for myself. Neither can I cite it specifically. I think I either read it in college or heard somebody espouse it on The Actor's Studio. Or I made it up, but I doubt that. So I subscribe to this theory, and "this theory" is thus:

Laughter--and its shy cousin, smiling--comes from a sublimated fear reaction. In the process of our intellectual development, an aspect of our fight-or-flight instinct evolved into an instrument that responds not only to immediate environmental threats, but to words and ideas, and in which we have learned to take pleasure.

The theory kind of hinges on the idea that most, if not all, of what we regard as "emotions" evolved from survival instincts. Ergo, the theory relies on you, dear reader, not being an adamant Creationist. So all adamant Creationists, please leave the room now. Go ahead; go. It's okay. We're not excluding you, we're just being considerate of your feelings and your God(s). We'll call you in again when we're back to discussing Kinko's and comic book characters.

...Are they gone? Thank God. Now we can start throwing feces at each other again.

I believe there's something to evolution. You got me there. I recognize it still as being a theory, yes, but it's a sound one in my opinion, and getting sounder all the time (like Radiohead). Me, I think if God is responsible for Creation, s/he/it is a pretty smart cookie and wanted to watch some changes over time. Like Sea Monkeys. And anyway, that's the beauty of a "theory" by the scientific definition. It's useful until it's contradicted by something better.

So: Laughter. Most studies into it, behaviorally speaking, find a strong connection between the response and being in a "play" environment. That goes for man and ape. For apes, "laughter" is more like a kind of involuntary heavy, rapid breathing. Tracing laughter through other animals is more speculative, because, well...they're other animals. Rats, for example, exhibit a behavior that might be laughter: a kind of high-pitched, rapid squeaking. But it might be that all rats share a predilection for singing Prince { O(+> } songs at karaoke. Hard to say. Hyenas are well-documented as laughers, but it doesn't accompany their play. Rather, it accompanies the threat of a food source being taken away from them, so many argue that this isn't laughter per se.

Au contraire, say I, in my snootiest French accent. I consider the definition of laughter, as science would have it, as being a bit too narrow. (That's the way it is with science--one day your friend, the next your nemesis.) Combine it with the feature of the smile (which seems a pretty acceptable association to me) and you've got more to consider as to its origins and relationship to our environment. Specifically, when else do we bare our teeth? When we are threatened.

Apes do this as well. Just about any animal that is willing to bite its way out of a problem will bare its teeth in a social interaction in which violence is imminent. In just such situations, the pulse quickens and the breathing becomes quicker and deeper. Tension mounts, and in an instant is released in one of two directions: fight, or flight. Moreover, there is one overriding fear that dictates this response. It comes with an awareness of the possibility of death.

We have to laugh in the face of death. It is the ultimate ungovernable aspect of our lives, and what else can we do with it? Religion provides answers to our minds, and hopefully our hearts, yet our bodies are still somehow aware of death's finality. And we don't get to face death in absolute scenarios anymore. Even our soldiers tend to be fighting amidst chaos and invisible forces of annihilation, such as falling bombs and super-sonic bullets. Without the possibility of high-stake, fight-or-flight scenarios, a peculiar catharsis is missing from our lives. It's provided for by comedy.

I'm losing some of you, I realize. Sure, there's plenty that we laugh at that has nothing to do with the threat of death. Puns, for example. (Though some are truly deadly.) Also, funny faces, or cartoons.

There will I ask you to hold the phone. Please: hold this phone. Thank you.

Perhaps you can understand the connection between a fear of death and watching a Buster Keaton pratfall. We vicariously experience the possibility of finality when Keaton falls two stories. Maybe it’s only subconsciously. Maybe the pratfall is just a trip. The point is that it introduces a moment of uncertainty into our assumptions, and the mother of all uncertainties, or unknowns, is The Great Beyond. Cartoons continue in this tradition, making the stakes two-dimensional (in most cases) but the threat astronomical. But what of someone making a funny face? Still the unknown, I argue. The more unidentifiable or unexpected the face is, the better the laugh. Because for a moment, we don’t understand. There’s that taste of death, the “little death” of French fame.

I have no explanation for puns.

We don’t laugh only because of fear, but I’m certain it plays a larger role than is immediately apparent. Certainly accessing this fear is the most direct way to make people laugh. The laughter that arises from tickling, or from just enjoying being with someone, that might have other explanations. Then again, tickling takes control of our body away from us; a singularly unnerving experience, that requires one to acknowledge that he or she isn’t absolute. And good friends? Avoiding shock humor, or pratfalls, and still yucking it up? It’s play. It’s why we play games, intentionally and unintentionally. Games simulate the need to make decisions. The tiny or grand oscillations we make toward and away from people, even with people we have no conscious desire to ever be apart from, are tests of our connection: to others, to ourselves, to the world at large. The stakes are there. We are playing with death.

There you have it. Jeff explains it all. No applause, please; just throw money. And hey, disagree with me! I’d love to argue this out. Though I should warn you:

I may just laugh it off.

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