I’m Funny and I’m Not Afraid to Use It: Laughter as a Window into Humor Nature

Growing up, I always wondered why TV producers added “laugh tracks”—the sounds of a fake audience laughing—to their comedy shows.

“What a stupid idea,” I thought. “Why do I need someone to tell me when to laugh?”

Well, it turns out that the idea is not so stupid. Producers do this because it works. Add a laugh track, and people laugh more. And when they laugh more, they give higher ratings.

But that’s still leaves a question: Why?

Why do we we laugh when an producer adds canned laughter?

The Secret Life of Laughter

Movies, in contrast to TV shows, tend to not use laugh tracks. This difference gives insight into the nature of laughter (and laughter, a human universal, gives insight into human nature).

Evolutionary biologists Robert Simler and Kevin Hanson explore the hidden motives of human behavior in their book, The Elephant in the Brain. A key argument of theirs is that the reasons we believe we do things often differ from the the real reasons.

This is also the case for laughter. We think we laugh in response to something funny, but, most of the time, this is not what we do.

The authors cite the work of Robert Provine, a neurobiologist that made several fascinating and unintuitive discoveries about laughter. Provine discovered that less than 20% of our laughter during conversation is a response to humor. Rather, we laugh and chuckle in response to ordinary statements.

Provine also discovered that we laugh much, much more when we are together:

“This empirical, biological study of laughter produced a few key observations. The most important observation is that we laugh far more often in social settings than when we’re alone—30 times more often, in Provine’s estimate. It’s not that we never laugh by ourselves; clearly, sometimes, we do. But laughter is designed, or at least optimized, for social situations.”

Laughter is social. This is why TV shows add laugh tracks. TV-watching is a solitary activity—canned laughter makes it feel social.

This is also why movies don’t need canned laughter: We watch movies in theaters, with other people. The social element is already there. (I wonder, though, if this is changing with sites like Hulu and Netflix.)

Now, let’s continue to explore the secret nature of laughter. If, as Provine suggests, laughter is a social activity, what social function does it play?

The Funny Bone

When in conversation, who do you think laughs more: the speaker or the listener?

I assumed that the listener would laugh more because he or she is reacting to what the speaker says. But Provine discovered the reverse: Speakers laugh about 50% more than listeners do.

We think it’s stupid when people laugh at their own jokes. So why do speakers laugh at what they say and do?

Provine’s findings are a clue that laughter is an active activity, not a passive one. When a speaker laughs, she is trying to communicate something. In his 1936 book, The Enjoyment of Laughter, Max Eastman writes:

“The next time you are called upon to entertain a baby, I will tell you what to do. Laugh, and then make a perfectly terrible face. If the baby is old enough to perceive faces … he will laugh too. But if you make a perfectly terrible face all of a sudden, without laughing, he is more likely to scream with fright. In order to laugh at a frightful thing he has to be in a mood of play.”

Here, the mother’s laugh is a signal. She laughs to say something like “I’m just playing around!” Then, she is free to make a scary face without making her baby cry.

In other words, laughter is a lot like this:

Dogs take a certain pose before playing to let other dog(s) know that they’re just kidding around. Mothers do the same thing to their babies.

Simler and Hanson write:

“And humans, in the same vein [as dogs], have laughter. But not just laughter—we also use smiling, exaggerated body movements, awkward facial expressions (like winking), and a high-pitched, giddy ‘play scream.’ All of these signals mean roughly the same thing: ‘We’re just playing.’‘ This message allows us to coordinate safe social play with other humans, especially when we’re playing in ways that hint at or border on real danger.”

I will not explore the value of play for humans and animals here. (It seems to have been a way to practice valuable skills like fighting, movement, etc.) Instead, with the above in mind, I want to explore how laughter can be useful to us today.

Laughter as a Weapon

It’s no coincidence that many writers and comedians use humor as a way to critique society.

Laughter is often used to explore social norms. This is because there are certain things that are too taboo or too rough to state in direct language. In the past, saying something controversial could get you hanged, burned, castrated, or worse.

Laughter, then, shows us the boundaries that language is too shy to make explicit. In this way, humor can be extremely useful for exploring the boundaries of the social world. The sparks of laughter illuminate what is otherwise murky and hard to pin down with precision: the threshold between safety and danger, between what’s appropriate and what’s transgressive, between who does and doesn’t deserve our empathy. In fact, what laughter illustrates is precisely the fact that our norms and other social boundaries aren’t etched in stone with black-and-white precision, but ebb and shift through shades of gray, depending on context.”

As an example of a social boundary, think about edgy jokes. You often hear jokes about race, sexual preference and religion. These topics are controversial but not taboo. But, in America, it is NOT okay to make jokes about the Holocaust. That’s crossing the boundary line.

The authors give two reasons why laughter does a better job than language for exploring social boundaries:

“First, it’s relatively honest. With words, it’s too easy to pay lip service to rules we don’t really care about, or values that we don’t genuinely feel in our gut. But laughter, because it’s involuntary, doesn’t lie— at least not as much. ‘In risu veritas,’said James Joyce; ‘In laughter, there is truth.’ Second, laughter is deniable. In this way, it gives us safe harbor, an easy out. When someone accuses us of laughing inappropriately, it’s easy to brush off. ‘Oh, I didn’t really understand what she meant,’ we might demur. Or, ‘Come on, lighten up! It was only a joke!’ And we can deliver these denials with great conviction because we really don’t have a clear understanding of what our laughter means or why we find funny things funny.”

Laughter, Friendship and Everyday Life

But let’s face it. Most of us don’t intend to be public intellectuals, comedians, or social critics.

How can laughter help us?

Well, friendships, families and other relationships all have their own social boundaries, edgy topics and taboos. Laughter is a way to explore this.

A baby farts and is rewarded with laughter. Baby learns: Farting okay. A baby poops on the tile of your newly renovated kitchen floor. You do not laugh. Baby learns: Pooping on newly renovated kitchen tile not okay.

Likewise, when you meet someone new, letting down your emotional walls is a key to cultivating a solid friendship. Laughter and humor is a way to do this. You can explore intimate topics with less risk of hurting someone’s feelings. (Flirting, I suppose, is another way of communicating important things indirectly.)

But here’s a better example.

My parents have been married for over 30 years and, as far as I know, they’ve never had an argument. Never, not once. Recently, I asked my mother for her secret.

After a pause, she said: “Because your father makes me laugh.”