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Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone

This page Laughter is part of the laughter series.Illustration: Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe by Eugène Bataille
This page Laughter is part of the laughter series.
Illustration: Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe by Eugène Bataille
 This horror-comedy is representative for the combination of two body genres: comedy and humour; effect: laughter. Illustration: poster for The Raven, a horror-comedy
This horror-comedy is representative for the combination of two body genres: comedy and humour; effect: laughter.
Illustration: poster for The Raven, a horror-comedy

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Laughing is a reaction to certain stimuli. It may ensue from hearing a joke, being tickled, or other stimuli. Most commonly, it is considered a visual expression of a number of positive emotional states, such as joy, mirth, happiness, relief, etc. However on some occasions it may express other emotions, such as embarrassment, apology or confusion ("nervous laughter)" or courtesy laugh.

Laughter is a part of human behavior regulated by the brain, helping humans clarify their intentions in social interaction and providing an emotional context to conversations. Laughter is used as a signal for being part of a group — it signals acceptance and positive interactions with others. Laughter is sometimes seen as contagious, and the laughter of one person can itself provoke laughter from others as a positive feedback. This may account in part for the popularity of laugh tracks in situation comedy television shows.

Laughter is anatomically mediated by the epiglottis constricting the larynx.

The study of humor and laughter, and its psychological and physiological effects on the human body, is called gelotology.


Laughter in literature

Laughter in literature, although considered understudied by some, is a subject that has received attention in the written word for millennia. The use of humor and laughter in literary works has been studied and analyzed by many thinkers and writers, from the Ancient Greek philosophers onward. Henri Bergson's Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (Le rire, 1901) is a notable 20th-century contribution.

Laughter for the Greeks


For Herodotus, laughers can be distinguished into three types

  • Those who are innocent of wrongdoing, but ignorant of their own vulnerability.
  • Those who are mad.
  • Those who are overconfident.

According to Donald Lateiner, Herodotus reports about laughter for valid literary and historiological reasons. "Herodotus believes either that both nature (better, the gods' direction of it) and human nature coincide sufficiently, or that the latter is but an aspect or analogue of the former, so that to the recipient the outcome is suggested." When reporting laughter, Herodotus does so in the conviction that it tells the reader something about the future and/or the character of the person laughing. It is also in this sense that it is not coincidental that in about eighty percent of the times when Herodotus speaks about laughter it is followed by a retribution. "Men whose laughter deserves report are marked, because laughter connotes scornful disdain, disdain feeling of superiority, and this feeling and the actions which stem from it attract the wrath of the gods."

Modern laughter


Hobbes understands the superiority of the laugher in a much wider sense than the aesthetic and quasi-moral sense of Aristotle, the seeds of the superiority theory are definitely Greek.

In Hobbes' own words: "The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly."


Schopenhauer devotes the 13th chapter[1] of the first part of his major work, The World as Will and Representation, to laughter.


Nietzsche distinguishes two different purposes for the use of laughter. In a positive sense, "man uses the comical as a therapy against the restraining jacket of logic morality and reason. He needs from time to time a harmless demotion from reason and hardship and in this sense laughter has a positive character for Nietzsche." (Tarmo Kunnas, Nietzsches lachen: Eine studie über das Komische bei Nietzsche, Edition Wissenschaft & literatur, 1982, p. 42) Laughter can, however, also have a negative connotation when it is used for the expression of social conflict. This is expressed, for instance, in The Gay Science: "Laughter -- Laughter means to be schadenfroh, but with clear conscience."

"Possibly Nietzsche's works would have had a totally different effect, if the playful, ironical and joking in his writings would have been factored in better" (ibid)


In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, French philosopher Henri Bergson, renowned for his philosophical studies on materiality, memory, life and consciousness, tried to determine the laws of the comic and to understand the fundamental causes of comic situations. His method consists in determining the causes of comic instead of analyzing its effects. He also dealt with laughter in relation to human life, collective imagination and art, to have a better knowledge of society. One of the theories of the essay is that laughter, as a collective activity, has a social and moral role, it forces people to eliminate their vices. It is a factor of uniformity of behaviours, it condemns ludicrous and eccentric behaviours.

In this essay, Bergson also asserted that there is a central cause all comic situations are derived from: mechanism applied to life. The fundamental source of comic is the presence of inflexibility and rigidness in life. Indeed, for Bergson the essence of life is movement, elasticity and flexibility, and every comic situation is due the presence of rigidness and inelasticity in life. Hence, for Bergson the source of the comic is not ugliness but rigidness. All the examples taken by Bergson (a man falling in the street, cartoons, imitation, the automatic application of conventions and rules, absent-mindedness, repetitive gestures of a speaker, the resemblance between two faces...) are comic situations because they give the impression that life is subject to rigidity, automatism and mechanism.

Bergson actually took this idea from Schopenhauer, who explains how laughter emerges from the collision between intuition and reason.

Finally, Bergson noted that most comic situations are not laughable because they are part of collective habits. Thus he defined laughter as an intellectual activity that requires an immediate approach to a comic situation, totally detached from any form of emotion or sensibility. A situation is laughable when the attention and the imagination are focused on the resistance and rigidity of the body. Thus somebody is laughable every time (s)he gives the impression of being a thing or a machine.

Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin opens his work Rabelais and His World work with a quotation from Alexander Herzen: "It would be extremely interesting to write the history of laughter" (chap.1, p. 59).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Laughter" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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