No Laughing Matter

May 27th, 2007

[tag]Bangkok[/tag] — Few things in life are grimmer than an academic attempting to explain why we laugh. One problem is that most of the experts who devote themselves to this question have apparently never heard of humor, or have immune systems that protect them against it. As a result, these people have led laugh-free lives. It’s easy to picture them at parties, sitting sourly in a corner, wondering why other people open their mouths wide and make that peculiar noise.

As evidence of the carefree attitude taken by many researchers, here’s a gem from [tag]Robert Phillips[/tag], Ph.D., (not his real name) from the [tag]University of Maryland[/tag].

When we turn to laughter, we’re dealing with something powerful, ancient, and crude. It’s a kind of behavioral fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.

See what I mean? Would you like to sit next to [tag]Dr. Phillips[/tag] on a long flight? Or, if you’re looking or a fresh definition of hell, how about doing a stand-up routine to an audience of 250 genetic clones of Dr. Phillips?

And while I’m willing to admit that some nonhuman mammals might enjoy a good chuckle once in a while (probably at some amusing odor), does anyone actually believe that cats laugh?

Let’s say you meet Dr. Phillips at a party, perhaps as a result of some dreadful karmic burden you’ve been carrying around for many lifetimes. You try unsuccessfully to make small talk and then, after everything else fails, you say something like, “So this horse walks into a bar . . .”

And Dr. Phillips says, “Do they serve food in this bar?”

And you say, “Who cares?”

And Dr. Phillips says, “Because health regulations prohibit animals from entering premises where food is served. There are usually signs to that effect.”

In some desperation, you say, “The horse couldn’t read.”

At this point, Dr. Phillips will probably shake his head and wander off, looking for someone else to talk to, and may God protect the person he finds. One thing you can be sure the good doctor won’t do is indulge in any behavioral fossil as powerful, ancient, and crude as a laugh.

So I hereby offer my own explanation of laughter. It’s a little technical, but if I can follow it, you can, too.

Laughter is what we do when we see, hear, or think about something funny.

What seems to be missing from most attempts to explain laughter is the concept that some things are funny. If you don’t understand that some things are funny, you’re sort of handcuffed as a laughter researcher. It’s like trying to understand hunger without being aware of the existence of food. You might as well ask a fish to hum “[tag]Greensleeves[/tag].”

So in the interest of academic economy, I’d like to propose that no additional laughter research grants should be made to anyone who doesn’t know, and even laugh at, at least two stories that begin, “So this horse walks into a bar . . .”

[tags]Timothy Hallinan, A Nail Through The Heart, The Million Dollar Minute, Poke Rafferty[/tags]

2 Responses to “No Laughing Matter”

  1. Sjhadeaux Says:

    So…an old Gorgonzola walks into a bar and asks the bartender, “What do you call cheese that’s not yours?”

  2. Sjhadeaux Says:

    No, really…

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