Although Freud and Spencer base most of their theories on the “hydraulic theory” which was popular in the nineteenth century and is probably now long outdated, I think they are on to something. I like the way Spencer describes energy as something that is constantly looking for available outlets and how, because of this, often someone can tell what emotions another person is feeling simply by looking at their facial expression or the way they hold themselves. Regardless of the shady science, I think his observation still holds true. How often have you called out a friend or relative for not telling you the whole story: “Hey, how’s it going?” “Fine.” “No, you’re not fine, I can tell by the look on your face.”
Freud also picks up on this theory when he says, “It is from the saving of expenditure in feeling that the hearer derives the humorous satisfaction” (112). Essentially, Freud says that laughter is the manifestation of “conserved energy” that was built up and then not needed or used. This is much like Hau’ofa’s method of building up to a joke that either climaxes in some sort of “punch line” or deflates. According to Freud, we laugh at these instances because we have pent-up unused energy. As many people have said before, we laugh because “we don’t know what else to do.”
Sometimes that last-resort expression of laughter is appropriate. In Hau’ofa’s case, he builds his stories and then changes their direction in an effort to evoke that kind of response in his reader. However, sometimes the laughter is inappropriate or unwelcome; at least it is not the expected reaction of the “audience.” I have a dear friend who is generally very quiet and shy. Yet, when she finds herself in awkward social situations, she will laugh at even the slightest joke, and her laughter rings out louder than any word she has ever spoken. (Sometimes this makes the situation even more awkward… and then I find myself laughing too because I don’t know what to do either!)
Another example I can cite from every day life is the way one feels when he or she wants to laugh but can’t. How many times have I been in class—or worse, in church—and someone whispers or writes a hilarious side comment but I can’t do anything about it because of the context. (My sister and I can’t sit next to each other in church anymore because this has happened too many times.) My stomach and throat are actually in pain in these situations—it is not pleasant at all! And yet, sometimes, the fact that I want to laugh but can’t makes the situation even funnier, which makes me want to laugh even harder, and the pain increases as I firmly clamp both hands over my mouth. I think Spencer and Freud are right when they say that laughter is the manifestation of energy that simply can not be “released” in any other way—I have felt the pain of trying to hold that energy in too many times!
Spencer also says that sometimes that energy can be absorbed by another strong emotion. In some cases when I really need to, as my father would say, “straighten up and fly right,” I try to think of something that will evoke a completely opposite emotion, like sadness or anger. For me personally, this practice doesn’t always work. Usually these kinds of thoughts will only calm my laughter for a short time, until I start to think about the situation that caused my laughter in the first place, and then I return to a stomachache and a sore throat once more.
On a slightly unrelated note, I also have to say that it seems to me that Spencer is the theorist with the broadest sense of the causes of humor that we have studied so far. He writes, “It is not a sense of the ludicrous, only, which does it; nor are the various forms of joyous emotion the sole additional cause. We have, besides, the sardonic laughter and the hysterical laughter which result from mental distress; to which must added certain sensations, as tickling, and…cold, and some kinds of acute pain” (104). While Descartes’ ideas seem to bridge the superiority theory and the incongruity theory, I like the way that Spencer takes even more emotions and situations into consideration when he discusses the humorous than previous theorists have. I still do not think that his theory is completely “sufficient” (partly due to the fact that his science is most certainly out of date), but I appreciate his slightly more “universal” ideas. I think our class would agree, considering that we have discussed how many different factors have to come into play in order for a particular person to find a particular instance funny or not.