In one of my all time favorite guilty pleasure movies, The Sweetest Thing, Christina Applegate tells Camereon Diaz “50% of what we say when we are joking is true.” After reading Spencer, Descartes, and especially Freud I believe that all three would agree with this statement. All three focus mainly on the release of nervous laughter, laughter as protection, laughter as a reflex, and ask what happens when the laughter stops?
Descartes’ main argument is that laughter can only exist when joy or wonder is mixed with scorn. He claims that in any laughter one can find traces of hatred. This idea of laughter intermingled with hatred brings to mind the “evil laugh.” The evil laugh is present in most comedies and can either be hilarious or menacing. For example in a horror movie a villain’s evil laughter can invoke fear, where in a sitcom a character’s evil laughter can cause the audience to laugh along with them because the evil laughter in that scenario is not vindictively cruel. This occurs because of Descarte’s argument that the evil present in laughter “must be small” (p. 24).
He claims that there is a vast difference between being evil natured and mixing slight hatred with humor. This is evident when someone jokes and it is “all talk.” The subject matter in the joke is malicious but the fact that the person telling the joke would never do such a thing, therefore the joke is acceptable. I find Descartes idea that laughing naturally leads to sadness. This question of what happens when the laughter stops is valid and incredibly deep. Most people tend to joke and laugh about horrific events and do so to lessen the pain. When the laughter is over the sadness begins to sink in. That being said, is laughter used to cushion our pain futile in its attempts?
Freud’s take on laughter is quite different than Descartes’. Freud’s argument on laughter focuses mainly on the “hydraulic” theory of psychic energy, better known as the Relief Theory. He claims that laughter is an escape from forbidden thoughts, a “safety valve” (p. 111) through which our emotions that pour out are uninhibited. This is evident in the fact that we use humor as a defense mechanism, to say what we really want to say without having to deal with the consequences.
For example, when I get upset I tend to make inappropriate jokes about the person I’m upset with. Many tend to be like Descartes, racked with disdain and contempt. I know that I will never do half the things I claim to be so willing to do in my jokes therefore I need not deal with the consequences, ahh relief. Freud focuses on humor’s “liberating element” (p. 113). He states that there is a triumph of narcissism and that the joke teller is impervious to the harshness of the world. This is the idea that laughter is invincible, untouchable, and safe.
Spencer’s theory of laughter is somewhat Freudian but focuses mainly on the physiological elements of laughter. All I could think about throughout this essay is the way my mother laughs. There is no noise. Just air. She heaves back and forth in convulsions while her mouth gapes open and only air is exploding outwards. This got me thinking about how different laughs are. We all have the same anatomy, same physiological makeup, so in Spencer’s theory shouldn’t we all laugh the same? Perhaps the blood rush to the heart is measured by how affected a person can be by certain types of humor. This would solve the mystery of why there are so many different “senses of humor.” To get a little scientific, if we must breathe in order to survive and breathing is only an expulsion of air, could you make the argument that the release we feel when we laugh is just as vital to our well being? I’m sure Freud, Spencer, and Descartes would.