Humour in the Human Machine (Harriet Pollard)

In Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic [1], Bergson writes about comedy in movement. His rule for this type of humour is that: “The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.” So, the more mechanical someone’s movements, the funnier they will appear. The well-known ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ sketch from Monty Python demonstrates this idea.

He writes about the humorous appearance of a machine working inside a human like a mechanised puppet, but that the suggestion of this should ideally be subtle. So although humour of movement comes from the human body reminding us of a machine, it is most effective when these two things, a human body and the appearance of an interior mechanism, are combined seamlessly. The repetitive, athletic and erratic movements of the different silly walks seem to find this balance.

Bergson states that if a notable movement or gesture happens more than once, then we will wait and expect it again – and if it comes, then we find this repetition funny. In the sketch, the funny gesture happens with every step, and we know that as long as the characters are moving around, we can expect it again and again. He also pointed out that the more people involved in the repetitive movement, the funnier it is. Here, the sketch starts with just John Cleese’s character. The laughs begin when his silly walk is revealed. He stands out as the only one behaving mechanically in an otherwise organic world. That is, until the reveal of the ministry sign, followed by the punch line of the shot inside the ministry, where everyone is taking part in the same mechanical movements. With every new person revealed, the funnier it becomes.


[1] Henri Bergson, “Chapter 1,” Laughter, trans. Brereton & Rothwell (London: MacMillan, 1911), 1-66.


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