Laughter as a Community-Dependent Activity (Lilja Valtonen)

In Henri Bergson’s essay on ‘Laughter’, he considers what makes something ‘laughable’ from a philosophical perspective. He writes that, “Comic spirit has a logic of its own, even in wildest eccentricities”,[1] which suggests that there is something objective and discoverable about the nature of humour – some set of explanations, a “method in madness”,[2] that can allow us to figure out why we laugh at certain things. Laughter must have “social significance”, as Bergson puts it,[3] and it must relate back to society because laughter is a social, communal activity.

Bergson reasons that, “Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo,”[4] i.e. we tend to find things funnier if people laugh at them rather than if we were to laugh at something alone. Laughter can be contagious in the right context. If we are being made fun of and a crowd of people are laughing at us, it might be much harder to join in and find the laughter appealing. However, if we are watching something in a theatre or on television, the laughter of other people may encourage us to laugh more at certain points. If we did not understand a joke, hearing other people laugh may help make us laugh. This reminds me of the laugh track that is present in many television comedies.

A scene from a 1995 episode of ‘The Nanny’ comes to mind. Fran Fine, a nanny, is coincidentally forced to shave Mr. Sheffield, her employer, for surgery after she dresses up as a nurse to fill in for someone at the hospital. Fran’s exaggerated facial expressions and awkward mannerisms made the audience laugh continuously and uncontrollably for the entirety of the scene. At one point, during eleven seconds of uninterrupted laughter, it seems the only thing we as viewers are even laughing at is the laughter itself. This example shows how laughter can depend on the laughter of other people as Bergson argued.

[1] Henri Bergson, “Chapter 1,” Laughter, trans. Brereton & Rothwell (London: MacMillan, 1911), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 5.

4 comments

  1. I agree. I think its communal nature (people in a room laughing with each other) might go some way to explaining the enduring popularity of the traditional sitcom format, as it seems to have lasted longer and been at its peak for longer than many other forms of comedy. Vines and Gunning’s ‘mischief gags’ lasted much less time in pop culture than the sitcom.

  2. Bergson’s idea of laughing with a group is perfectly highlighted in the use of laugh tracks. It encourages the audience to laugh, but also tells them when a joke was made. Everyone wants to be included in the joke and laugh along. The laugh track can be limiting though as it only allows one punch line.

  3. Very cool idea of focusing on the live studio audience of “The Nanny”. Have you thought about how the live studio audience can differ from the laugh track? Unlike “the Nanny”, “That 70’s Show” uses a laugh track and can sometimes have the opposite effect. The laugh track seems fake or forced and can cause someone to laugh at an intended joke.

  4. I loved the points you made about the communal laugh track. I think it’s an interesting concept that the show is constructed in a way where the laugh track constantly guides an audience emotionally. I also thought you made an excellent point in saying that people feel more comfortable laughing in a crowd, rather than on their own.

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