Writer and broadcaster

Don’t make me laugh. Published in The Guardian

The 56th Edinburgh fringe festival is under way, ripe with thousands of comedy acts. At this very thought I tense. Comedy acts, along with anybody saying “Let me tell you a joke”, all elicit the exact opposite response to that intended. I do not laugh; I do not want to laugh. It’s not that I don’t find them funny, often I do. But sit me in front of a comedian and I start to panic, knowing that laughing will be in order but that laughter will not come. It’s the same with “set up” romantic weekends – nothing is more guaranteed to make me want to spend the whole time on the phone to my girlfriends back home. I can never deliver the emotions expected when they are most expected. There is far too much pressure.

The funny thing is that Robert Provine, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, spent 10 years studying why we laugh and, some 1,200 “laugh episodes” later, he concluded punchlines just don’t tickle. Only 10%-20% of laughter is in response to obvious humour. So I’m not in the minority, as the comedian’s spotlight makes me feel. The rest of the time we laugh out loud to make people feel at ease, to show that we like them and to bond with them.

It is interesting that we so need this affirmation of someone laughing to make what we have just said or done funny. Is something only funny if other people think it is and give us the reassurance of a chuckle? People do laugh more if they hear others laughing, hence the reason behind canned laughter. But most of the laughter in comedy venues is not proper laughter anyway, not the sort that starts uncontrollably from a wonderfully primitive, precognitive part of our brains and ends with bellyache and having to clutch the backs of chairs. It is, rather, a conscious ha-ha-haing, utterly manufactured to reassure the speaker. I can do this latter laughter, if pushed, but it’s not as much fun and I feel fraudulent. A bit like faking an orgasm (not, of course…).

Provine, and many others who have researched laughter, have found an intriguing gender difference. When the speaker is male, the audience (especially if they are women, just not women like me) will laugh more than if the speaker is female. Dominants use laughter more than subordinates. Think of the “it’s OK to laugh if the boss is” scenario. It’s a useful way of rallying troops. While people laugh they can’t mutiny.

Politicians know this, although they often confuse laughter with love. The audience that laughs with them, they think, will vote for them. Sometimes that’s true.

Being able to make your public laugh, for whatever reason, is a powerful campaigning tool. John F Kennedy often made jokes at his own expense. In that old comedy standby of deprecation, he tried to show himself to be more like his voters, less the patrician he was. Lady Thatcher tried being funny with her Mummy Returns speech during the 2001 election campaign, but won few new friends. Were those laughing doing so out of merriment or fear? John Prescott makes people laugh, but for none of the right reasons.

Consider the fine minds that have tried to deconstruct laughter and you begin to see that, actually, making someone laugh is not that easy. If you genuinely make someone laugh after having set out to, you have done so against the odds.

Laughter is considered the hardest of emotional reactions to research. A philosopher once said “fear and anger are a piece of cake; even love is easier than laughter”. Plato was rather afraid of laughter because of its ability to disrupt the population and thought it was no more than an exclamation of superiority – we laugh at other’s mishaps. Certainly in the case of politicians we do.

Aristotle was one of the first to understand that laughter could be triggered by the unexpected or the incongruous punchline – a theory not much investigated until 2,000 years later when Kant, Schopenhauer and Freud picked up the tickle stick – although he preferred his guffaws in small measure. “Those who go into excess in making fun,” he wrote in Nicomachean Ethics, “appear to be buffoons and vulgar.” It was Gorgias who arrived at the conclusion that earnestness kills jesting, a theory I particularly like since what could be more earnest than someone trying to make you laugh? Even Spock from Star Trek had an opinion on laughter, concluding that it “wasn’t logical”.

Maybe if the Edinburgh fringe comedy shows were held in a church I would laugh more. As a convent girl, I was always having to stifle giggles during mass. In the meantime it’s perhaps best that I stay away. There. Suddenly I feel like laughing.


First published in The Guardian.