The Deeper Meaning of Laughter

June 16, 2022

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Earlier today, I came across an old Calvin & Hobbes comic strip in which the undaunted duo unpack the origins of humor. Calvin begins by presuming humor is evolutionary. “Isn’t it strange,” Calvin wonders, “that evolution would give us a sense of humor?” He continues to struggle with just what evolutionary advantage such an odd but enjoyable trait could confer. Over river and dale the two tread while exploring the oddity of laughing at nonsense and appreciating absurdity. And then, they come to a dead halt where Hobbes (Calvin’s stuffed tiger-come-to-life) muses, “I suppose if we couldn’t laugh at things that don’t make sense, we couldn’t react to a lot of life.” Calvin stands dumbstruck as Hobbes walks on. Calvin winces, “I can’t tell if that’s funny or really scary.”

What a wonderful comic strip. And what an important topic. (By the way, for those interested in the comics with the best mix of wit and philosophy, Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts, Bloom County, and The Far Side are difficult to beat, but I digress.) 

Exploring the origins of humor is not my current reason for writing, but let’s just say that the mesmerizing magic and infinite wonder of what makes us laugh (and why) is a bit more complicated than the assumption that “Evolution gave it to us.” But that is why Calvin explores it in the way that he does. He is a kid, and it is just the kind of question a child of the modern world might ask. 

Laughter is the calling card of joy. Reflexive, unbridled, unashamed joy.

Think about human laughter. I know there are zoologists or anthropologists out there that may challenge me with how the dolphin cackles or the golden retriever guffaws, but they will be hard-pressed to show me how the same animals tour among their mates and offer stand-up routines, make romantic comedies, or pen memoirs riddled with ridiculous anecdotes and hilarious one-liners. No, only human beings do that. 

Laughter is such a gigantic part of our lives that we actively seek it out. We want to watch things that make us laugh and read things that make us laugh and spend time with people who make us laugh. Humor can be corny or bawdy, innocent or edgy, a knock-knock joke or a drawn-out tale with a glorious punch line. Some of us “get it” while others furrow their brow. Laughter itself comes in all forms. A chuckle or chortle, a snort or a snigger, a groan or a titter, a hoot or a howl. And physiologically? It feels good. Yes, we may blow milk out of our nose or pee our pants, become momentarily breathless or painfully doubled-over, but *whew!* now that was funny. So funny, in fact, that we will lionize it in memory, talk about it in years to come, and, yep, laugh all over again.

Humor does many things. It helps us to cope, it smoothes our social intercourse, and it explores human nature. Lately, I have been on a P.G. Wodehouse bender, and if there is anyone who gets human nature like Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens, it is P.G. Wodehouse. Take this greeting exchange between the innocent aristocrat dandy Bertie Wooster and his friend Motty. It begins in self-satisfied cleverness and ends in a self-conscious, Michael Scott-ish awkwardness:

“What ho!” I said.

“What ho!” said Motty.

“What ho! What ho!”

“What ho! What ho! What ho!”

After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

Or consider Berke Breathed’s comic strip Bloom County. Mike Binkley is an adolescent boy haunted nightly by the creatures that emerge from his “closet of anxieties.” In one strip, the regular host of his anxieties (a dinosaur-esque Giant Purple Snorklewacker) bounces up and down on his bed teasing him about the horrors to come that evening. In their exchange, we recall both the terror and ridiculousness of our own childhood fears.

“Oh, we have a wonderful anxiety of yours tonight, Binkley! Hoo boy, it’s really the pits!! Look what I found in the back of the closet—Green Eggs and Ham—An old library book you checked out in 1983!! Now wait while I fetch THE ENFORCERESS!”

Binkley looks at us and asks, “The Enforceress?”

THWONK!!! A massive axe flies and sticks into the wall over his head.

“FIONA HILL!” Binkley screams.

A dour librarian stands menacingly at the end of his bed, “1872 BLOODY weeks overdue.”

And then there is Gary Larson’s strip The Far Side. The particular strip to which I am referring is split in two and portrays the inane assumptions we make when talking to our pets. The first frame, titled What We Say to Dogs, features a terse man jabbing his finger at his dog while yelling, “Okay Ginger! I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!” The second frame, titled What Dogs Hear, shows the same man in the exact same pose, but only revealing the words as Ginger hears them, “blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah.” 

But perhaps best of all, humor results in laughter, and laughter is an end in itself. One could borrow from Josef Pieper and say that, like contemplation, laughter’s “very premise is freedom from the fetters of workaday busyness.” We laugh, to quote the “Piano Man,” “to forget about life for a while.” In an age of never-ending darkness, we are hungry (desperate, even) for joy. Laughter is the calling card of joy. Reflexive, unbridled, unashamed joy.

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I love the innocent (and mischievous) antics of young Calvin and his tiger, Hobbes. They have been a fount of entertainment and insight for years. But in today’s strip, I disagree with Calvin’s premise. Evolution didn’t give us humor, God did. Humor and the laughter it begets are further manifestations of the divine spark. “Joy” says Chesterton (and I would add with it laughter) “is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” And when Chesterton, the most joy-filled and laughing of Christians, closed out his majestic work Orthodoxy, he claimed that as much as Christ revealed to us when he walked the earth, there may have been something that was too grand, too magnificent, too purely sublime for our puny human psyches.

There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth. (Emphasis added)

Imagine the enormity of God’s mirth. Imagine the magnitude of his wit. Soon, we will know it firsthand. But in the meantime, God left us with just a taste of the awesome mirth that is to come: glorious, delicious, irrepressible laughter.

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