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EP PODCASTSXML

August 15, 2008

The Art of Laughter

Jos HoubenIn the spirit of summertime and for 'something a little different' here's a conversation with Jos Houben, an internationally acclaimed performance artist, writer, director, producer, and teacher at the Jacques Lecoq theater school in Paris. Laughter is a gift, really, and we should share it more often. Even, perhaps especially, in politics. Many thanks to Jos for taking time to talk with me — he's an absolutely delightful person. Total runtime an hour and three minutes. Enjoy!

Listen

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Comments

Very interesting. I'll inform myself more about Jos Houben.

I had also theorized about what lies beneath a laughter in the past. Why are funny things funny?

The conclusion I reached was something like this:
Seeing others fail makes us feel good about ourselves. Someone falls down, demonstrates incompetence, we feel relatively more competent.

Obviously it's much more complex, this doesn't explain by itself why people can laugh at their own mistakes or some special forms of laughter-triggering funny things(like linguistic tricks). There are many different factors in play. But at the moment, I still think this is the foundation of it all.

His example of how it's not funny when a tramp falls down, while it's funny when the president does was great; she's already fallen. That and the example you gave about how your friend was getting free meals because she fell, both support my view. Other people's demonstrations of their incompetence affects our own self-image. After we see others fail, we pity them more if we do not perceive them as "above us". If they were above us, we just feel good that they fail. Or something like that...

And when things get too serious (someone gets seriously injured, economy collapses etc.) we realize that others' incompetence begin to affect our lives more in negative ways. Our priorities change.

I might leave another comment later where I try to express my views more clearly. I also sort of missed the last 10 minutes. I'll have to listen to it again. But it was pretty cool really...

I just did a little research about this subject and there is enough info about it online, you just have to Google 'humor philosophy' or something like that. Here's a decent summary:

http://www.iep.utm.edu/h/humor.htm

I still find the superiority theory superior to others when it comes to explaining the logic behind it. It's the one that makes most sense in the evolutionary, biological sense to me. I suspect that the forms of humor which seem inconsistent with the superiority theory (i.e. wordplay) are born just as side-effects of the real mechanism behind humor. But hard to say...

Sadun, there is a difference between a motive and mechanism in humour. The superiority theory of humour falls down in many aspects. Below is a short extract from my essay: Laughter as a displacement activity: the implication for humor theory.

The superiority theory is particularly simplistic and only when it is examined below the cultural/behavioral level does this become apparent.
To read my full essay go to:http://basilhughhall.googlepages.com/anewtheoryoflaughterandhumor

a) An individual is moved to tell a joke.
The joke he/she tells has:
b) A theme
c) Story content
d) A mechanism (a format peculiar to jokes.)
As the presentation of the joke progresses:
e) The theme and content induce an emotional state in the listener.
f) The joke mechanism produces a (irresolvable) conflict.
g) The stressed system displaces emotive neural activity through the laughter process.
h) The listener experiences a feeling that he characterizes as pleasure.

The aggression/superiority theory (Heyd 1982)(Gruner 1999) suggests that we laugh at the misfortune of others, or those who we consider beneath us in terms of power or social standing, and humorous situations are viewed in terms of aggression and competition. This theory, that focuses on the motivational (a) theme and content (b) (c) and emotional (e) aspects of a humorous event, is based on an erroneous view of laughter. Contrary to the superiority theory, the evidence from studying the basic laughter response in children and adults suggests that it is emotive activity on the fear side of approach and avoidance motivations, and not on the aggressive side, that is central to the evocation of laughter. Power and standing can be maintained by approval and respect, and only the fearful maintain power through aggression. Laughing at the less fortunate is not an act of the superior but of the frightened. We cannot inhibit the mental process we term empathy - it is an indispensable facet of comprehension - and because those people who laugh at the unfortunate cannot help putting themselves in the situation of those they belittle, the emotive weight behind their laughter is fear. These individuals have consciously distanced themselves from the those they see as their inferiors; they do not sympathize with the less fortunate, but cannot escape the innate process of empathy, which places them in the very state they find repulsive.

And later in the piece:
Empathy is important in the processing of humorous situations as it is instrumental in the production of a changing complex of emotive responses as the event proceeds. When we observe another human being in extreme circumstances, or indulging in some form of extreme behaviour, there is an empathetic induction of an emotive state that is not personally and appropriately actionable (we do not take an analgesic because we "feel" another person's pain). This empathetic appreciation of a situation is particularly essential in non-verbal humorous events such as clowning and slapstick. When we see a man slip on a banana skin our mirror neurons, that map the movement and are probably also at the heart of our ability to empathize(Schulte-Rüther2007), evoke an immediate emotive state that is neither truly our own nor appropriately actionable. However, empathy may immediately give way to sympathy, which can give rise to appropriate action, such as helping the man to his feet and asking if he is hurt. Most people would not laugh if the fall was accompanied by a sickening thud as the man’s head hit the pavement, as this would immediately induce a sympathetic state of mind. Laughter, as a form of displacement, for all but the sadistic, will only occur if the fall is perceived to have caused no serious harm.
A common explanation for laughter evoked by the misfortune of others is that we laugh because it has not happened to us. This is correct, but for the wrong reasons, as it is not a matter of being pleased that we have escaped an embarrassing or painful experience. The fact that the slipping on a banana skin has not happened to us means the empathetically simulated emotive states of startle, fear and pain, are at odds with the reality of our position in the situation, and when not overridden by sympathy, this emotive activity is displaced into laughter.

Actually I had just come here to post a link to this book which I thought should be useful:

http://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Humor-Integrative-Approach/dp/012372564X/

...but; interesting info Basil. I'll look into your theory when I can find some time.

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