“Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”Steven Allen
It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes we can’t help but laugh at the most awful things? But if someone laughs at something that still feels raw to us, the hurt they cause is inescapable.
So, what’s the formula for making awful things funny? Can anyone turn anything into a joke? How soon is too soon?
Here’s one of my all-time favourite short stories…
I first stumbled across this about 7 years ago at work, while trawling for social media content (half my job was finding or creating silly social media content – life’s weird). I read it, I started laughing, kept laughing and then needed about 10 minutes to calm down enough to share it with my colleagues. Then we all started laughing again. I still can’t think about it without chuckling (sometimes laughing aloud and scaring the dog).
But why is it funny? Kicking a friend in the face is not a fun thing to do. One might even argue that having a friend kick you in the face isn’t fun. But this story is fun. I’m laughing again now.
This piece in The Conversation (from a few years ago) has a look at a few theories on why we laugh at things. They have four ideas on why things might be funny:
- They make us feel superior.
- They build up to something bad but then end well and we are relieved.
- They build up to one thing but then change direction and deliver something totally incongruous.
- They do something that seems bad but in which nobody really gets hurt.
So, yeah. Nobody knows. But everyone can agree that humour needs to have a certain amount of danger in order to work. Too much and we’re just upset, too little and we’re bored.
Then there’s that awful thing when something terrible happens and you know you shouldn’t laugh, but you just can’t stop yourself.
Reading this piece from BBC Future about neuroscientist Sophie Scott’s work in the field of laughter managed to make me laugh without cracking any jokes. Apparently, that’s all about the shared social function of laughter. So listening to other people laugh (or, apparently, thinking about it) can send us into fits of giggles. Scroll down on the article and you can listen to two different laughs – the difference between the genuine laugh and the forced laugh is immediate.
But why? When? Who?
Despite all of the research into humour (which is way more than I would have guessed), there’s no real formula on when things become funny. According to this study. that’s because humour requires psychological distance, and that differs from person to person. Somewhere in amongst space, time, social relationships and hypotheticality is the funny bit.
Laughing at yourself
The one thing that everyone seems to be able to agree on is that jokes are always funnier when you’re laughing at yourself or mocking power structures. While ‘punching down’ (making fun of someone with less power than you) is just mean, ‘punching up’ (making fun of power structures) can be hilarious.
But sharing your own foibles and inviting people to laugh along with you? That’s golden.
When Belinda and I first starting putting together That Time Everything Went Well And We Were Totally Fine, we ran an anonymous survey in which we invited people to share a strange and silly thing that their anxiety had made them do.
Most of the stories are hilarious.
They’re not funny because we find ourselves laughing at the person who shared them, they’re funny because we can imagine being in that situation. They’re funny because we’ve all done ridiculous things in a moment of panic.
Laughing together is sharing humanity. And what’s not fun about that?