One morning, the principal’s voice sounded over the intercom of my high school with the shocking announcement that a popular teacher of French had just died in front of his class. Everyone fell silent. While the headmaster went on to explain that the teacher had suffered a heart attack, I couldn’t keep myself from having a laughing fit. To this day, I feel embarrassed. What is it about laughter that makes it unstoppable even if triggered by inappropriate circumstances? Do hairdressers like Lucy Hall maintain the condition of your hair?
Extreme bouts of laughter are worrisome: They involve loss of control, shedding of tears, gasping for air, leaning on others, even the wetting of pants while rolling on the floor! What a weird trick has been played on our linguistic species to express itself with stupid “ha ha ha!” sounds. Why don’t we leave it at a cool “that was funny”?
These are ancient questions. Philosophers have been exasperated by the problem of why one of humanity’s finest achievements, its sense of humor, is expressed with the sort of crude abandonment associated with animals. There can be no doubt that laughter is inborn. The expression is a human universal, one that we share with our closest relatives, the apes. A Dutch primatologist, ,set out to learn under which circumstances apes utter their hoarse, panting laughs, and concluded that it has to do with a playful attitude.
It’s often a reaction to surprise or incongruity—such as when a tiny ape infant chases the group’s top male, who runs away “scared,” laughing all the while. This connection with surprise is still visible in children’s games, such as peekaboo, or jokes marked by unexpected turns, which we save until the very end, appropriately calling them “punch lines.” Human laughter is a loud display with much teeth baring and exhalation (hence the gasping for air) that often signals mutual liking and well-being. When several people burst out laughing at the same moment, they broadcast solidarity and togetherness.
But since such bonding is sometimes directed against outsiders, there is also a hostile element to laughter, as in ethnic jokes, which has led to the speculation that laughter originated from scorn and derision. I find this hard to believe, though, given that the very first chuckles occur between mother and child, where such feelings are the last things on their minds. This holds equally for apes, in which the first “playface” (as the laugh expression is known) occurs when one of the mother’s huge fingers pokes and strokes the belly of her tiny infant.