Monday, November 23, 2015

Four Serious Events Where Laughter Was Inappropriate, and the Feedback Loop of Inappropriate Laughter

1) In 1993 I attended a five day camp of the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. It's sort of like summer camp for adults, with music classes. I took a not-quite for beginners guitar class, a singing class (I learned a lot, but you still don't want to hear me sing), and a beginner's harmonica class. I also somehow managed during cabin signup on arrival to choose the cabin assigned to snorers (despite not being a snorer myself).

The last evening of the camp, there was a showcase for the students who wanted to perform for the other campers. One them a bearded man, probably in his late 30s, performed on guitar a composition of his. The piece was decent, and the guitarist quite clearly had a lot of talent. His seemed not quite at ease playing in front of an audience, but his skill shown through, he played from the heart with serious intensity and you could tell the time he spent practicing the piece. It was a good performance. But the audience was laughing through almost all of it. Not because of the guitarist, but because the camp dog, a yellow labrador retriever, which had already been hanging out on stage during other performances, while to the side and behind the guitarist (and not visible to him) chose to spend the entirety of the performance licking his balls.

From Rembrandt's Joseph Telling His Dreams 1638 (This is the classiest picture I could find of a dog lickings its balls.)

2) In early 2000s, I attended a play at the Seattle Fringe Festival in a small performance space that could hold maybe 40 people. I don't remember much about the plot - a drama about someone visiting a ghost town and its ghosts. One of the props was a doll, a doll that looked exactly like the Talky Tina doll from the Twilight Zone episode "Living Doll" (can be seen on Netflix). In that episode, a doll belonging to a little girl, starts off saying recorded sentences such as "I'm Talking Tina, and I love you very much." The girl's unpleasant stepfather (played by Telly Savalas) is angered by the money spent on the doll. When the stepfather is alone with the doll, it starts saying things like "I'm Talky Tina and I'm beginning to hate you," and, "I'm Talky Tina and I'm going to kill you."

In the Seattle Fringe play, the naked doll (which was not intended to be Talking Tina, or even a bit evil), when it was first picked up by one of the actors one of the audience members let out in an unintentionally loud whisper, "That's Talky Tina!" For those in the audience familiar with the Twilight Zone episode, that's when the laughing started. The laughing was brief and the serious play went on. At some point, on a chair facing the audience, the doll was put down in an unfortunate position; on its back, its legs lifted and suggestively spread wide. Something like this picture I found in my father's slides from his trips to Mexico in the 1950s:
(I have no idea who this woman is, but she was with my father in Mexico in the 1950s)

At this point, about half the audience lost it. For the audience members who were unfamiliar with the Twilight Zone episode, seeing the doll in the incongruous and lewd position, it was amusing. For those who had seen the episode, surely many of them could imagine the doll saying, "I'm Talky Tina and I'm going to (inappropriate sexual word of your choice) you." And the serious play continued on.

3) In the late 80s I took a UCLA Extension creative writing class. During one of the sessions, the students read aloud work they had finished the previous week. One of the student's story had a dead cat in it. A dead cat isn't funny. A second student's story had a dead cat in it. Again, a dead cat isn't funny. Then a third student had a story with a dead cat in it. Dead cats still aren't funny, but there was some stifled laughter, as having the coincidence of three stories about dead cats was funny.
CC Paul Bass

4) My younger brother was at the Los Angeles zoo with a friend when on a hill a stroller with a baby in it got away from a parent and they managed to catch it before anything serious happened. In a video it could be considered funny in the sense of slapstick, but in real life nothing particularly funny about that. Mildly heroic, even. A few months later, with the same friend,  he was at the New Orleans zoo, and the same thing happened. My brother and his friend were laughing as they caught it. The child's father was upset at them about laughing until they told him it was the second time they were at a zoo and had to catch a runaway stroller.

Originally, I was going leave the above without comment, but as I wrote about them I realized I wanted to understand why they're amusing (and I imagine some people wills say, "Why ruin your post by analyzing everything in it?")

For the first two events (the guitarist with dog, and play with Talky Tina):
  1. There is a serious event occurring.
  2. An amusing event occurs during the serious event.
  3. The inappropriateness of the incongruity of the serious and amusing event results in inappropriate laughter. 
  4. The inappropriate laughter is a self-sustaining feedback loop: as inappropriate laughter is inappropriate during a serious event, the inappropriateness of inappropriate laughter will induce more laughter. 
The last two events (with the stories and dead cats and the runaway strollers) are different in that there is nothing intrinsically amusing that triggered the laughter:
  • A serious event occurs.
  • The event is unexpectedly repeated.
  • The repetition triggers mild amusement.
  • The inappropriateness of the mild amusement during the repetition of the serious event, starts a  self-sustaining feedback loop: as inappropriate laughter is inappropriate during a serious event, the inappropriateness of inappropriate laughter will induce more laughter. 
I'll postulate that the feedback loop of inappropriate laughter is the most important component of what makes something funny that isn't supposed to be funny.

I'll avoid further analysis of the events, but you could ask what makes these funny?:

  • A dog lickings its balls.
  • A doll in a lewd position.
  • Unexpected repetition of a serious event.

I'm certainly not the first person who had wondered what makes something funny, but I took this post as an experiment on what I could come up without looking up any research on humor research. Here's a few links if you're interested:

Henri Bergson's Theory of Laughter
What, exactly, makes something funny? A bold new attempt at a unified theory of comedy (Part 1 of 10).
An Analysis of Humor and Laughter


  1. Interesting idea, Doug. But flawed I think. The only thing the feedback loop provides is permission to laugh for those who think the laughter is "inappropriate." It opens the gate for them, but if they don't have a funny bone, they will generally be appalled (or perhaps smile uncomfortably) rather than laugh along. You assertion that laughter in a given context is "inappropriate" is also your projection onto a given context, and really says more about you than it does about any social norms. Laughter can often be a coping mechanism for discomfort or bewilderment (such as the time you laughed nervously when you realized you were missing the last pages of your story when reading it at that open mic) - that doesn't make it "inappropriate," just awkward. So I think you would need to fine-tune your emotional vocabulary for each situation, rather than painting them with such a broad brush. A laughter reflex occurs for many reasons that have nothing to do with humor, and senses of humor have a vary broad variability. My 2 cents.

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