The Morality of Laughter
by f. h. buckley
university of michigan press. 239 pp. $29.95
Football, a famously dour Scotsman once remarked, is not a question of life and death: “It’s more important than that.” The same might be said, with greater justice, of humor. A vast literature, growing by the year, testifies to the fact that comedy is no laughing matter. Witness those professional funny men who seem to lead lives of dull or doped desperation. Woody Allen, in therapy for years, is so addicted to angst that his entire career depends on it. John Cleese abandoned Monty Python for a psychiatrist’s chair. Spike Milligan was a manic depressive. Malcolm Muggeridge thought his days as editor of Punch the most miserable of his life. Tony Hancock, Britain’s greatest comic a generation ago, died of an overdose in an Australian hotel. The list could be extended. “I make myself laugh at everything,” said Beaumarchais, “for fear of having to weep.” Clowns have been shedding tears for a long time. For them, it is happiness that seems forced and unreal; an unexpected light amidst the encircling gloom.
To be sure, this is a familiar trope, a truth deadened by repetition. All the same, it is strangely reassuring, reminding us not only that laughter and sorrow are commingled in any life but also that they must be in equilibrium. Madness comes when one over-tips the other, turning a mood into an entire mode of being. The man who is funny all the time is not funny at all. The perennial pessimist—think of Jaques in As You Like It—makes us laugh, not cry. Such people lack emotional complexity. Some atrophy of the soul has turned them into half-people, frozen in grin or grimace.
To that extent, laughter is a question of life or death: spiritual life, spiritual death. “I will go to the altar of God,” generations of priests used to intone, “to the God who gives joy to my youth.” The psalmist recognized that a life without laughter is no life at all. Our own casual speech, quite unconsciously, acknowledges it, too. Notice how we say “humor me” when demanding to be taken seriously, as if laughter and personal identity amount to much the same thing. In some ways, they do. After all, what is a person but a balance of humors, a combination, in Addison’s phrase, of “so much wit, and mirth, and spleen”? Asking to be humored is to assert uniqueness and moral worth. There is much to be said for that ancient medical wisdom.
All this may be granted. Still, another part of us finds it difficult to take seriously those who think to explain the hidden meaning of mirth. Consider Kant, for example. Laughter, he claimed, was “an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing.” This is funny, but not in the way he intended it to be. Consider also Hobbes, for whom laughter was “nothing but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” This is the equivalent, surely, of describing wine by reciting the chemical formula for alcohol. Such definitions are lumpish and too literal. One is reminded of the Reverend Sydney Smith, finest clerical wit of the nineteenth century, when asked why his dull contemporaries had gone so much farther in the Church than he. The laws of physics have been reversed, he said: “They have risen by their gravity and I have sunk by my levity.” Hobbes and Kant seem to have fallen into the same black hole. Nor are they alone. Other explanations of humor, even less pithy, smack of the economics seminar or the computer science textbook. “Laughter,” Frank Buckley assures us in the volume under review, “assumes an informational asymmetry between wit and butt, . . . performing . . . a signaling function, communicating information from one party to another.” Lines like this help explain why he is Professor of Law at George Mason University and not host of the Tonight Show.
Still, Buckley has a point and a good one. (He also has a much more elegant pen than this sentence suggests, and a far richer sense of humor.) Think of Kant and Hobbes again. Even if exemplifying what G. K. Chesterton called “the monstrous spectacle of men being sombre and pessimistic about the origin of laughter,” they were not entirely risible. After all, their theories, claiming to find humor in disparity and misplaced expectation, were more or less self-ratifying. They prove their point precisely by making us laugh at language comically overblown, at prose too ponderous for its own meaning. In the end, the joke is on us, not them. Of course, not everyone who investigates laughter is so clever. Some are not dead-pan comics: they really are humorless. Think of J. Y. T. Greig, chronicler of comedy in the 1920s. Arguing for no fewer than eighty-eight theories of laughter, he seemed to spot them at every turn, no sooner capturing one than seeing others flutter into view. Chasing butterflies in order to crush them is unworthy sport.
Where, then, does Professor Buckley stand in this debate? With commendable dispatch, he gets to the heart of the matter. Forget Greig’s eighty-eight explanations of laughter, he says. Ultimately it comes down to two. There are “superiority and non-superiority theories, only the former affirming that laughter always signals a sense of superiority,” the latter having no such aim. With the first, to make an obvious point even more obvious, a “butt is made to feel inferior, and those who laugh reveal their superiority over him.” With the second, the laughter is, as it were, victimless. Think of puns, for example, or aural jokes such as Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. Playfulness of this kind does not depend on a dupe, unless one includes the audience itself in that category. Likewise the laughter of friends: hardly an assertion of superiority, except perhaps the superiority of sociability itself. A fair-minded fellow, Buckley gives a good account of non-superiority theories, but he is not convinced by them. Sociability is important, he concedes, but at the heart of every laugh lies a sense of superiority. Some object must be pierced, some target destroyed. “There is no laughter without a butt,” he proposes, “and no butt without a message about a risible inferiority.”
This “positive superiority” he distinguishes from “normative superiority.” The latter makes the stronger claim that “laughter communicates a true superiority and that the butt is truly an inferior person.” To paraphrase the old line, the reason some people have a superiority complex is that they are superior. Positive superiority, he thinks, is more easily defended than normative superiority. The first requires the joker merely to think himself better than his object, not actually to be better. The second requires both, an ambition that in the end proves fatal to it. How does normative superiority account for the laughter of the wicked? The gratuitously cruel remark? The sick joke? Not very persuasively. Gallows humor is all very well for those going to the gallows; for those sending them there it is hard to take.
Conceding the objections to normative superiority, Buckley is reluctant to abandon it entirely. It is possible, he thinks, to defend a softer version, the claim that “most [if not all] laughter offers us valuable lessons on how to live.” Laughter, even laughter not obviously satirical, exposes vice and extols virtue. It reaffirms a shared vision of the good life. It reminds us of the need for joy. These are good arguments and, with wit and panache, he easily sustains them. Buckley has written a fine and funny book that will be read with pleasure and instruction. Any volume praised by P. J. O’Rourke and Roger Scruton, names not usually yoked together, must surely have much to commend it.
To be sure, the case is sometimes stretched too thin. These various categories—laughter as superiority, as emotional release, as recognition of incongruity—are permeable and overlapping. Jokes and joking cannot be disaggregated as if consisting of one part satire to two parts sociability to three parts schadenfreude. Buckley knows this, of course, but occasionally forgets his own stricture that theory rigidly adhered to often fails to account for “the richness and complexity of human experience.” Too much analysis destroys the comic moment. Sometimes we laugh at a butt’s defects because they are absurd, sometimes out of relief that we have avoided social hazard, sometimes for no very good reason except the best reason of all: to cheer ourselves up.
Think of the difference between incongruity and hypocrisy. Where does one end and the other begin? The ninety-year-old Floridian pretending to be forty is absurd, a proper object of ridicule, but the joke lies in a kind of visual disparity rather than in the discovery of some great moral deceit. On the other hand, a preachifying President who turns out to be priapic, an Oval Office Elmer Gantry, is laughable not because his behavior is discrepant but because it is disgraceful. Such amusement is only marginally reaction to the comic incongruity of portentous authority falling flat on its face. Greater moral understandings are at stake: that truth-telling is important, that fidelity matters, that chastity and self-control are gifts to be cherished. These insights we reinforce by laughing at those who traduce them.
Of course, if we take too much pride in our own virtue—“I thank you, Lord, that I am not as other men”—we run the risk of becoming comic gulls ourselves. Laughter is a versatile weapon and must be handled with care. Still, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue and it is right to remind ourselves of the virtue it pretends to possess. That is where humor comes in. It is a code that signals how we ought to live, a reminder of goodness in a world that sometimes lacks it. Listen to the jester: his joke is a sermon, a homily in one-liners. We ignore his strictures at our peril.
The case could be made that laughter thus understood amounts to little more than a form of social control. Apparently subversive, its real purpose is to endorse a moral community’s sense of itself, becoming yet another weapon in a never-ending war of values. Notice how its chief beneficiary is the butt himself, ridiculed into conformity with decent opinion. Notice how “through laughter, we are recalled to common sense.” Notice how its “basic message” about the good life is “moderation.” There is a gemütlich quality to this moral vision, a hint of pipe-and-slippers. In fairness, Buckley’s project is not to see laughter as a kind of bourgeois balm. The contentment he seeks is deeper than that. On the other hand, complacency is never far from view. Perhaps he should be more careful to avoid it. That said, to problematize humor as no more than an instrument of collective conformity is to miss the point. Of course laughter exerts social suasion; of course it makes us think before we act. That is what moral systems are supposed to do.
Yet even this seems thin and etiolated when weighed against the deeper claims of laughter. Buckley rightly proposes that laughter teaches us not only how to live but how to live well. It reminds us that we must “extract joy from our lives.” It helps us survive “the dour, rationalist nightmares of machine law, machine art, machine cities.” It offers us bonds of friendship not only with the living but the dead. Above all, it leads us to a vision of the divine. Holy laughter, Dante claimed, is one of the special gifts of paradise. Those who reject it reject God Himself. That is why Thomas More, soon to die, comforted his friends with the assurance that before long they would be reunited “merrily in heaven.” Such surety was well expressed by P. G. Wodehouse, bringer of joy to millions. If any young writer with a gift for being funny has got the idea that there is something undignified about making people laugh, he wrote in a now forgotten essay, let him read the Talmud:
And Elijah said to Berokah, “These two will also share in the world to come.” Berokah then asked them, “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are merrymakers. When we see a person who is downhearted we cheer him up.”
These two, he wrote, “were among the very select few who would inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Let us hope that we meet them there.
Dermot Quinn is Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University and serves on the Board of Advisors of the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?