Laughter is not about humour, it is all about relationships, says Robert R. Provine
The one thread of continuity across the different ages in time is the quest to understand ourselves and our life. The same questions have been asked again and again, and at different times different answers seem to have appeased the curious mind. The question today is: why do we laugh? What does it mean to laugh? The answer does not come as easy as a laugh. Professor Robert R. Provine, author of “Curious Behaviour, Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping and Beyond”, says, “Laughter does not appear till four or five months after birth. Crying is born with us. Laughter is a form of communication... a social signal. We don’t laugh alone, we laugh 30 times more when we are in company. We laugh to TV or books or radio, never alone. Laughter is more about relationships than jokes.”
Provine says that when you hear what people say before they laugh you hardly find anything funny about it. They may say, “Oh! I’ve got to go!” and laugh. “This is not strong comedy material. Laughter is a social glue. It is the sound we make in association with friends and family. Our life is not filled with comedy, we laugh at everyday occurrences. So we can’t learn about laughter from comedy,” says Provine and goes on to say comedians make their audiences laugh because they build a relationship with the audience.
Omid Djalili, a comedian based in England, agrees. He says that if he is not able to establish contact with the audience in five to seven minutes, his show does not click. He says, “80-90 per cent of why we laugh at a comedian is because of his personality,” meaning that jokes do not necessarily have to be that great. It is the manner of delivery, the body language that counts. “There is a difference between unity and uniformity and if we can find humour in these differences, even better. But it should be done lovingly, in a humane fashion; then, it makes people laugh.”
David Kau, a South African comedian says, “I talk about my everyday life...about the differences...we are all different; we listen to different music, we read different types of material, we eat different things... but we all laugh in the same manner.”
“Laughter has a common underlying structure. If we were all making different sounds we wouldn’t know what the other is doing. The laugh sound is a basic ‘ha’ type sound repeated about 15 to a second and the whole cycle repeated every five seconds. Everybody laughs in that basic pattern,” says Provine as he tries to make the same ‘ha’ sounds with differing time intervals both between each sound and the length of each sound and you find it does not sound like laughter at all. “There is a neuro range over which we can produce the sound. The chimp laughter is like fast breathing. Laughter is literally the sound of belaboured breathing of rough and tumbled play.”
Provine continues, “Laughter has two faces: one, the more common playful laugh with friends and family. The second is the laughter of ridicule, associated with some of the most terrible things in human history. Plato and Aristotle paid a lot of attention to laughter, not because they thought it was interesting or fun but because they feared its power. Laughter could lead to undermining authority and to the overthrow of the state...,” and Provine relates some incidents when laughter has accompanied the act of cruelty. “...ancients were aware that laughter can be pleasant but it also has a dark evil side... if you laugh at the wrong person at the wrong time you could be beaten up if not killed.”
Provine also says, “Laughter is contagious...it is a reminder that we are herd animals. We are not the rational consciously controlled beings we fancy ourselves to be.” David Kau adds the parting shot: “Laughter makes everything just a little bit easier. We all laugh at the same things.”