That joke isn't funny anymore

15 November 2016

We’re very fussy about who gets our laughter, and why. Within the personal sphere, all the scientific evidence is that we laugh with the people we know and like. Of course, laughter isn’t limited to this, and we can use laughter in a very nuanced way with even total strangers to indicate that’s we’re OK, you’re OK, no one is getting upset or stressed out. I stopped to help a fallen child in Regents Park yesterday, and the mum used laughter to tell me and her child that she was there and on the case. All of this fits with Robert Provine’s very clear argument that laughter is a primarily social signal, and it’s associated with making and maintaining social bonds. Laughter is associated with humour, but at its root most laughter is nothing to do with jokes and everything about the people we are with.

I have a hypothesis that we’re not always very good at understanding this, and we’ll attribute our laughter to people – so and so is hilarious, he makes me laugh so much when what me mean is I absolutely adore so and so and we laugh a lot together because we both like each other. And I sometimes suspect that this is why we get a bit confused about famous people who are funny – we find them amusing, and though we don’t know them, we still kind of like them. But there is still a social component to who we find funny – studies have shown that we rate jokes as funnier if we think they were told by someone who is a comedian rather than someone who is famous but who is not a comedian. Being a comedian is a social role, a category, it gives you license to ‘be’ funny and we will acknowledge this with our laughter.

It’s almost more obvious when you encounter someone whom we, as a culture, will not categorise as funny. For example – all the evidence is that Yoko Ono is funny: her comment on Donald Trump’s election was a lengthy, bloody scream and she followed up on a very funny Simpson’s joke. However we have all pretty much decided to put Yoko Ono in a category labeled ‘woman who broke up the Beatles' (if we overlook the financial problems and disagreements about management) and/or ‘tragic figure associated with appalling event’. We just won’t go along with any of it being funny.

Other times, it’s like we’re looking for a reason to find someone funny, to fit them into the comedian category: Jonathan Coe has written very well about the occasion on Have I Got News For You when Boris Johnson ‘became’ funny in 1998. Coe notes how a well-placed joke by Paul Merton completely defused a very difficult question for Johnson from Ian Hislop, about how Johnson’s friend, a convicted fraudster, had tried to get a journalist colleagues’ address from Johnson. Merton’s joke was funny and got a good laugh: somewhat more mysteriously the laughter also seemed to stop the original accusation from being so serious. When Hislop returned to it, Johnson batted it off more easily. This was Johnson’s first appearance on Have I Got News For You. It wasn’t his last, with many more appearances carefully building up the image of a loveable buffoon who can take a joke, rather than the extremely ambitious, career politician, which Johnson most assuredly is. As Coe notes: Johnson “seems to know that the laughter that surrounds him is a substitute for thought rather than its conduit, and that puts him at a wonderful advantage. If we are chuckling at him, we are not likely to be thinking too hard about his doggedly neoliberal and pro-City agenda, let alone doing anything to counter it.”

Jaak Panskepp, who has done some wonderful cross species work on laughter, argues that at its heart, laughter is an invitation to play. And by giving people our laughter we are often indicating a playfulness in what they have done, possibly even something that they were not perhaps intending. This can be why people laugh when uncomfortable (though people will also laugh together to make moods more positive). One of the women who came forward to complain about Roger Ailes’ sexually inappropriate advances said that she laughed off his comment, rather than indicate that it was inappropriate. It’s striking that in tape of Donald Trump, from several years ago, where he maunders on and on about taking women shopping for furniture and grabbing their vaginas, he doesn’t even sound like he is cracking a smile, but the other men there are laughing a lot.

Of course, laughter is inherently ambiguous, and we can’t know if those men in the Trump recording are laughing because they are embarrassed and uncomfortable, or because they think that it is genuinely hilarious material, or if they are laughing to discount the severity of what they’ve heard – if laughter is an invitation to play, then responding to apparently serious statements and actions with laughter somehow turns it back into a playfully intended behaviour, and that’s more fun and less serious. And Trump indeed is personally not very prone to laughter: on camera and in public at least, he laughs infrequently and unlike other politicians, is not apparently skilled in using laughter to charm or defuse difficult situations

The 1960s show ‘beyond the fringe’, associated with a boom in political satire in the 1960s, had a sketch (‘The Sadder and Wiser Beaver’) in which a young radical journalist explains why taking a job with a rapacious publisher does not mean he has ‘sold out’.

COOK: Whenever the old man has a cocktail party, there’s about ten of us – young, progressive people – we all gather up the far end of the room and … quite openly, behind our hands, we snigger at him.

BENNETT: Well, I don’t know, that doesn’t seem very much to me.

COOK: A snigger here, a snigger there – it all adds up.

As Jonathan Coe says, “the sketch is clear that laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest, but that it actually replaces protest”. Laughter is great – laughter is an outstanding way of making and maintaining social bonds, for dealing with difficult situations, for regulating emotional states. Don’t stop laughing. But don’t let laughter blind us to what is going on, and don’t mistake laughter for action. Rats stop laughing when they are in dangerous situations. We humans should allow ourselves to stop laughing sometimes, too.

There are real dangers that are associated with us, as a society, treating someone as a prankster, a laugh, a clown, especially if this enables them to get away with activities we might otherwise be slightly more cautious about. Donald Trump’s presidential run was warmly encouraged by comedian John Oliver, back in 2013, as it would be funny. And throughout his campaign, we all kept laughing. And John Oliver was right: it was hilarious. But it was also terrifying, awful, racist and sexist, and actually happening, and now he’s President-Elect Trump, that joke doesn’t seem quite as funny any more.

- Sophie Scott is Wellcome Senior Research Fellow in Basic Biomedical Science and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London. [email protected] and find her on Twitter. Read more about her work in our archive.