Benign Violations

Plato’s “superiority theory” of comedy says that people find humour in misfortunes, because of the joy & relief of being in a better situation. Freud’s “release theory” posits that laughter is the cathartic explosion of nervous energy. The “incongruity theory” says that an inconsistency between expectation and reality causes laughter. A recent theory is the “benign violation hypothesis” – that humour happens when a person simultaneously recognises both that a norm has been violated and the violation is not upsetting.

Robin Williams offers bum-wad to the Thinker
Robin Williams offers bum-wad to The Thinker at SF Legion of Honour.

Other theories explain laughter from an evolutionary perspective. Laughter occurs in every society, and some form of it is displayed by other social animals too. Primates tickle each other and make huffing sounds approximating human laughter, and even rats seem to giggle when tickled. Researchers studying dolphins have noticed that they make distinctive calls when play-fighting. Concluding that the sound signals when a potentially anxious situation is actually non-threatening. Psychologists theorise that this is the reason human laughter may have first developed too. “Only joking..

Animals certainly play, and exhibit obvious pleasure in doing so. They clearly understand FUN but do animals have a sense of FUNNY? Of irony? Of the ridiculous, or the absurd? Our neighbourhood crows certainly seem to laugh as they tease our downstairs neighbour’s cat. Plato’s crows, enjoying their superiority..

A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. – Clive James

Some see comedy & laughter as a downplaying of the seriousness of an issue, but I do not see it that way. I laugh, not because I do not grasp the gravity of the situation, but precisely because I do. To me, laughter and sorrow walk hand in hand. Plato thought that tragedy is funny when it happens to someone else, but we often find humour in our own misfortune too, given enough time. That embarrassing wedding day, terrible vacation, or car breakdown in the middle of nowhere was nightmarish in real time, but is often served as a funny anecdote much later. Our misfortune is funnier seen in the rearview mirror, when there is balance between how bad a thing is and how distant it is. 

Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but comedy in long-shot. – Charlie Chaplin 

We’re all participating in an ongoing tragicomedy every day of our lives, where tears can be of joy or sadness, and quite often both at the same time. Is laughter the best medicine? Well not really, in terms of fixing physical things. No amount of laughter will mend your broken leg or cure your bowel cancer. But it heals the spirit, and makes the malady more bearable. Humour has certainly helped me through some absolutely terrible times. In a sense, all humour is gallows humour in that it helps us deal with the inherent ridiculousness of our existence. Of mortality.

It’s hard enough to write a good drama, it’s much harder to write a good comedy, and it’s hardest of all to write a drama with comedy. Which is what life is. – Jack Lemmon

Humour can be used to illuminate, especially in crazy times, when the grotesque becomes normalised. If the King is strutting around with no clothes, the person pointing it out is more likely to be a clown than a journalist. 

For me, comedy starts as a spew, a kind of explosion, and then you sculpt it from there, if at all. It comes out of a deeper, darker side. Maybe it comes from anger, because I’m outraged by cruel absurdities, the hypocrisy that exists everywhere, even within yourself, where it’s hardest to see.- Robin Williams

Humans are helpless when they hatch, unlike baby giraffes or foals, that gambol about as soon as they are born. We are not yet fully cooked, and need to ferment or prove a little after coming out of the oven. I’ve never found newborns to have the appeal that most people instantly feel, but as soon as they laugh, I feel the baking process is done >DING!< and a human is viewable to me there. Long before we humans can walk, talk or think rationally, we can LAUGH. 

The secret source of humour itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humour in heaven. – Mark Twain

It is fascinating how soon after a human is born, while still not understanding anything about the world yet, the baby already has a sense of humour, and can laugh. And what a sound. Is there anything so infectiously funny as a wee baby cracking itself up? But what amuses the laughing baby so? 

Sausages are just funny. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. – Phoebe Waller-Bridge

If humour comes from the unexpected and/or benign violation, how can a baby develop a sense of such things after only 3 months? I think a big part of laughter is the simple joy of connection with others – Peek-a-BOO! Giggle!

Laughter is the closest distance between two people. – Victor Borge

The order in which human faculties unveil themselves is telling; THINKING critically at 84 months, TALKING at 36 months, WALKING at 18 months, but HUMOUR is there almost at the dawn of human life, at 3 months. SMILING at 6 weeks. It’s as if Mother Nature realised that you can get by without motor skills, critical thinking, or language, but you’ll need a sense of humour, and right from the start, if you’re to cope with living a human life.

I always knew looking back on my tears would bring me laughter, but I never knew looking back on my laughter would make me cry. – Cat Stevens

24 thoughts on “Benign Violations”

  1. Great post. I remember the scene from the old 80s caveman film Quest for Fire. Having escaped with their lives from a certain threat and still gasping for breath, the group who were basically non verbal, looked at each other and started to laugh. I’ve never read that Cat Stevens quote either.

    • Hey Tony, great to hear from you! Yeah, I guess the scene you describe might be a form of Freud’s theory? Cathartic relief/release-laughter after narrowly dodging disaster? I’ve deff had a few chuckles like that in my life after near misses, and a few while neck-deep in the midst of disaster too!

      As to the Cat Stevens quote, he might have made it after he changed his name?

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. I think irony is a native & reactionary resilience that comes into play when little or nothing is simply beautiful & satisfying so all that’s left is combining thing to find any satisfaction. I think of irony as Coke and beauty as pure spring water. You can get by on Coke but don’t try to survive on it.

    • I used to admire people who ”took the piss” and could see through hypocrisy & media manipulations etc. That approach still has value, but after I realised that I need something in opposition to my over-active Bullshit-Detector, I am now grateful for those experiences (and people) that burn away the fog of sarcasm.

  3. The bit about laughter and sorrow walking together is spot on. I’m not sure I ever laughed and cried as much as when my father died. The two emotions complement each other so well.

    I really appreciated this piece, down to that final line and thought. I never gave it too much thought, but for most of us, some of the first things we experience in life are love and laughter.

    Not a bad way to start!

    • joy & sorrow are linked, because we can’t experience joy without sorrow & sorrow without joy. I too recently experienced the death of my dad. The funeral was intensely sad, and yet there was uplift too.

      Thanks for reading & commenting!

  4. Love this! A sense of humor certainly makes this adventure much more fun! I’m glad smiling and laughing isn’t something we have to wait until we’re older to get. Thought the idea of a laughing puberty seems like it would create some crazy stories!

  5. Love this, Jamie. One of my biggest moments I remember was having a moment when I found myself laughing at something sometime after my father passed away. I remember it felt so good to laugh again, if even just for a moment. It was really wonderful medicine.

  6. When I was at Academy of Art there was a Japanese kid in our sculpting class who didn’t speak much english but would laugh a lot. Finally one day the teacher explained to us that whenever he saw “good form” he would express it with laughter. I love that.

    • Ha! I sometimes offend people because I’ve laughed when they think it inappropriate. Of course a laugh can be of derision (and we’ve all copped that) but it can also be the joy of surprise or recognition, or simply of being charmed by something.

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