Laughter is rarely thought of in all its dimensions. When considered in a positive light, laughing is associated with happiness but also childish innocence and immaturity, and this narrow focus makes laughter widely misunderstood and undervalued. Laughter is complex and works differently in everything people do, and tells us important things along the way.
Laughter is a joy and a killer. Let’s see a few ways laughter can work.
It’s said that fascist dictators can withstand criticism, but not laughter. The existence of critics in the media benefits a dictator because: 1) it gives them an entity to demonize, and rally their base around 2) critics create the illusion that the ordinary pre-dictatorship world still prevails, a world where institutions haven’t yet been subverted and can still check the dictator’s power. This illusion is essential, because its existence keeps naive centrists from accepting the truth—that the left is correct, and there’s a dictator in power.
So fledgling dictators do tolerate media criticism, even if they lash out against it violently, but what they cannot abide is being laughed at. Laughter undermines strongman leadership. How can you be dominating people, if they’re laughing at you? trump absolutely freaked out about being mocked in SNL. He took to social media to go on pathetic tirades, trying to appear impervious and undermine them right back. You saw his face when Obama made jokes at his expense at the correspondent’s dinner, and drew wide laughter from the audience.
Dictators need the appearance of control and domination, and laughter shatters this illusion.
Laughter in All Social Groups
This dynamic I’m talking about doesn’t only apply to dictators—laughter means something different to every group, depending on the nature of the group and where you are located on the hierarchy. You don’t laugh at power. You don’t laugh at the boss at work, or at a mob boss. Think of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas: “How am I funny?”
In the mob, where status, reputation, and hierarchy mean everything, somebody could legitimately be murdered over having their leadership undermined by a joke. It wasn’t obvious Pesci was joking. Immediately after it’s clear he was in fact only joking, everyone laughs. Then, someone from the restaurant asks Pesci to pay his tab–he’s actually undermined in front of his mafia friends, so he cracks a glass over his skull–and everyone laughs.
In the Sopranos the reverse happens. In one episode, Tony gets upset because his mafia buddies laugh too hard at his jokes, even very mediocre jokes, trying to curry favour with the boss. You must not ever laugh at the boss, but you must always laugh with him. This is how laughter works in the presence of power.
Bullies pick on people by mocking them, and bystanders signal their approval of what the bully is doing by laughing. For the victim, the more laughter there is, the more gut-wrenching it feels. The bully isn’t the only adversary. The bully plunges the knife into the victim, and laughter is what twists it.
Why is laughter such a powerful signal? Because it’s a pre-thought, reflexive thing, making it hard to fake. If I tell somebody “that joke is funny,” it doesn’t mean as much as simply laughing. People sometimes laugh uncontrollably, a guffaw. There is no equivalent for this in speech. Laughter is immediate and visceral, so as a signal, it’s reliable.
Humour is badly undervalued in mainstream art because people are hard-wired to be moved by suffering, not pure joy. Woody Allen said that humorists are always seated at the kid’s table, which, aside from explaining why he became a humorist, is a good phrase that gets at how drama and politics are seen as mature and intellectual and comedy is not, even if the dramatists or political pundits in question are illiterate swine and the comedians are brilliant and serious. Making people laugh is thought to be low because it’s fun, whereas politics is taken seriously because it’s miserable and hopeless.
This dynamic helps to explain why John Kennedy Toole’s comedic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by publishers, which apparently drove Toole to suicide. Only after his mother dutifully circulated the manuscript with this tragic story in hand did the comedy get published, and eventually win the Pulitzer Prize. Comedy needs tragedy to be valued, because people are hard-wired for suffering.
A lot of the vivid humour in Certified Serious writers like Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Gogol, Bulgakov, and others is missed, because readers tend to think literature is serious, solemn, grave, and read in that headspace. These writers fuck with you all the time, and if you take them too seriously you may miss the jokes. Comedy is not in conflict with seriousness, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong and liable to miss out on comical profundity, which sucks for them.
Humour is deeply idiosyncratic. It’s impossible to pin down. While there are formulas in comedy like the 80s cop-buddy movie, those formulas revolve around the plot—the actual humour in the movie can’t be broken down into a formula and reproduced, like as some kind of Hero’s Journey formula. (The Lion King is based on Hamlet, etc.)
Comedies are one offs. They fail or succeed if they’re sufficiently inspired. Robert McKee’s famous book on script writing does something beautiful on this topic: it devotes hundreds of pages about how to write every kind of movie, but comedy is deliberately excluded.
The only rule of a comedy, McKee says, is that by definition the hero is never in danger. If a house falls on the main character, he will stand up after, dust his shoulders off and walk away. This is what distinguishes a comedy from merely an action movie or drama that contains comedy. I like McKee’s rule, because it points to the primary rule in comedy: something is either funny or it’s not.
Comedy is impossible to scale up. They make 10 million superhero movies now because they’re all variations of the same thing…meanwhile, the brilliance of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (the best film of the 20th century) couldn’t even be carried forward into the sequel, which had its moments but is a very pale shadow of the first.
Comedies are one-of-a-kind—they are the hardest genre to replicate.
If bosses, mob bosses and dictators can’t be laughed at, maybe people like self-deprecating humour so much because on some level it signals, “I’m no threat.” Note, the self-deprecating joke is funnier the more power the teller has—if some pathetic little shit makes fun of themselves, it’s probably just sad. If a powerful person laughs at themselves in public, it signals that they won’t wield their power against you.
Dictators are never self-deprecating. A boss might make a self-deprecating joke, but not when you’ve been fucking up. The self-deprecating joke is a reward, that signals everything at work is currently fine.
Jokes among Friends
Laughter is actually the sign and the substance of friendship. Laughing is the best thing friends can do among friends. Laughing at the same jokes as somebody shows not only that you’re on the same mental wavelength, but that you belong in the same social group.
When good buddies talk shit to each other, it’s a way of signalling, I only fuck with you because we’re buds. Ribbing requires a friendship that rest on a foundation of real trust and love.
You signal that you’re on good enough terms with somebody to taunt them by actually taunting them, and they signal that your estimation is correct by laughing at it and making fun of you back. In a sense, this form of laughter is one way to measure and test just how good friends you are with somebody. This style of humour isn’t for everybody, no one style is. We all have our own temperament when it comes to what we find funny, but this explains one common form of humour. There are infinite forms of laughter.
Us Versus Them–Jokes and Social Power
It’s called an “inside joke” because the people laughing are the “in” group. That’s literally the word used—“you’re in on the joke,” they’ll say. There is an us-versus-them dynamic in humour, and what side you’re on is signalled by laughter. It’s not just chuckles, it’s about signalling group membership.
That must be why in offices or work contexts, women report having feelings spanning from eye-rolls to real discomfort or worse when guys make lewd sexual jokes. It’s clear who the in group is, and who is out. It’s not just a joke, it’s claiming territory—this is a male space. Now, of course there are women who like that kind of joke, but they’re called “one of the guys.” When men denounce that kind of joke, they’re called “a bitch” or whatever. Toxic masculinity is equating the unwillingness to abuse power for a laugh with weakness, which is expressed as femininity.
I joke around with people all the time, and when I lived in India I noticed a pattern: people laughed a lot. Too much, sometimes. Now I love to fuck with my boys like Kandarp and that miserable degenerate Parakram, and I got them laughing because we’re buds. But when I joked and bantered with the security guards in my sector or the “office boys,” they were smiling ear to ear, even though…they didn’t speak English. What was exactly happening?
I think they saw that a white guy was taking the time to talk and fuck around with them, and they were happy because they felt included. People with power often exert it in less friendly ways. So when a person with power cracks jokes with a person with less power, they might just laugh out of relief, or maybe they partake in that power because for a moment it’s shared with them.
When jokes punch down, they stop being funny. Or, should. Privileged people sometimes express disdain for marginalized people with jocular contempt—hate expressed as a joke, for chuckles.
Frankly, I used to do this. I don’t anymore because only hateful or oblivious people enjoy this kind of humour. I was oblivious. I come from a very privileged background (white, straight, male, from Forest Hill—the works!), and while I never wanted to physically or emotionally hurt anybody, I found squeaky-clean fun to be boring.
Punching down was everywhere in 90s culture, and I did it too. We all did. Gay jokes (SNL, my beloved Ace Ventura is wildly transphobic at the end), black jokes (CB4, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, and too many movies starring white people to name), homeless jokes (Dirty Work and Happy Gilmore are full of them) or whatever seemed to me like innocent transgressions. It was a form of bullshitting, and because I was surrounded by people unaffected by these jokes, it felt innocent. I never saw what harm there was, and was allowed to believe there was none—I was oblivious.
If chirping a friend is actually a way to reinforce that we can only talk shit to each other because there’s love there, then perhaps on some level what offensive shock humour really says to the recipient is, “I only make this joke with you because you know I don’t believe that shit.” You don’t say this out loud, you just tell the joke. They answer that sentence by laughing.
Is there a distinction worth making between the racist racist-joke teller and the person who just likes shock-humour? These people are obviously not the same, but, in practice it’s a distinction without a difference: in either case, stop making these jokes! To even explore this distinction is to prioritize the comfort of the joke teller over the target, or the bystander who hears these jokes and is understandably uncomfortable.
Racist jokes aren’t necessarily concrete proof that a person harbours ill will towards people of that race, but even writing this makes me feel very uncomfortable, because people say “it’s a joke” to mean that it’s only a joke, when many people aren’t only joking. I don’t want to give cover to people who use humour to shield their racism.
Ask yourself, when you hear someone make a racist joke, do you identify with the teller, or the target? Whose defence do you naturally gravitate to? People who identify with power (privileged people normally do) make explanations for why the teller of racist jokes is not necessatily a bigot, and if they consider how it makes someone else feel, it’s considered second.
I’m not comfortable with punching-down humour now, and I’m not defending myself or anyone who make these jokes. I’m just explaining myself, then and now.
Humour as Means to Feel Power
I suppose privileged people make fun of marginalized people because subconsciously it makes them feel their power. They subconsciously revel in the fact that they aren’t the ones at the bottom of the hierarchy.
This would also explain why people from marginalized communities mock those who are even more marginalized. It makes them feel powerful. You can’t laugh at people with power over you, but when you have more power than someone, kicking down is easy—they have less power, they can’t respond.
This explains, for example, why there was homophobia and misogyny in hip hop even as so much of it also rightfully denounced anti-black racism. Many of these rappers matured, and rightly apologized. Actually, America’s white Christian Family-Values fundamentalists who went on a moral crusade against Rap in the 90s turned out to be—surprise surprise—scumbag racists. Today they’re MAGA, and Nas is writing a kids’s book.
Again, some people enjoy punching down not just for this subconscious reassurance that they have power, which is still a very bad reason to do it, but because they do hate the people below them! Racists enjoy laughter too, and when they express racism as a joke, it is still a) a joke b) definitely racist. The alt-right’s irony-drenched trolling is tired and trite as fuck, and they’re definitely not only joking.
How do you know if the person making the racist joke is a genuine racist or just oblivious in their privilege? After you tell someone to stop making racist jokes, watch how they respond. Do they genuinely get introspective and apologize, not because they were caught committing a faux pas in public but because in their bones they feel horror at having upset someone? Or do they get defensive, stick up for their rights to Free Speech, insist you are humourless, that they didn’t intend on harm and therefore harm is impossible and if you’re feeling it it’s your fault?
A wave of fascism has already descended on places close to me. Muslims are being lynched under Modi, MAGA people have murdered leftists and journalists in broad daylight and trump seems happy about the deaths. Conservative politicians in Canada are demonizing minorities, and this will escalate in the lead up to the federal election in October. Canada has produced faith goldy, gavin mciness, ezra levant, and other alt right shitlords.
Let’s make jokes to share love with friends and strangers, and to deflate fascists and the corporate gutter trash running Ontario. Let’s not revel blindly in privilege by making jokes that reinforce our power over people and undermine their sense of self, but just to lift people up and brighten their days and for no other reason.