We are all familiar with the concept of comic relief. The ancient Greeks utilized it, the Bible is no stranger to its charms, the charity in its name raised millions, etc. Sure, cracking a joke amid tragedy is inspired comedic timing,but what about when people spasm with laughter in tragedy’s face when no joke is cracked at all?
In Frontal Cortex, science writer Jonah Lehrer tries to uncover where this “perverse emotional reaction” comes from. Looking to the neural anatomy of our comedic circuits, Lehrer draws attention to some interesting correlations between jokes and problem solving, but he admits, “localizing the laughter reflex won’t tell us why we laugh instead of cry, or why there are so many smiles at funerals.” Instead, Lehrer turns to psychology (Freud) and philosophy (Bergson) for insight.
Freud’s notion of comedy as coping mechanism is straightforward and somewhat satisfactory, but it is Bergson’s concept of comedy as “what happens when the mechanical is foisted upon the living, when man is momentarily machine-like” that really struck a chord with me. Lehrer summarizes Bergson’s concept of laughter as such: “We laugh out of relief that our rigid state is only temporary—tragedy is when it’s permanent—and that, after the man acts like a repetitive robot, or is betrayed by his automated body, our innate elan vital (i.e. vital impetus) asserts itself.”
Below are two powerful incarnations of laughter that I feel speak directly to this Bergsonian sense of desperate human affirmation—what Becket describes as, “laughs that are strictly speaking not laughs, but modes of ululation.” Whether the following examples are tragic or comic, and what they convey/relieve in regards to man as “repetitive robot,” I’ll leave that for you to decide…
Example #1: Billie Whitelaw’s unsettling laughter in her performance of Beckett’s “Not I” (1973). (I recommend starting at 2 minutes, 55 seconds your first time through so as to throw yourself into it without an intro.)
Example # 2: Loorie Moore’s two-page fit of “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!…” in the short story “Real Estate” from the collection Birds of America (Knopf, 1998). (I recommend reading the each and every “Ha!” out loud.)
Bio: Catherine Foulkrod lives/writes in Brooklyn.