Chapter 2. Laughing

Cartoon laughter

Laughter is nearly as involuntary as hiccupping. Everyone can laugh; even cartoon characters, and when I laugh, I think of cartoon characters doing it. When Popeye laughs, it’s “ARF! ARF! ARF!” Marge’s Little Lulu laughs “HA . . . HA!” Bill Watterson’s Calvin laughs “Heh heh heh!” Richard Thompson’s Dill laughs “Hee hee hee!” Barney Google and Snuffy Smith just stick out their tongues, and they always do it after their own jokes. It’s wrong to think laughing makes you laughable. A person who laughs increases in beauty, even more than smiling.


I don’t laugh like Popeye; Elizabeth doesn’t laugh like me. Some people produce full-throated laughs; some laugh like suppressing a sneeze. Some laughs repeat a simple syllable; others are more like a sentence, with a beginning middle and end. Except for the fact, perhaps, that your laughter changes as you grow up, the unconscious laugh is as unique as a person’s fingerprint, or fingerprints, really, considering we have different laughs for different situations, some full of delight, some full of love, some from embarrassment, and others to go with groans. But can an adult disguise it? mimic another’s, or laugh like a stranger whom you’ve never met? Does laughter run in tribes or families? Do people laugh as they do because, although laughing is instinctual, the way you laugh is a learned behavior? These would be questions for serious study except that it would be difficult in a laboratory setting to reproduce repeatable conditions to get people to laugh, because a forced laugh is not really a laugh at all, just as the fact that a mocking laugh is a mockery of laughter.

Tickling and other triggers

I am sorry. Sorry about tickling. I’m sorry to have tormented my brother, without mercy. You can’t tickle yourself, but who wants anyone else to do it? I made him laugh but he wasn’t having fun. Speaking of which, laughter can accompany other contrary emotional states, for some people more than others. Some people, habitually, laugh because they’re shy. There’s nothing instinctual about that, I hope, because we don’t all do it. Some laugh when they’re embarrassed, apologetic, or confused, but not my brother; and if he were to, I’d hope it wouldn’t be my fault.

Laughter therapy

Medical researchers have shown laughter is good for dilating blood vessels, boosting the immune response, and reducing stress hormones. The thing I think is weird, if it’s true, is people gathering to try to laugh because it’s good for them, as if tickling my brother gave him immunity from something other than me.

Laugh tracks

Filming a TV show without a live audience and inserting canned laughter during post production was simpler and more effective. Producers believed, in the absence of audience reactions, viewers couldn’t tell the difference between a comedy and a drama, and wouldn’t know when to laugh. They said, when watching a show with others, you don’t need a laugh track, but if you’re sitting at home watching TV alone, the laugh track is reassuring and makes the show more fun because you feel as though you’re laughing with others. Although the laughter was constantly tweaked, it grew to be predictable. For me, it became tiresome. it wasn’t that I needed help knowing what was funny, it was that the so-called jokes weren’t funny to me.