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Biting, whipping, tickling

The following is an extract from Comedy: A Very Short Introduction, by Matthew Bevis. It explores the relationship between laughter and aggression.

‘Laughter is men’s way of biting,’ Baudelaire proclaimed. The sociologist Norbert Elias offered a rejoinder: ‘He who laughs cannot bite.’ So does laughter embody or diffuse aggression? One theory, offered by the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, is that the laugh may be an aborted cry of concern, a way of announcing to a group that there has been a false alarm. The smile could operate in a similar way: when one of our ancestral primates saw another individual from a distance, he perhaps initially bared his canines as a threatening grimace before recognizing the individual as friend, not foe. So his grimace was abandoned halfway to produce a smile, which in turn may have evolved into a ritualized human greeting. Another researcher, Robert Provine, notes that chimp laughter is commonly triggered by physical contact (biting or tickling) or by the threat of such contact (chasing games) and argues that the ‘pant-pant’ of apes and the ‘ha-ha’ of humans evolved from the breathlessness of physical play. This, together with the show of teeth necessitated by the play face, has been ritualized into the rhythmic pant of the laugh. Behind the smile, then, may lie a socialized snarl; and behind the laugh, a play fight. But behind both of these facial expressions lie real snarls and real fights.

People often claim to be ‘only joking’, but many a true word is spoken in jest. Ridicule and derision are both rooted in laughter (from ridere, to laugh). The comic may loiter with shady intent on the borders of aggression; ‘a joke’, Aristotle suggested, ‘is a kind of abuse’. And comedy itself can be abused as well as used—racist and sexist jokes point to its potential cruelty. As Waters says of Price’s stand-up act in Trevor Griffiths’s The Comedians (1975): ‘Love, care, concern, call it what you like, you junked it over the side.’ Comedy is clearly at home in the company of insults, abuse, curses, and diatribes, but the mode can also lend an unusual inflection to these utterances. From Greek iambi to the licensed raillery of the Roman Saturnalia, from Pete and Dud on the implications of being called a fucking cunt to the game of The Dozens, in which numerous aspersions are cast upon Yo Mama’s character, something strange happens to aggression when it is stylized or performed. W. H. Auden pondered choreographed exchanges of insult—from Old English flyting to the modern-day exchanges of truck drivers— and observed that ‘the protagonists are not thinking about each other but about language and their pleasure in employing it inventively … Playful anger is intrinsically comic because, of all emotions, anger is the least compatible with play.’ From this perspective, comedy is the moment at which outrage becomes outrageous. Some kinds of ferocity can be delectable.

‘Playful anger’ sounds like a contradiction in terms, yet in Plato’s Philebus, Socrates notes ‘the curious mixture of pleasure and pain that lies in the malice of amusement’. Descartes suggests in The Passions of The Soul (1649) that ‘Derision or scorn is a sort of joy mingled with hatred.’ This chapter examines such curious mixtures and minglings of feeling by considering modes of comedy that seem to have a target in their sights—versions of satire, mock-heroic, parody, and caricature. We might turn first to the satirist; Walter Benjamin identified him as ‘the figure in whom the cannibal was received into civilization’. So the satirist is at once savage and civilized; he cuts us up after having been granted permission (perhaps even encouraged) to take that liberty. What is it, then, that we need this cannibal to do for us? The satirist, it would initially appear, is the comedian who allows audiences to join him on a mission. Satire is a scourge of vice, a spur to virtue; Horace imagines his ideal listener as ‘baring his teeth in a grin’. So far so good, but the listener may also get bitten from time to time: ‘What are you laughing at?’ the poet asks us, ‘Change the name and you are the subject of the story.’ Indeed, as Hamlet would later quip, ‘use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?’

Image credit: Business team laughing, © YanC, via iStock Photo.

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  1. […] Press argues that laughter and aggression might have more in common than we usually think with an excerpt from Comedy, Matthew Bevis’s contribution to their series of Very Short Introductions. Bevis […]

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