Thursday, October 20, 2005


A friend sent me this morning via e-mail a funny video clip showing various people falling down or being accidentally hit (e.g., a father being hit in the groin by his toddler daughter). After I finished watching the video clip, I started wondering why I found this funny. After all, I’m laughing at someone’s misfortune or pain. Why is this funny?

Some Thoughts:
1) These people are not being hurt in any serious or permanent way. At most they are getting some bruises or pain that will last a couple of minutes. The pain they are experiencing may not even be physical so much as mental—such as humiliation. If they were seriously hurt, I doubt that I would find it funny.
2) The people shown on the clip look awkward or silly in some manner. For example, a woman wearing a skirt does a forward roll down a slide and you see her underwear. A woman ice skating backwards falls into a boat prop on the ice rink “stage” and looks surprised and confused as the boat goes sailing across the ice with her in it.
3) Could the laughter be coming from a sense of relief that I am glad it is not me that this is happening too at the moment? We’ve all experienced at some point in our lives times when we did something that looked ridiculous or made us feel humiliated, embarrassed, or uncomfortable. Perhaps seeing a similar event causes us to react physiologically out of remembrance and relief. Instead of being expressed as a sigh of relief the exhalation is altered into a laugh?
4) Could there be some sadism underneath as a motive why we laugh? Do we find other people’s misfortune amusing as long as they are not seriously hurt out of some unconscious mild cruelty?
5) What people find funny differs. An overtly mean person may genuinely find it funny that a person slips on a sidewalk and cracks their head open. Some people find bawdy humor highly funny while other people find it crude or threatening.
6) When we say about a person, “She has a good sense of humor,” what we really mean is that she has a sense of humor similar to ours. We find many of the same things funny. The phrase can also means that she is a funny person to us or appreciates humor we appreciate.
7) We often laugh about things that are in fact quite serious or make us uncomfortable, or we have anxiety over: sex, burps, farts, defecation, attraction, rejection, disappointment, pain, etc. Notice from the brief list here that many of the items have to do with the body or are about physical or mental pain in some way.

The subjects of humor and laughter remind me of an observation about jokes. The punch line of a joke often works because the joke is going along on a predictable level, and then there is this felt drop (like a trap door opening beneath us) into another level of meaning, or there’s a surprise twist that we did not expect. This “gasp” of surprise is expressed as laughter.

Humor and laughter seem to be such uniquely human traits.


At 9:49 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

I have always thought it boiled down to the following:

"It's funny because it's not me."

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Gerald Huml said...

I think that may indeed be the bottom line.


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