What is humor? By Eduardo Angulo

This post is also available in: Spanish, Catalan

We laugh at a lot of things, even at some which aren’t funny. Just with this first sentence we have already posed many of the important questions to address when we talk about laughter: there is more than one type of laughter and we must look for the most primary one if we want to understand what this funny noise we make from time to time is; and, in second place, we laugh, though not always, when we find something funny, so laughter and sense of humor are related, one way or another.

Let’s start with laughter. First, let’s find out if we are the only species that laughs. If there’s some other species that does, we most look for it amongst the great apes, our closest relatives. If you tickle them, chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas emit sounds (who doesn’t remember Cheeta’s bursts of laughter in Tarzan’s movies) which, through sophisticated acoustical studies, can be shown to be similar to our laughter and, on top of that, to bear some philogenetic relationship to one another, including our species’.

Therefore, we aren’t the only ones who laugh. Maybe by finding out when and why the great apes laugh we could provide some hypothesis on its efficiency and utility from an evolutionary point of view. Some of laughter’s inconveniences are clear: it distracts from important objectives and it’s a loud sound which attracts predators. However, if all these species laugh, there must be some advantage: laughter transmits positive emotions, it’s contagious and it creates deep social ties within the group, and it frees from stress, helping to rest and to relax in the few save and hungerless moments that appear in the life of apes.

That would be the most ancient laughter, the basic one. Afterwards, our species has used laughter, almost unconsciously, to calm our kin with laughter and smiles in our daily lives. We have also invented what is sometimes called “the dark side” of laughter and we laugh at situations that we don’t find funny at all. In fact, in our species there isn’t a single culture without laughter even though, at an individual level, the variety in behavior is immense and we all know people who tend to laugh very little.

The relationship between laughter and sense of humor is obvious and, by the way, we also don’t know any culture without a sense of humor. It seems like the essential content of the humorous process is surprise, the unexpected, the incongruous, the unseemly, the incorrect,… Knowing the origin of humor and its evolutionary advantages are very controversial questions. In general, if laughter is beneficial and humor causes laughter, advantages of the former apply to the latter. On the other hand, the surprising component of humor we spoke of before, by creating unexpected reactions, fosters creativity and, thus and despite how serious we get when dealing with these matters, it fosters innovation in art, technology or science or, simply, in ways of life. I think humor and culture are, or should be, inseparable. For example, the sense of humor in our species’ male, that is, in man, has shown to be an important component in the search for a partner, in sex and the resulting reproductive success.

Let’s go back to humor and its enigmatic origin. Probably in its origin that typical element of surprised played an essential role. I can’t think of a better way to explain the surprising origin of humor than telling a story. Let’s imagine an ancient (let’s say two million years ago) group of ancestors, still between monkey and Homo. They’re resting, lying on the Savannah’s grass, it’s hot, they’ve eaten well and they’re relaxed, but one of them is always watching around, just in case. The watcher believes to have see a lion (or the equivalent predator from that time and place) and screams in alarm. They all wake up all of a sudden and get ready to run away. Then, the guardian realizes there’s no lion: he was wrong, maybe fooled by the movement of the grass with the breeze. To calm his mates down, he bursts in laughter, they all follow suit, calm down and return to their naps.

Maybe some thousands of years go by. In a similar situation, the watcher also falls asleep and dreams a lion is coming; without realizing, he screams in alarm, they all wake up and so does he and, again to calm the group down, he laughs and, maybe, thinks to himself he’s a bit of an ass.

Some more thousands of years go by. And the watcher, who sees all his friends lying on the ground amongst the grass, tells himself he’s going to have a bit of fun and, without any danger in sight, he screams in alarm. They all wake up and, just after that, the watcher bursts into laughter, not only to calm them down but also to mock them. They all laugh, because laughter is unconscious, they calm down and go back to sleep. And the watcher is not aware that he has “invented” humor.

You’ll ask yourself if it happened like that. I actually don’t know, but to my knowledge it could have.

See more papers from this author.

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