I went to Alan Davies stand-up comedy show the other night. Yes it was funny, really funny. Not just for me, everyone around me was chuckling and laughing aloud throughout the show. A couple of hours of humour does the old soul a lot of good and so was well worth the price of entry. Certainly more soul-uplifting than a night on the tiles.
It is only after I had returned to the sobriety of the outside world and tried to retell the jokes that made us all laugh so much, I recognised that there were no jokes. Joke telling is domain of Ronnie Corbett, “There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scot in a bar………….” which may make me smile slightly, but certainly never laugh with tears rolling down my cheeks. Jokes may be clever, sometimes, witty, sometimes but they are always contrived. And that is where they lose that side-splitting response.
The telling moment was when Alan was relaying a story from his childhood about how his father, with whom he apparently had a loveless relationship, responded to Alan spending an extravagant 85p on a tennis ball. Alan said, “if he had calmly explained that ‘while I know, Alan, that you have done what you thought was the right thing, the shopkeeper has taken advantage of you’, then I probably would not have become a comedian.” It was the actual, marginally-psychotic, response of his father that made for an hilarious, eye-watering recount for about ten minutes. The difference between being a comedian and not was in having had very unhappy experiences as a child and a loveless relationship with a neurotic father.
And there was the difference between the hilarious Alan Davies and the mildly amusing Ronnie Corbett. Alan Davies was somehow turning the unhappy aspects of his childhood into a lucrative career, bringing joy and hilarity to about 1500 Dunedinites. My seat at this event cost $69.90.
At its entry-level it is called self-deprecating humour. There are theories about why we enjoy this. Anthropologist, Gil Greengross published a study in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology in 2008 with the title: Dissing Oneself: The Sexual Attractiveness of Self-Deprecating Humour. This is based on a combination of two factors, a) that potential partners do not like you to brag, they like humility; but in being clever enough to find witty humour in your faults or misfortunes then you actually use a ‘minor’ fault or misfortune to demonstrate much more desirable attractions of intelligence and a sense of humour.
Another anthropologist, Kate Fox, says: “Pomposity and self-importance are outlawed. Serious matters can be spoken of seriously, but one must never take oneself too seriously… As long as everyone understands the rules, they are duly impressed both by one’s achievements and by one’s reluctance to trumpet them.”
It may be the reality, but the ‘why’ is confusing. Usually the law of natural selection would tell us the loudest-crowing cock gets the hens. But Sapiens breaks a lot of rules of nature. I must write about Yasal Harai’s book “Sapiens” sometime. But essentially Harari believes Sapiens has achieved its global dominance by creating cultural myths and beliefs to over-ride the laws of biology, for the purpose of achieving the unnatural mass co-operation; that is the reason for our global dominance. Not as heavy as it may sound at first, but I will go into in more detail another time.
But there is a big jump from impressing a potential partner to having an audience of hundreds or thousands of ticket-paying members tearing up in laughter at a sad or even tragic event. Alan started by building an empathy with the audience, mocking his issues of aging and getting moderately-seriously injured going through the traumas of child-rearing, (Such humour has its vaudeville roots in the good old custard pie in the face gag) before getting into the heavy stuff of recounting a loveless childhood with a neurotic father which is going a big emotional step further than being a little self-deprecating. This is not a forgivable character flaw, this is publicly exposing private, personal misfortune.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying “Humor is tragedy plus time.” Thats a bit like people getting through a tragedy saying “One day we will look back on this and laugh.” Conversely someone may respond “too soon” when a joke is told about a recent tragic event. So when we are significantly separated from a tragedy by time, geography, social status etc., a tragic event can be seen as funny. But still the question is ‘why? Why does someone else’s misfortune bring tears of joy and laughter to us’. Why do we quite happily part out with $69.90 to hear about someone else’s misfortunes and weep with laughter rather than weep with sadness?
Psychologists write a lot of psychobabble about laughter and phiosophers write a lot of Philocrap. As I can read it the modern consensus is based on studying our primate relations. Modern researchers conducting experiments with chimpanzees believe that, unlike traditional explanations from observers such as Plato, Aristotle and Freud who thought it was all about humour, the modern opinion is that primal laughter evolved as a signaling device to highlight readiness for friendly interaction.”
When Robert R. Provine tried applying his training in neuroscience to laughter in the late 1980’s years ago, he began by dragging people into his laboratory at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to watch episodes of “Saturday Night Live”. The people just didn’t laugh much at all.
So he went out into the streets and malls and recorded thousands of incidents where laughter was provoked. He found that 80 percent to 90 percent of them came after straight lines like “I know” or “I’ll see you later.” He also found that most speakers did more laughing than their listeners; that they used laughter just to break up their sentences. It is actually a largely involuntary process. “ Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. “We’re dealing with something powerful, ancient and crude. It’s a kind of behavioral fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.”
Professor Provine and associate Professor Panksepp determined from their studies that the first primate joke — that is, the first action to produce a laugh without physical contact — was the feigned tickle, the same kind of coo-chi-coo move parents make when they thrust their wiggling fingers at a baby. Professor Panksepp thinks the brain has ancient wiring to produce laughter so that young animals learn to play with one another. The laughter stimulates euphoria circuits in the brain and also reassures the other animals that they’re playing, not fighting.Professor Panksepp says. “Sophisticated social animals such as mammals need an emotionally positive mechanism to help create social brains and to weave organisms effectively into the social fabric.” Their conclusion is that laughter is a social lubricant and that who and what you laugh at reveals your spot in the social pecking order.
That did not quite fit with my feeling about why we were all laughing so hard as Alan Davies recounted the dramas and misfortunes he has experienced in life and his “Little Victories” (as the performance was entitled) over these misfortunes. This was no social lubricant with either Alan Davies or with any of the rest of the audience as I had no intention of socialising with any of them. Nor do I buy in to the Provine/ Pankskepp natural extension that mature Sapiens specimens are as simple minded as monkeys and babies who guffaw at pretend tickles. It may of course simply be that Sapiens has evolved as the most dominant species on the planet because essentially we are a cruel, nasty species which is genetically encoded to take enormous pleasure in others misforunes, but I do not wish to believe that as I am speaking of my own species.
So I will propose my own theory. Because we have all suffered misfortune, we can empathise with the comedian who has suffered his own particular misfortune. But the comedian also has the strength and courage to stand before 1500 strangers and actually mock his own unhappy memories. So when we cheer him loudly at the end, we are cheering and celebrating his spirit in challenging his adversity, and in so doing, defeating the forces that conspire to break our human spirit. We applaud that he has the strength of character to publicly expose his misfortunes rather than allow them to eat him from the inside. We share in his triumph. We laugh with him, not at him. For in a mature Sapiens, laughter is the ultimate challenge to the forces of adversity and, as such, is the best medicine for the human spirit.