chapter  8
15 Pages

mechanisms of laughter: the devices of slapstick tom gunning

The antithesis between theory and laughter, reflection and guffaws endures. Certain theories, such as Benchley’s, may make us laugh, but we have little confidence that laughter can explain itself. More importantly, it isn’t obvious that laughter needs to be explained – laughter just is. To

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explain laughter seems to be destructive of its effect. This opposition between laughter and explanation goes beyond the belief that many have that poetry, or perhaps art in general, can never be completely explicated, or the broader claim that explication of an affect cannot, indeed should not, attempt to mime the affect it explains. But the antithesis between laughter and explication goes deeper. The forms dedicated to producing laughter – jokes, gags, comic situations – are understood as nonsense, profoundly and fundamentally a reversal and undermining of sense, logic, or explanation. Comedy as a narrative or dramatic genre can, of course, be considered separately from laughter. The enduring narrative structures of comedy often involve the establishment or restoration of order (usually through the formation of a romantic couple, or the creation of a new society based on youthful pleasure), rather than simply the overturning of conventions and rules of reason. This pattern is often traced back to New Comedy, and has a long history, including its melding with forms of Romance, its development by dramatists such as Shakespeare and Gozzi, or filmmakers like Cukor, Hawks, and Capra. Further, the analysis of the comic mode or genre by critics and philosophers like Northrop Frye and Stanley Cavell has produced something that could be called a philosophy of comedy.2 But if we turn to the micro-level, less the narrative structures than the devices of comedy, its building blocks and laugh-getters – gags, jokes, pratfalls, grimaces, the costume and make-up of clowns, sight gags, and burlesque actions – then the logic of destruction rather than construction predominates. Philosopher Henri Bergson related laughter to the mechanical being engrafted onto the living. Life, Bergson claimed, was supple and organic, and mechanical actions violated these qualities. Laughter operates as a social censure, ridiculing such unnatural behavior.3 I want to explore Bergson’s insight that a relation exists between laughter and the mechanical separately from his theoretical explanation of that relation. As a theorist, I have become increasingly suspicious of the drive to provide a single explanation for a complex phenomenon with multiple determinants. Bergson’s explanation of the phenomenon of laughter as an expression of an impulse to overcome the mechanical and inert aspects of human behavior in favor of the flexible and vital displays this sort of singular focus. However, Bergson’s essay highlights the affinity that gags and jokes have with the mechanical. In a previous essay on early film comedy and gags I claimed that gags could be thought of as machines that produce nothing other than a process that destroys itself – crazy machines.4 Crazy machines are complex devices that appear rationally designed to achieve a purpose, but suddenly and comically assert a counter-will of their own, thwarting the purpose of the protagonist (who thereby becomes a comedian). Gags are devices that explode, collapse, or fail in some spectacular

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manner. The self-destructing machine provides a vivid image of the dynamics of a gag. A structural analysis of gags and jokes (and therefore not only visual gags) might best describe them as an unexpected undermining of an apparent purpose, a detouring, if not derailing, of a rational system of discourse or action. The gag suddenly interrupts, or radically redefines, the apparent predictability of an action or system, leaving its original goals shattered and in tatters. This formulation reflects the most profound philosophical discussion of laughter I am aware of, from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment of 1790: “Laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing.”5 For Kant, laughter results when a determined sense of purpose and system becomes suddenly destroyed. Kant offers the image of the burst bubble: “the bubble of our expectation was extended to the full and suddenly went off into nothing.”6 A sudden unexpected physical response can generate laughter as well as a crazy machine. Noël Carroll’s claim that Edison’s 1894 Record of a Sneeze, arguably the first motion picture, recorded a gag seems inspired by Kant’s description.7 Indeed, one immediately sees why cartoonist (and early film animator) Winsor McCay selected the character Little Sammy Sneeze, a child subject to sudden and unpredictable fits of sneezing, as the basis for one of his greatest comic strips – in each strip the hapless Sammy triggers disasters (from upsetting his father’s checkers game to stampeding elephants in a circus parade) by sneezing at inopportune moments.8 Kant himself describes laughter as a psycho-physiological reaction, in which the body and mind operate like a machine breaking down:

The mind looks back in order to try it over again, and thus by a rapidly succeeding tension and relaxation it is jerked to and fro and put in oscillation. As the snapping of what was, as it were, tightening up the string takes place suddenly (not by a gradual loosening), the oscillation must bring about a mental movement and a sympathetic internal movement of the body.9