Friday 1 August 2008


Laughter can be, should be, a joyful, heart-lifting sound - spontaneous, helpless, infectious, the expression of a heart surprised by joy. But another kind - loud, aggressive and entirely mirthless - is gaining ground. From the offensive, in-your-face guffawing of louts in the street to the corporate braying of executives and hoorays, this is laughter as chest-beating self-assertion, as territorial marking, as a kind of weapon. It has little or nothing to do with being amused, still less with being in possession of that increasingly rare commodity, a sense of humour. Rather it's another symptom of the coarsening disinhibition of public behaviour, of the aggressive edge that the most basic social negotiations seem to be acquiring, of the advance, I fear, of stupidity in all its ugly forms... Happily, though, real laughter still thrives alongside its travesty, and there are still, thank God, reasons to be cheerful.


  1. When I was toiling before the mast I always felt that loud, braying laughter executive stylee was all about fear, and behind the aggression there was fear too. the psycho in charge can chop the suits any time he feels like it, and they know it. As you say, real laughter is joyous and is nothing to do with this.

  2. True mark, I always found that behind forced laughter there is insecurity, remember that horrific video of Saddams purging of his understrappers, the end laughter was contrived, putting it mildly. I prefer smiles, Frau Maltys dissipates clouds, mine just exaggerates the wrinkles, my daughters brings the house down, my sons has me checking the contents of the bottle of Talisker.

  3. If you read up about humor and its history, you will find that the dichotomy between happy laughter and what I'll call "superiority" laughter is non-existent. Most theorists suppose that laughter was originally a physical response to danger, an aggressive response to that a threat, with bared teeth being an ambiguous sign to scare off potential enemies. If we switch to Sigmund Freud - still one of the best thinkers on the topic - we find that all humor has an ulterior motive of sorts. Of course there's a difference between humor and the bodily response of "laughter." Most people who have been thinking about this for some time are agreed about laughter's aggressive potential. I would suggest that what you recognize is nothing new. It would be useful if far more people thought seriously about the real work done by humor and laughter.