Why we laugh
From Gene Weingarten’s “The Peekaboo Paradox: The strange secrets of humor, fear and a guy who makes big money making little people laugh” (The Washington Post: 22 January 2006):
Even before they respond to a tickle, most babies will laugh at peekaboo. It’s their first “joke.” They are reacting to a sequence of events that begins with the presence of a familiar, comforting face. Then, suddenly, the face disappears, and you can read in the baby’s expression momentary puzzlement and alarm. When the face suddenly reappears, everything is orderly in the baby’s world again. Anxiety is banished, and the baby reacts with her very first laugh.
At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.
This point has been made by experts ranging from Richard Pryor to doctoral candidates writing tedious theses on the ontol-ogical basis of humor. Any joke, any amusing observation, can be deconstructed to fit. The seemingly benign Henny Youngman one-liner, “Take my wife . . . please!” relies in its heart on an understanding that love can become a straitjacket. By laughing at that recognition, you are rising above it, and blunting its power to disturb.
After the peekaboo age, but before the age of such sophisticated understanding, dwells the preschooler. His sense of humor is more than infantile but less than truly perceptive. He comprehends irony but not sarcasm. He lacks knowledge but not feeling. The central fact of his world — and the central terror to be overcome — is his own powerlessness.