A funny thing about laughter

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McGill Reporter
October 19, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 04
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > October 19, 2000 > A funny thing about laughter

Funny thing about laughter

A small yet telling moment occured halfway through Dr. Jonathan Miller's lecture last Thursday. Tweed jacket draped across the table, reading glasses swinging from his neck, Miller looked every bit the Cambridge scholar as he led the audience through a "parsing" of a classic Peter Cook comedy sketch.

Photo Jonathan Miller
PHOTO: Owen Egan

But first, some background. Jonathan Miller was already a physician when his career path was forever warped by the "cataclysmic success" of Beyond The Fringe, the seminal 1960s satirical stage show he founded with Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett.

Schooled in both medicine and comedy, Miller has thought a lot about "this apparently functionless outburst, this peculiar noise that I sought from an audience."

Hunger reminds us to eat, he reasons, and sex is pleasurable so as to ensure propagation of the species. So what is the "biological value" of laughter? "If you're curious about how things work," he remarked at the beginning of the talk, "laughter is unfinished business."

Back to the show. Miller launched into the late comedian's sketch about an elderly man recalling paths taken during his lifetime. "I could've been a judge," he announces, then waits a perfect beat. "But I didn't have the Latin." The crowd roars. Miller breaks character. Rubbing his hands together, dipping at the knees in delight, he asks, "Now, why does that make us laugh?"

In the minutes following, Miller switches seamlessly between heady theorizing about "categorical mistakes" and "cognitive versatility" (engaging, among many, the ideas of theorists Gilbert Ryle and Erving Goffman) and Cook's hilarious monologue about the absurd differences between life in the courtroom and that in the coal mine.

He suggests that humour's function may be to turn our gaze inward to matters of language and thought process.

"It is important to have our minds refreshed," he says, not necessarily to arrive at any grand conclusions, but to "ventilate the mind a little bit."

Most impressively, his analysis is just as crisp and funny as the jokes themselves, encompassing everything from Proust ("one of the great comic writers") to New Yorker cartoons to debunking the old laughter-as-best-medicine chestnut ("I'd prefer the wilder exesses of chemotherapy to Robin Williams").

Then came that moment. Returning to Cook's court/coal juxtapositions, Miller paused for a second and, almost to himself, said, "Now, I'm not even entirely sure why this next bit works..."

That's the rub. For as much as one can, to use Miller's phrase, "parse" a comedic text, there will always be an ineffable quality, something wonderfully elusive that trails after "the pleasure of 'Eureka!'"

Humour deconstruction is a tangential curve that approaches, but never fully reaches, the "why." This may explain why, despite the theorizing and reverse-engineering, Miller still takes such obvious pleasure in humour. He practically cracked himself up recalling a vintage Jack Benny radio bit, to cite one of many examples from the course of the evening, and his affection for Cook's coal miner ignites the room.

Miller calls his theories "very provisional. They don't seem to hold up in every case. I'm always suspicious of grand theoreticians of humour -- humour is too subtle and complicated. You can parse the works and begin to see, 'This has this particular form,' but..."

Further, he has no suggestions as to what makes some people funnier than others. "Some people just are funny," he said with a shrug that recalled his spark of intangible delight during the Peter Cook sketch, that moment when pleasure quietly trumped science. "It's a form of what the Germans would call a Weltanschauung, a way of seeing. You either have it or you don't."

There is, however, one thing Miller is certain about. (Well, two things if you count his cutting assertion that "the notion of humour as an analgesic is meaningless, and there are few more hideous films than Life Is Beautiful.")

"The analysis should be as funny as the jokes are," he insists. "There's no point doing it unless you can be funny in doing it."

Miller's presentation was sponsored by the Beatty Memorial Lecture Series.

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