Mini-Feature: On Humor and Laughter

Is a sense of humor a byproduct of consciousness or something else entirely?

Humor is a direct outgrowth of the ability to reason in the broadest sense—which is not only the ability to perceive the parts of the world from the fuzzy whole, but to be able to combine, compare, and contrast them in a mind. 

Aristotle was correct and instructive about this: humor arises from the discrepancy between what should be and what is, or what is and what should be. Humor comes from the juxtaposition between incongruous things or extremes: from the flies in the ointment, from the cracks and the tensions that reason perceives in the world. Human humor is often about the fact that we are creatures of middle earth: part animal, part something else. We can create beautiful things and philosophize yet we also have sex and must defecate. The highest form of humor is perhaps the sort of joy that comes from a kind of overabundance of flowing goodness that every so often leaps forth from the world, or is every so often felt or observed, seemingly from low to high.

The best humorists, as is commonly observed, are close observers of human nature with a keen ability to communicate these discrepancies in an arresting manner. They note how people and things are, and how this is different than what we might wish people and things to be. I don't think it an accident that humorists are often themselves tragic figures. They have all the usual problems and insecurities of performers seeking an audience, which is hard and abnormal enough, but—no offense—they are usually much smarter in various ways than most performers. On top of performing, their work is often based on intense observation of reality as it is. And "humankind cannot bear very much reality."

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


Many conscious creatures, individual people included, are largely if not one hundred percent humorless, not that, strictly speaking, this is an inherently bad thing. Complicating matters, laughter alone is not exactly a pure expression of what we call humor, which now means something different still from either good or bad humor. It seems inevitable from the standpoint of logic that consciousness is required to be conscious of funniness, even in a non-reflexive sort of way. 

This mental exercise may feel like a parlor game, but as more scientists close in on their secret (?) desire to use robots to clone human parts and grow sentient entities in the lab, we will need to have a more robust understanding of why it might be important to stop them.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


Humor is fairly basic to human being. It’s hard to imagine any society without jokes, even if we wouldn’t get them. Topical matter aside, there are probably formal differences among cultures in terms of how they structure jokes. 

Humor is universal but comedy is particular. Shakespeare, for instance, was probably very funny for his contemporary audience, but I always suspect anyone who claims they laugh at Shakespeare of lying. I can appreciate the humor intellectually but I just don’t believe anyone who busts a gut watching Twelfth Night or The Merry Wives of Windsor

Jesus wept but never laughed—more evidence that what constitutes tragedy is more generally recognized than what’s funny. But the humor function certainly seems integral to human beings—that’s why it’s ranked among the senses. Someone can have a fine sense of smell or sense of humor, but we don’t say that someone weeping at a funeral has a “great sense of tragedy.”

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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Another way of getting to the same question—a more roundabout way, but also potentially more revealing—would be to ask whether there is laughter in heaven, and if so at what. “Comedy tries to represent men as worse than they presently are.” Thus Aristotle (Poetics 1448a), implying that we laugh at things which fall beneath the expectations we have of the world. Failure is funny: witness the hilarious Buzzfeed lists of baking misadventures which inspired the show Nailed It. Ineptitude is also funny; so, unfortunately but inescapably, are inadequacies both physical and moral. 

All this suggests that there will be no more laughter when there are no more tears—when nothing falls short and all is made perfect in heaven, maybe nothing will be funny anymore. But that would make for a curiously dreary and bloodless paradise. If humor is a reaction to the fall, what are we to make of the fact that laughter is itself a good, and it would grieve us to part with it?  

Men become friends by ribbing each other; the trash talk of the locker room is tacitly a consolation for the inescapable fact that none of us is as good, strong, or noble as he would like to be. But what a consolation it is: if becoming perfect meant I would lose the deep bonds of brotherhood that come from mocking one another over flaws, I would forego the perfection and choose the brotherhood.  

This is the strange paradox of the fallen world, expressed by Joseph in mercy toward his brothers for selling him into bondage: “ye thought evil against me, but God meant it unto good.” Once that divine transaction is made, we are loath to part with the new and poignant bliss of which the memory of pain is an inextricable component. There is no counterfactual, no going back: this world of falling short is our world, and the laughter it involves produces in us such native affection that we can hardly imagine a good life without it. 

But then, in his one eternal act of creation, God saw and accepted all of what would be: our betrayal, our miseries, and the good for which he would use them both. If in that moment he determined to forgive the betrayal and put an end to the miseries, perhaps he also accepted and upheld those mysterious blessings which we enjoy on our pilgrimage through the valley of death. In the moment of creation God knew our fall and our frailty, he knew how he would answer it, in which case I must imagine there was laughter at the making of the world. 

Here is the answer, then, to the question “what is laughter?” When we laugh, we echo and partake in a divine response to the fall—a wild abandon of joy which defies sorrow. If this response is divine, it is eternal, and will be there in the final answer when grief and death are swallowed up forever. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind