January 12, 2009

PRETTY NEARLY THE ONLY HONEST MOMENTS IN YOUR DAY:

LAUGHTER IS THE WORST MEDICINE (Mikita Brottman, Ph.D, September 16, 2008, Film in Focus)

Even since Aristotle, for whom tragedy, not comedy, was the superior genre, writers and philosophers from Hobbes and Bergson to Darwin and Freud have pondered the ambiguous dynamics of laughter. To Hobbes, laughter was "sudden glory" – with the clear connotation of crowning glee, especially at another's downfall. Bergson, in his well-known book on the subject, asserted that laughter "always implies a secret or unconscious... unavowed intention to humiliate and consequently to correct our neighbor, if not in his will, at least in his deed." Darwin remarked on the close connection between the fit of laughter and the flow of tears, and Freud regarded laughter as a release which occurs when some experience or observation hits on repressed material, and the psychic energy diverted to the task of repression becomes, for a second, superfluous.

Going back to the movies, comedy differs from other genres in that, for its success, it is uniquely audience dependent, just as an untold joke is not—structurally, at least— really a joke. In fact, the success of blockbuster movie comedies depends to a large extent on the amount of audience laughter they can provoke on first release, with the ideal response, theoretically, being a constant wave of unanimous, uninterrupted laughter. I think the reason why such films are only successful when viewed with a large audience is, at least in part, because this kind of laughter neutralizes individuality, reducing the individual capacity to sit in judgment. An audience that has been weakened and disabled by laughter is an audience that has been made impotent—infantilized, even—and thereby rendered incapable of disapproval.

This neutralizing of the audience then allows the comedy to function as a form of cultural disavowal, a socially acceptable safety valve for the expression of what otherwise cannot be said openly. Naturally, there is a great deal of relief to be derived from expressing concealed truths, and yet this relief occurs, paradoxically, because we laugh loudest and with most abandon at that which, albeit at an unconscious level, makes us most uncomfortable and apprehensive.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 12, 2009 9:12 PM
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