The Story of Laughter

A not-so-funny recollection of laughter and humour

When was the last time you laugh so hard that your gut hurts? That kind of ache is what Bob Marley would say about music—when it hits you, you feel no pain. Above all, who would not want to laugh like that, like an ass once in a while?

One of my friends, her brother told her if they open her head, they will see four asses standing in there; obviously because she is so smart. I got hiccups laughing over it.

If you believe in Darwin, imagine the first animal that had giggled and cackled for the first time: it could have been anyone, a Neanderthal boy who just saw a couple of asses having sex near his cave, making those piercing sexy-assy sounds; or it could have been a Peking girl who found out tickling is literally rib-tickling. It could have been anyone though evolutionary scientists believe Homo ergaster had arrived two million years earlier than Homo neanderthalensis (the Neanderthal boy’s relatives) but you get my point. 

Experts on humour—ironically in the most sober ways or rather taking the greatest pain—have been exploring this topic for some time now. Nobody would expect that a simple question as to why we laugh can be more complicated than a Burmese language. Somehow the specialists reached a common ground and agreed that the secret of this whole monkey business of humour lies in the concept of mock-aggressive play that we see among the apes. In ‘English’, mock-aggressive play refers to the kind of aggression, mostly done in jest sans the intention of causing harm; for example, tickling and wrestling for fun that are found in human beings too. Then they started making speculation, some of which are verifiable, some not.


If you are a fan of George Carlin, Oja Tolhan and Russell Peters, then you know their USP lies in their jape to make others laugh. By the way, their prehistoric ancestors would have been bad hunters: never taking things seriously and above all, being a nuisance with their tittle-tattle. Imagine their friends taking cover, or concealing themselves in a bush to catch a deer or a pig and these people started cutting a joke. From that day onwards, little was talked and discussed about laughing until a couple of centuries ago.  

So back in those days, the prehistoric ancestors were always discouraged, and to a certain extent, they would only rely on their mock-aggressive plays to wind up after a hard day’s work. We can see more of this kind of behaviour among boys and men though it is a sort of animal thing; a monkey thing found among many mammals to be precise. I usually do it to my cousin’s kids but sometimes they would beat me with their presence of mind. I can prove all the kids, especially the boys, are monkeys. I only wish their mothers do not hear what I’m saying about their supposedly precious chil...monkeys. 

gelatology     the study of humour and laughter, and their effects on our mind and the body

Every culture and society has its own ways of laughing but little was known about it until recently. Throughout history, the companies of Plato and Aristotle had written about Athens to Zeus. People led by their horny kings across the globe had constructed the buildings and monuments of wonder. Also, scientific-tempered people have been burning the proverbial midnight oil to make the high school students suffer, with rot learning their formulas and laws and theories. However, not many people have ever tried to know, or study what’s all behind the jokes and tales and funny stories that pain our gut and facial muscles blissfully. 

Yet, don’t you think it’s one of the best things we can see in other people? Besides, we like to be around our friends who have great sense of humour; it is enjoying, funny, worthwhile; and they seem to have this magic of getting rid of all our pain, at least for the moments when we are with them. However, to repeat again, all the areas of interest were the bland politics, how the people should conquer others with the Art of War, the one-sided histories and the scientific inventions that has enabled the human beings to call themselves as the most intelligent animal and what not—everything but the reasons behind laughter in particular and humour in general.

Truth be told, the experts were wary of people who considered that laughter is the best medicine. As a proof we can see it from ancient history and cite the example of Plato. He was a master of all but he looked down on this special human quality and some animals to laugh their hearts out. The philosopher viewed that such humour and laughter demeans our logical thinking as a human being. No wonder he professed that poetry only appeals to the most useless and pathetic part of our soul while making us a slave to reality. He even went to the extent of preaching that the ideas of communism necessitated everybody to live in a commune without private ownership of anything and to share their wives and their monkeys, oops, their children. Mao Tse-tung was not impressed with these ideas so he had to redefine it with a little help from Marx and Lenin.   

Laughing like a langur

Essentially what Plato was saying means that in general case, we laugh at others, which the Germans know it as ‘schadenfreude’. According to a dictionary definition it is the pleasure we derive from another person’s misfortune. In other instances, such an activity lessens our self-control or so was it considered. Plato was stuck in these ideas and he had a lot more other things to meditate on, as in penning the Republics, Phaedo, Statesmen, Symposium and Apology and so on. The great philosopher even justified that such a person who used humour and laughter should never be given citizenship. Citizenship, it meant a lot during those days when the Greeks had an epiphany about democracy.

On another level, consider the faiths of Islam and Christianity in this context. We do know Christianity was an old pain in the ass that diverted from Islam just like Sikhism and Buddhism are from Hinduism, but its core ideology is no different. Like what the American Christians are now, the Muslims were once a superpower. It’s, so to say, just a matter of time. However history is a witness to fact that some societies around the medieval period, regardless of their different divine creators and powers, would even go to the extent of banning comedies on the ground of ethics. But now, look how funny they sound when they speak so seriously.

All’s not lost though. Psychologists, philosophers, ethologists and evolutionary scientists are peeping when we are laughing. Such a common occurrence as laughing ought to have a set of similarities but the reality tells a different story. This gave rise to the formulation of several theories to explain the phenomenon. We can only study if these theories are relevant or not. However, with or without the scientific theories, I’d suggest that we keep laughing no matter what.

The theory of laughing like a langur

Taking cues from the Plato & Co, several Western thinkers came up with the idea of the Superiority Theory. It deals with the idea that we laugh mostly over another’s misfortune or weakness. If we take into account of the human nature, this kind of laughing response indicates our sense of superiority above the people to whom we laugh at.

If the side is changed and we are laughed at, we feel a sense of losing importance; well that’s human nature. But this is just one aspect because we do not always laugh, but rather become depressed like we feel when we consider the plight of a place like Imphal. Besides, this theory does not hold good in cases like a laughter riot created by George Carlin. Also, modern humorists claim that the ability to laugh at our own stupidity once in a while is the first step in developing a good sense of humour. So there is no question of superiority, inferiority or comparison at all.

Nobody laughs at the Superiority Theory, but some of the mortals did see the shortcomings in this hypothesis and came up with other propositions such as the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory. Both of them are slightly similar on the basis of getting respite that laughter offers us. Sigmund Freud suggested that, according to the Relief Theory, laughter breaks down the nervous energy inside us and produces a kind of psychic energy, which elevates our sense of pleasure. This is also the one of the bases on which today’s medical specialists say that laughter improves our immune system. 

In the Incongruity Theory, thinkers like Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer theorised that laughter and humour are a sudden result of the incongruity or absurdity of what we expect and what we get in reality—or what we expected and what we experienced. In Kant’s word, laughter arises ‘from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing’.

For Schopenhauer, it owes to the delight of seeing sudden relations between ideas. In our case, it is best exemplified in our desire to make our elected representatives speak directly to New Delhi while, despite being a Great Rambo and Rocky in the town, they metamorphose into deaf and dumb insects, except in those meetings where funds and grants are involved. We say, in our native expression, that we are confused whether we should laugh or cry.   

All of these theories, however, are not all-inclusive; in fact they explain only the parts of the whole. For instance, the Superiority Theory might well establish the concept of ‘schadenfreude’ but it is spineless when we consider the cases of incongruity. Likewise, the Relief Theory does not explain the ideas behind the delight of puns to take an example. Similarly, the Incongruity Theory also does not hold in those areas where the Superiority Theory stands good.

To overcome these inadequacies, psychologists, philosophers and other specialists have formulated the Benign Violation Theory and the Mechanical Theory. First introduced by a linguist, Tom Veatch, the Benign Violation Theory suggests that humour occurs when a situation is a violation however it is benign (kind and caring). Simultaneously there is an awareness of both the benign and violation element. Tickling which is intimidating yet harmless is the perfect example. On the other hand, the humour ceases if the violation does not appear to be benign or it is too benign to be considered as a violation.

The Mechanical Theory is based on the unbending nature/habit or rather the idiosyncrasy of an individual. This might explain why Kaboklei Inaocha with his rib-tickling ‘Dasanihey’ remark was so hilarious in Yaishkulgi Pakhang Angaoba or how the Suppandi tales never fail to amuse us even if we know what is coming from them. Yet, as mentioned earlier, not any of these theories explain everything behind the scene. Perhaps we can depend on the Theory of Everything; for only when we know exactly why we exist then we might comprehend all the funny, not-so-funny, ordinary, extraordinary and plain serious things per se. 

The ideas behind the theory of laughing like a langur

Let me begin with an example. Fake encounters are quite common in my hometown. Sometimes when we talk about the death, you can imagine the air of grave concern or anything severe. In that moment, suppose someone blurts out that the policemen had found a grenade in the wallet of the victim. Actually it happens—not that the victim really had the grenade in his wallet but that the police would report it that way, because in any case they had had an encounter and the awards for killing people are too simply too hard to resist.

Experts, who study human character, term the condition of inserting tales of grenade-in-the-wallet amidst the condolences and seriousness as a play signal. They consider that the oldest play signals in humans are in the form of grinning and laughing. These signals, again, imply the readiness of social play, which in turn is a phenomenon of animal cognition that we can observe in the communication process among various mammals. We have inherited it from the apes.

According to these experts, mock-aggression—mentioned in the beginning of this write-up—is also our oldest social play. This explains so well on one side, why one of my aunts, while laughing, she hits all the people around her; and on the other, that we evolve from the apes. Run behind a kid as if you are chasing him/her and just see how s/he soon explodes into laughing. Monkeys, mothers, monkeys!

To cut the long story short, human beings deeply believe in the fraternity of apes, primates, monkeys and the people. We belong to the same stock. The only difference between us and them is that all of them ‘never’ learn how to say ‘mock aggression’ but we had not only mastered it but we are as well accustomed to laugh back or simply ignore it as the situation demands. Evolutionary science tells us that our erect posture is also one of the factors how we began to laugh not like a langur but more like a human being. Earlier it was a sort of panting and breathing, which is still found among our modern monkey brothers. That’s why some specialists also maintain laughing is a primitive form of vocalisation.

One of the products of our modern world in this field is the rise of laughter clubs. The members would not even joke but simple laugh like Herodotus’ mad men or women. The rise of these clubs is credited to an Indian physician, Madan Kataria who started such a club for the first time in the mid Nineties. It is based on a couple of premises: firstly, that we cannot be happy for a reason, which can be taken away so we need to be happy and laugh for no particular reason. Secondly, the laughter club is riding on the benefits of laughing as in alleviating pain and feel-good factors plus the other physical and medical advantages that we get from laughter. Join a laughter club if you want to get a hands-on experience. 


When we learn to drive a vehicle, it is not mandatory to know how the machines and systems in the vehicle work. So is the case with laughter. We can simply laugh it off and it is inessential to know what Plato and Sigmund Freud had professed about the related topics. You lose nothing from the ignorance; however if you know at least how the radiators or the spark plugs work, you are somehow in control of the vehicle and the mechanic would not be able to fleece you. That’s the idea of this write-up. Knowledge is as important as laughter; still what is more important is not knowing but laughing like an ass once in a while. After all, we are not that rational that we claim to be but that’s no issue because nobody knows except human beings. Laugh and live a life to the fullest.

Reading list

•    Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic by Henri Bergson (via Project Gutenberg
•    The Essays Of Arthur Schopenhauer (via Project Gutenberg
•    The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde (via Project Gutenberg
•    PG Wodehouse’s works
•    Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
•    Kege Makhongda Certificate (The Certificate Under the Castor Tree) by Elangbam Dinamani
•    Kanana Haijillibano (in two parts) A compilation of the Poknapham’s daily humorous and satirical column and published by the newspaper’s publishing branch (The newspaper has also a fantastic weekly column called Vox Populi, from which a long time ago I had created a blog with permission:
•    Fraud: Essays by David Rakoff
•    Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
•    Every Man in His Humour by Ben Johnson



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