Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Laughter: Foreword and Editorial

Foreword by Nicola Miller; Editorial by Andrew Dean and Alice Rudge

laughing audience

9 January 2021

William Hogarth, The Laughing Audience, 1733



The theme of Laughter deftly touches upon many of the key questions of our age. Thinking about the extent to which jokes can be understood, or even recognised as such, across different cultures and periods of history helps us to test the limits of historical imagination and cross-cultural translation. Is there anything that can be said to be universally human? As neuro-scientists investigate what combination of physiological processes configures human mental life, one window on to the problem is laughter: usually expressed in bodily terms, from an involuntary response to the physical act of tickling to belly laughs, hearty chuckles, wry smiles and raised eyebrows, it is also a response to linguistic and conceptual play. Laughter can also be revealing about relations between concentrated and diffuse power, as indicated by variations in the social acceptability of deriving humour from mocking those with greater or lesser status: what stand-up comedians call punching up or punching down. Is laughter always a hair’s breadth away from cruelty or sentimentality? Or is it more of a source of freedom and flexibility in thinking and relating, as suggested by Henri Bergson, one of the few Western philosophers to focus on laughter.  And, in the age of the Anthropocene, laughter invites us to think about what we share with other animals, now that laughter-like responses have been identified in apes, dolphins, dogs, rats and even some birds.

All these questions, and many more, about laughter were investigated and debated at the IAS during 2018-19, ably led by Junior Research Fellows Andrew Dean and Alice Rudge, but the follow-up work on this issue of Think Pieces has been done since Covid-19 brought profound changes to the way that we all think and work. In these circumstances, special acknowledgement is due to everyone involved for the rigour, care and commitment with which they have thought about how to position the contents to speak to the experiences of 2020.  Heartfelt thanks to all of our contributors and to our editorial team: Academic Editors Timothy Carroll and Jane Gilbert; Editorial Manager, Albert Brenchat; and Guest Editors, Andrew Dean and Alice Rudge. In their Editorial, Andrew and Alice reflect on the significance of laughter in the current moment. As they note, thinking about Laughter in the age of Covid-19 may at first sight seem irrelevant or even inappropriate, but on reading these varied pieces I hope you will come to agree that in fundamental ways it could not be more timely.

On Laughter

As 2020 draws to a close, who’s still laughing? Confined to the home, many have longed for laughter’s light relief. Yet there is little that has been less funny than finding city streets emptied, schools and universities shuttered, and communities awash with fear.

Some have bravely attempted to find the funny side, even if what they have found has often been grim and maudlin. Could it have been any other way? In the months since March, the scale of our vulnerabilities has taken centre stage not traditionally good material for laughter. The popular British satirical television show, Have I Got News For You, contrasted our different frailties in one tweet from April: ‘MPs offered an extra £10,000 each to work from home, coming as a great comfort to nurses wearing bin bags to protect themselves from coronavirus.’ It’s a good joke without being funny: it is humour as bitterness.

This year may have been upsettlingly intense, as we write in what feels like the 200th day of March. Yet has there not been an odd, mirthless laughter circulating for some time? This is the kind of laughter that is the special preserve of the internet. Think, for example, of the video of former UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, dancing at a South African primary school. Memes circulated of her struggle: one foot stepping uncertainly in front of the other, her arms locked to her side, shoulders moving like a spinning top. Her response to the mockery she received was to dance onto stage at the Tory party conference, to the tune of ‘Dancing Queen’ which set off yet further memes. None of this was funny not quite that but nonetheless these memes upon memes produced that strange, awkward laughter that feels distinctive to this moment. It’s enough to make one want to hide in a fridge.

Laughter has never been neutral. Six years ago, the Turkish deputy Prime Minister said that women should not laugh out loud — a fault that he listed alongside mobile phones and soap operas. ‘Women should know what is decent and what is not decent’, he said.[i] But laughter’s strangeness is what now demands our attention. We can say that it supports or legitimises one political agenda or another, but the harder we look, the less certain we become. Laughter today feels public, shared and newly hard to decipher.

This issue of Think Pieces draws from a series of events hosted by the Institute of Advanced Studies. Each of the contributions in this volume attempts to better understand the different dimensions of laughter its relationships with history, form, economy, and much more. The uncertainty that laughter provokes is central in each contribution: what is laughter good for? How might it work for us — and against us? Academic Devorah Baum and comedian David Schneider discuss their lives in comedy, from mothers, to memes, to mortality. Jo Waugh and Adam Smith address the longer history of satire, showing how news of its demise has long been much exaggerated. Malaysian cartoonist Zunar, and the responses by Natasha Eaton, explore how laughter can directly address political failings. Dominic Davies reflects on graphic novels by contemporary artists and academics, thinking their relationship with serious-minded academic study. Andrei Rogatchevski offers a brief history of one of the more unusual episodes in the history of satire (if it is even that): the Russian genre of stiob in the hands of its leading practitioner, Sergey Kuryokhin. Caspar Addyman explores the earliest experiences of laughter the laughter of babies — and how these experiences are ways of discovering others. The issue closes with two accounts of the same film, Marleen Gorris’s A Question of Silence (1982). Keina Yoshida focuses on the disturbing, and potentially liberating, effects of laughter for women in the film. Laura Mulvey compares two different viewings of the work, separated by four decades of political experience.

Despite laughter’s ambivalences, what would life be without it? When we do eventually emerge more fully from our homes, it will be shared laughter around a restaurant table, or the crowd laughter of a stand-up routine, that will bring us back to our richer social selves. Aristotle celebrates eutrapelia, that ready-wittedness between boorishness and buffoonery. This is part of what human flourishing consists of, as many of us are discovering in its absence. Isn’t laughter supposed to be the best medicine? This collection explores laughter’s medicinal properties — and its side effects.

[i] Agence France-Presse in Istanbul, ‘Turkish deputy prime minister says women should not laugh out loud’, Guardian, 29 July 2014. < https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/29/turkish-minister-women-lau... > [accessed 9 December 2020]


Nicola Miller is the IAS Director.

Having completed her postdoctoral fellowship on laughter in the Institute of Advanced Studies, Alice Rudge has now taken up a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in UCL’s Department of Anthropology. Her writing on laughter and ethics among Batek hunter-gatherers can be found in American Ethnologist.  

Andrew Dean is a Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University, Victoria, Australia. He is the author of the 2015 book, Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies (Bridget Williams Books). 

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