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Sadistic Laughter

Friday, August 15, 2008 - 01:00 AM

“Laughter,” wrote Thomas Hobbes, “is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.”

Putting an evolutionary tweak on that idea, Albert Rapp, in his 1951 treatise Origins of Wit and Humour, opined that “all laughter has developed from one primitive behavior, the roar of triumph in an ancient jungle duel.”

It seems a bit of a stretch to lump all of laughter together like that, but it is instructive to note just how ubiquitous sadistic laughter is.

To cite but a few famous examples: Romans laughed heartily at Christians being mauled by lions; and torture and execution were considered fun for the whole family until practically yesterday—in the late Middle Ages, the citizens of Mons actually purchased a condemned man from a neighboring town so they could have the pleasure of quartering him themselves. In the 18th century, the well-heeled would visit insane asylums to amuse themselves by taunting the inmates.

Laughter was widely reported during the ethnic violence in Kosovo, Indonesia, and Rwanda; and was allegedly present at many lynchings in the South. The boys who shot up Columbine were said to have been laughing throughout much of the massacre.

And it could be plausibly argued that such gleeful sadism is very much in evidence in some versions of so-called “reality television.”

Type “face plant” into YouTube and ask yourself why, oh why it’s so irresistibly funny to watch people fall down. (There’s an especially pleasing subgenre of falling models, among which videos you will find a pole-dancer face-plant that’s a touch too racy for this family program.)

If you’re too sophisticated or compassionate to laugh at suffering, remember the last time you laughed at Bush’s verbal blunders, or even a malapropism in Shakespeare, and consider Rapp’s claim that “frailty, deformity, and error are modern substitutes for the battered appearance of one’s opponent.”


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Comments [9]


Then what should we say about how comedians classically don't smile when they make us laugh. How do they keep all that in? Do they have to lose the joke for themselves ( sacrificially? ) to make us laugh?

Whenever I try to keep the laugh in, I usually fail unless I get myself to think about some tragedy.

Sep. 08 2008 11:48 AM
Saam Barrager

2 days? That's very precocious. By 6 months she'll be craving British humor.

Sep. 03 2008 01:15 PM


Perhaps not that much later- I was just with my 2 day old niece and I swear she just laughed- She wasn't crying-?

Aug. 31 2008 06:34 PM
Matt Slaven

Point well made. I wonder though if we can't still laugh at error with a motive of playful acknowledgment of each other's humanity. Can laughter towards another person be an expression of compassion rather than triumph? What better way is there of expressing "who cares about your mistake!" than laughing the error into triviality and cause for a healthy dose of dopamine-induced pleasure for everyone.

Now that I write this, I find that its besides your point. I suppose this is my dream of the future of our laughter in regards to each other.

Aug. 28 2008 07:12 PM
Saam Barrager

Pliny they Elder pointed out that while most animals are able to run or swim at birth, the only thing that humans are able to do is cry.

Laughing comes much later.

Aug. 22 2008 03:40 PM

Were Hobbes and Rapp really as stupid
as this article suggests? I should read
more about them. It's fun to laugh at
stupid people.

Aug. 18 2008 12:52 AM
strange fiction

Laughter can be many things, and it isn't only human. Even rats laugh while they are playing. And we only laugh for the benefit of other humans anyway.

Aug. 16 2008 08:51 PM

Elizabeth Giddens has given my laughter a guilty conscience. It might never be as enjoyable ever again. How does one redeem oneself? It is called being civilized. The nicities that make life pleasant and bearable so we no longer feel the need for such violent outbursts. Is this another sign of our evolution. Removing the sadism from laughter?

Aug. 16 2008 07:22 AM

Kind of like how my boyfriend just laughed at me as my computer slowly crashed ;-)

Aug. 15 2008 10:12 AM

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