Three Questions: On Laughter

Corine Labridy, Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies, writes and teaches about laughter, as well as its role in building identity and making sense of tough times.

Friday, November 3, 2023

By Lauren Rebecca Thacker

Corine Labridy, Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies

Brooke Sietinsons

Laughter is having a moment, says Corine Labridy.

The assistant professor in the Department of Francophone, Italian, and Germanic Studies explains that particularly in cultures that engage heavily in online discourse and sharing, laughter is a currency that should be taken seriously. “We often process the news through comedy, which means that laughter is sometimes our main line to reality,” she says.

In her classroom, Labridy uses it to build trust and camaraderie. In recent years, sharing memes has become a form of love language, a way of expressing care.

Laughter is sometimes our main line to reality.

Thinking of one that recently made her chuckle, Labridy points to a tweet from the account @AlbertEinstein. A photo shows the scientist leaning against a rock on a beach. Another account retweeted the photo with the comment, “His job was beach,” referring to the repeated assertion in the summer hit Barbie that Ken’s job was “beach.”

“The thought of Einstein having a social media account is funny but to imagine him using it like a normal person is absolutely delightful,” Labridy says. It works because of the incongruity theory: Laughter can emerge when wildly opposed ideas unexpectedly come together—like, say, a Nobel-prize winning physicist relaxing on the beach like a Ken doll.

This fall, Labridy is teaching a class called Laughter and Tricky Topics. Omnia asked her to share some insights on the power, pleasure, and danger of laughter.

Laughter is often spontaneous and pleasurable. Does it have a social function?

The French philosopher Henri Bergson proposed that laughter was a social corrector. So, in our society, it would be frowned upon to subject someone to corporal punishment for a small social faux pas. But peers laughing at that faux pas might nudge that person back into socially acceptable behavior. Laughter, then, can be an effective, gentler way to maintain social cohesion.

That said, we cannot underestimate the fear that laughter can cause. There are risks we don’t take and brilliant ideas that we don’t share because we are afraid of being laughed at. That’s just one dark side. Another, which philosophers have warned about, is that if we spend so much time seeking pleasure or laughter, we can have a false sense of happiness and get distracted from the bigger struggles at hand. In that way, laughter can also be a sort of social anesthetic.

So, should we avoid laughing at our troubles?

Not at all. I absolutely, truly believe that laughter offers us an opportunity. German philosopher Georg Hegel, for one, believed that laughter was a productive way to produce a social critique. So, while it is true that our hedonistic pursuit of laughter can have its problems, I also think that laughter can be a solution. It’s perhaps the most effective way to speak truth to power; for marginalized communities, laughter has always been a way to resist. And I’ll add that some points are simply better made and, importantly, better received with laughter than with serious or academic discourse.

If the act of laughing can mean everything from pleasure to survival, does that suggest anything can be funny?

The French literary theorist Gérard Genette, when asked if we can laugh at everything said, “Well, what else would we laugh at?” And while I do agree, there is a caveat, which is to always check whether we are punching up or punching down. Punching up would be speaking truth to power. And punching down would be making fun of a marginalized community or person. 

I would say that nothing is inherently funny, but there are mechanisms that can work together to make a situation funny at a particular moment. At the end of the day, many factors must converge for a situation to be funny. There are lots of theories and debates about what makes us laugh. It’s a subject about which scholars politely—or not so politely—agree to disagree.