Archive for May, 2020

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 2)

May 23, 2020
  1. Objections to Bergson’s Theory

But what if Bergson’s initial claim, that humans alone are “the animal which laughs,” is completely wrong? Studies indicate that apes, and perhaps all mammals “laugh” in some form.[1] Several species of mammals have been observed making distinctive “happy noises” when play-fighting, and have been observed tickling and enjoying being tickled. Scientific studies of non mammalian humor are rarer, but I am aware of several apparent incidents of humor among parrots. My wife’s black capped conure enjoys peek-a-boo, and even says something that sounds a little like “Peekaboo” when popping out from hiding. Another pet owner says her parrot calls the cat using their owner’s voice, then barks like a dog when the cat appears. Another friend told us one day her parrot requested to be sprayed with a mist bottle: “Showie? Showie?” When she got the bottle to give her a shower, the bird hid. As soon as she put it down, the bird again asked for a shower. It seemed to be a variation of the game humans play when they offer something and then pull it back. But the most elaborate story I heard was from my late father, about his African Grey named Smokey. As he told it:



When Smokey got lonely he’d call for me using (his wife) Debbie’s voice, or he’d call me using her voice. We would call down and ask, “Is that you?” and if we didn’t get an answer we’d know it was the bird. One day I was upstairs and I heard my wife calling, “Waite! Waite!” I called down, “Honey, is that you?” After a few seconds, I heard more insistently, “Waite! Waite!” So I rushed downstairs, Debbie was no where to be found, and that bird laughed at me——-IN MY VOICE!



The most human-like humor probably has come from Koko, the sign-language using gorilla, who engaged in puns and who once tied her human companion’s shoelaces together and then gave the sign for “chase.” One common element of all of these is some degree of social awareness. This is particularly seen in the parrots and Koko, who engaged in some sort of linguistic or communication-based humor. These relied on physical or audible signs which the animal knew would give a predictable response; sometimes the animal seemed to enjoy frustrating the response, while at other times the invited response was part of the payoff for the animal, but always there was some social reasoning involved. In the tickling or rough-housing behaviors, the “laughter” seems to be a signal that everyone is enjoying it and it’s not serious. For example, among rats there’s a certain sound made when rats of roughly equal sizes play-fight, but when one is much larger it apparently becomes a lot less fun and the rat-laughter ceases.[2]

I personally don’t think of tickling as “humor,” but more as one of a range of laughter-producing stimuli. Some people laugh due to some neurological condition, and scientists can evoke “laughter” from rats by electrical brain stimulation as well as by tickling their tummies. Among animals, we would say it seems more like “humor” when it is playful, “all in good fun.” Laughter is an expression of pleasure, and humor the art of provoking laughter in others. Humor would seem to require empathy, in that either knowing when the other is trying to be funny rather than threatening or knowing what the other will find funny requires some sense of how the other is likely to perceive things. A sense of humor may be a subcategory of the sense of the other as other. If Bergson is wrong about his view that humans are the only animal that laughs or is laughed at, that would in turn suggest that humor may be part of intelligence. Any animal can perceive when its needs are met and find some sort of pleasure in that; as Beethoven’s 9th symphony states, “even the worm can feel contentment.” The more sophisticated the brain, the more joy and more varieties of joy the animal can feel; and at some point this becomes what we would recognize as “humor.”

If Bergson is wrong about humor being the property of humans alone, then it seems likely that he is mistaken about his claim that it is purely intellectual and opposed to feeling, since his claim about the intellectuality of humor derives from his belief that it is strictly human. The claim that humor is social is less obviously dependent on either of the other two principles; but I think we have already seen good reason to try again and see if we can develop a theory of humor from a different starting point.

The humor of nonhumans is an interesting area of study for scientists, and they can derive truths that fit all reasonable definitions of objective truth; but the experience of nonhuman animals is so alien to us that it is of limited philosophical use. Children, on the other hand, are a much better source of data: in many ways more animal than person, or animal moving towards full rationality and personhood, and much easier to observe and to interrogate. Bergson’s considerations are based almost exclusively on the experiences of adults; where he does consider children at all it is in reference to the theory he has developed in reference to adults.[3] But if we are looking for the source of humor among adults, where better to start than with the source of adults themselves—that is, children?

Babies laugh. It is true that we begin able to cry from birth, but must discover how to laugh; and perhaps this says something about our condition in the world. But still, babies laugh; and they do not so much “learn” to laugh as they do discover the ability. They don’t learn to laugh by imitating adults, as they learn so much else; if they did, they would first laugh when the adults were laughing and would try to laugh at those things. Rather, the laughter of a baby seems to be a spontaneous expression of joy. Something makes the baby happy, and the baby laughs. If tears are the instinctive response to deprivation, then laughter seems to be the expression of something even greater than the contentment when all needs have been met, and satisfaction overflows. Is this social? Babies seem to smile trying to imitate the smiling faces around them; perhaps they laugh because they are happy to have those around them. But I don’t think so. I’ve seen my two-year-old grandson laugh like a mad hatter at something which was funny only to him: the picture on his watering can. For the first several days that he had this new toy, he would stop, look at the picture with its bright colors and smiling sun, and laugh. Why? I don’t know. But I doubt it was because, as Bergson might say, it made him think of a human who was behaving mechanically. Children generally don’t distinguish sharply between what is living versus inanimate. Piaget tells a story about a child who picked up a rock and put it with the others because it looked lonely. His sadness and subsequent desire to help the lonely rock was no different than my grandson’s laughter at his watering-can; and neither was moved by “ANY ARRANGEMENT OF ACTS AND EVENTS … WHICH GIVES US, IN A SINGLE COMBINATION, THE ILLUSION OF LIFE AND THE DISTINCT IMPRESSION OF A MECHANICAL ARRANGEMENT.” (caps Bergson’s)

Pain is reflexive. You hurt; you grab your knee, roll around, scream obscenities and loudly proclaim that you’ve broken the fornicating joint. A baby is hungry, or in pain, or has some other need; the baby cries. There is no thought; it is purely animal. Any creature that cares for its young has an instinctive way for those young to signal they are in need, and some sort of instinct of adults to respond; though parenting is also leaned, so knowing how to respond effectively is something that is taught or modeled for many animals, particularly us. This begins to point towards Wittgenstein’s observations about pain-behavior.[4] We do things reflexively, instinctively, in reaction to pain, At some point in our lives, though, we develop a social sense, and begin to realize that others act as we act and assume they, too, feel pain, based on their actions. Unless we are psychologically damaged, psychopaths or narcissists or whatever, we care; as Hume said, the instinct for sympathy seems to be as primordial as the instinct for competition. Even the person who doesn’t “feel another’s pain” still finds use for knowing what hurts others and in signaling his or her own pain as well, even if only to deceive and manipulate them. Pain-behavior and pain-language has uses in society; so we learn to interpret one another’s pain-behavior and to respond more effectively, we learn to signal more effectively so we receive useful help (or perhaps to hide our pain from real or supposed enemies), and so on.

Laughter can be understood as joy-behavior. Babies laugh and, according to some scientists, some animals laugh; so it seems to be an instinctive response to something more than mere contentment. But laughter is social in a way pain is not. We like to see others happy. The instinctive response to a smile is to smile back; behaviorists say the smile evolves initially out of the primate fear-signal of baring the teeth, becoming a signal of “I am not a threat to you” and then evolving to a more positive “I like you; I am a help to you, and I hope you feel the same.” It causes a feeling of joy to see another smile or hear another laugh. My father loved to tell the story of when I was an infant in one of those bouncy-chairs they hang from door frames. So, picture the baby, too young to walk but aware of his environment and the people. He’s bouncing up and down on the spring when, suddenly, he stops and pulls his ears. It’s such an absurd thing to do that his parents laugh. The baby sees that they laugh, and he likes that, so he does it again. And again. And now it’s not unexpected so it’s a lot less funny to the adults, but the child knows only that everybody laughed and was happy and that felt good.

We are hard-wired to want others to smile at us. Thus, laughter is even more social than tears. We feel sad when others are sad, as a rule, but we don’t want to feel sad so we either try to help or try to avoid them. And we feel happy when others are happy, we get a little shot of dopamine when someone smiles at us or laughs, and we are thus encouraged to try again. Babies and toddlers do what seems to get them smiles and laughter and approval from adults. As we get older and come to value peers more than the opinions of elders, we want to get them to smile and laugh. And thus comedy is born, from the joy-behavior of the baby and the toddler up through the class clown, the life-of-the-party, the raconteur, and all the other varieties of amateur comedian (it is worth remembering at this point that the word “amateur” is derived from “love;” the amateur comedian is one who strives to be funny for the love of the laughter). As we get older and the society we engage in becomes more sophisticated, we need to learn what is funny to those around us, and thus humor becomes increasingly rooted in the shared cultural values and meanings of the comedian and the audience.

Bergson treats the adult as the type, adult humor as the defining standard of the comic, and examines childhood humor (such as toys) under those categories. I wish to start with the child and the child’s experience with laughter, and see what we can discover about the adult’s humor. But still, I must face the question: why does the adult laugh at the child? When asked, adults often have no more answer than “it was so absurd.” The baby bounces, grabs his ears for no reason, and the adult laughs. Other times we laugh because the child says or does something that is quite appropriate, though the child has no idea why. My grandson had been experimenting with a new phrase: “Not yet.” When asked if he had done something, rather than saying “yes” or “no,” he would sometimes answer “Not yet.” Last week he was sitting between my daughter and me on her sofa and she asked, “Did you pee-pee your pants?” He answered, “Not yet.” Everybody laughed, and then he laughed too though his laughter seemed a little forced. It seemed to me that he had no real idea why everyone was laughing but wanted to join in; the adults were laughing because it sounded as if he were planning to wet the sofa, but didn’t really. If they had really thought he intended to soil the furniture they wouldn’t have laughed; they would have rushed to get a diaper on him. What he said was funny because it wasn’t true, but could have been; it wasn’t a non sequitur. Sometimes the child is apparently trying to be funny, and succeeds. When my daughter was verbal but still in diapers, I got up with her one night to change her and thought she felt warm. I got the thermometer and found she had a fever. I said, “Congratulations! You are one sick puppy.” She said, “Arf!” In short, when we laugh at babies, it seems to be for a variety of reasons: sometimes because they say or do something that seems very “adult,” other times when they do something that seems like it was an attempt to be “adult,” other times when it is just absurd but struck us as funny.

Perhaps there really is nothing more to it. The baby laughs because he or she is happy; why must the adult have any other reason? I haven’t done a survey, but I suspect most widely-spoken languages have different words for “funny” versus “pleasant” or “makes me joyful.” It does appear that there is an intellectual component to “funny.” For example, people who are particularly good at mental tasks like estimation also prefer more complex jokes.[5] We often use similar language about humor and play; for example, people who disapprove of humor may say it is “frivolous,” or say “quit clowning around,” while those who approve may say the joker is “fun” and “playful.” We even refer to “word-play” for a particular sort of humor. Perhaps, just as some sorts of play are fun because they provide a physical challenge and the pleasure of using one’s muscles, other sorts of “play” are pleasurable because they challenge and stimulate brain cells and neurons that needed a little exercise. Most humor requires seeing something from two or more angles simultaneously; even the pratfall has to both appear to be a fall but also appear to not actually cause harm (unless the laugher is a real jerk, which is another issue).

I know of no culture that does not have some concept of physical play, such as racing or jumping competitions or other “non-serious” physical activities. While there are cultural variations (“Waddya mean I can’t use my hands?”) the concept itself is pretty universal. Humor seems to have more cultural variations. A 2002 study surveyed 1.5 million people from 70 different countries, asking them to submit jokes they thought were funny and then to evaluate what jokes they thought were funny. In total, 40,000 jokes were graded, and some cultural differences did emerge. Americans (and Canadians) seemed more drawn to jokes that implied a certain aggression or put-down than were other cultures; for example:


Texan: “Where are you from?”

Harvard Graduate: “I come from a place where we do not end sentences with prepositions.”

Texan: “Okay— where are you from, jackass?”


Europeans were said to be more likely to enjoy surreal humor:


A German Shepherd went to the telegram office, took out a blank form, and wrote: “Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”

The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”

“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”[6]


They were also said to like jokes about death, like this one from Scotland: “I just want to die quickly and peacefully like my grandfather, and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” And it makes sense that humor would be strongly affected by culture. Humor is social, and anything social is at least partly learned. The capacity for humor and the instinct to want to make others laugh may be universal and innate, but every comedian knows you have to “read the room.” Any group is going to have learned patterns of behavior, standards of what is acceptable, utterly serious, titillating and so on. The lead researcher, Dr. Richard Wiseman, also noted that, in addition to cultural differences, there were simply different reasons for something to seem funny, saying, “Also, we find jokes funny for lots of different reasons. They sometimes make us feel superior to others, reduce the emotional impact of anxiety-provoking situations or surprise us because of some kind of incongruity.”[7] And how humor is used or appreciated varies between cultures and particularly between East and West, despite physiological and psychological factors that appear universal.[8] This affects even how adults will perceive a child’s humor, which in turn would affect what the child learns and become a self-reinforcing cultural trait. A Westerner is likely to consider a humorous child to be clever, creative and social, so the child’s early attempts to provoke laughter are likely to be rewarded; but a Chinese is more likely to see such behavior as disruptive and unsocial, so the child will get less positive reinforcement.

At a minimum, then, this sort of pragmatic, genealogical approach to understanding humor has several advantages over Bergson’s approach based more on the structures of society. It accounts for children’s humor and for nonhuman humor, areas Bergson neglected in the first case and didn’t recognize in the second. It is able to accommodate the well-known cultural variations in humor as instances of generational transmission, while still also accounting for the universality of humor as a phenomenon. This approach does not rule out the validity of Bergson’s theory entirely, but it does contradict it at some points and expand the range of humor it is able to discuss. One thing it does not do, which Bergson does, is attempt to define what is “funny.” Many things are “funny” to one person and not to another. This is not that unusual; taste would seem to be a biological reality and important to the survival of the individual, yet one person or culture may enjoy a taste that another finds bland or even repulsive. Perhaps too “funny” is one of those fuzzy concepts, with multiple related meanings, so that philosophy will never be able to find a universal theory of the comic. That does not mean, however, that philosophy need remain mute on the subject; there is still much philosophy can learn from examining humor and much to discover about its implications.

[1] Joseph Castro, “Do Animals Have Humor?” LiveScience Nov. 6, 2017 ( see also Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, “Do Animals Have a Sense of Humor? New Evidence Suggests All Mammals Have a Funny Bone;” Slate March 26, 2014 (

[2] McGraw/Warner

[3] Laughter, chapter II, sect. I

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, third edition, 286-312

[5] John von Radowitz, “Revealed: The Funniest Joke in the World;” The Guardian October 3, 2002 (

[6] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (

[7] “Revealed”

[8] Tonglin Jiang, Hao Li, Yubo Ho, “Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage and Implications;” Frontiers in Psychology January 29, 2019 (

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 1)

May 21, 2020

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter”



  1. Bergson’s Theory of the Comic

There has been relatively little written by philosophers about humor. We have Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy in the Poetics, and we have discussions of beauty, but not much sustained discussion of humor. Wittgenstein said it was possible to write an entire philosophy text consisting of nothing but jokes, but he never wrote such a book. And there have been many forays of philosophy into humor. I heard Steven Wright tell a joke about burglars breaking into his house and stealing all his stuff and replacing everything with exact duplicates. Police were baffled. A few years later, my professor told me that Wittgenstein had asked once what it would mean if someone thought people were stealing his stuff and replacing everything with duplicates, and I concluded that Wright must have gotten the idea from Wittgenstein. Steve Martin majored in philosophy, famously saying, “I studied just enough philosophy to fuck me up for the rest of my life.” Woody Allen’s comedic writings were littered with references to Kierkegaard, among others, and Craig Ferguson frequently mentioned Kierkegaard on his television show. Most recently and notably would be NBC’s “The Good Place,” a series that featured four deeased souls trying to avoid everlasting damnation by posthumously learning to be “good,” largely by taking classes on moral philosophy. But while comedians talk humorously about philosophy a lot, philosophers more rarely philosophically analyze the concept of humor.   The most famous sustained philosophical treatment of humor is Henri Bergson’s Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic.[1] I would like to use this as a starting-point to philosophically discuss comedy, to see if more recent studies and other perspectives might lead us to additional insights.

Bergson writes, “The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN.”[2] He claims that only humans laugh, and that when we laugh, we laugh at other humans or things that in some way remind us of humans. A landscape can strike us funny because it looks human in some way: “the brook sounds like it’s laughing; but the old tree looks sad.” Or, he says, a hat may seem funny, but only because we know some person chose to make it look that silly, intentionally or not. Thus, Bergson says, humans are not only animals that laugh, but also animals that are laughed at.

He further writes, “Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter.”[3] To feel strongly about something is to take it “seriously;” to laugh at something or someone is to step away emotionally and find the comic; “for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.” Bergson thus sees laughter as a rational phenomenon; a society of purely intellectual beings would have no tears, but might still laugh, whereas a society of very sentimental and emotional beings would have no concept of laughter or the comic. To be able to laugh is to stop feeling strongly about the object of one’s laughter. I recall an incident on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, the day naturalist Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin was tragically killed while diving with stingrays. He was a beloved personality worldwide, and even Stewart seemed to be grieving. His interview for that show was fellow comedian Norm MacDonald, and they began talking about the death of Mr. Irwin. MacDonald began musing about two crocs sharing the news: “You remember that guy who used to poke us all the time?” asks the first croc.

“What about him?” asks the second.

“He died. He was killed!”

“Really! Who got him?”

“Man, you don’t wanna know. Some fruity fish!” (At this point the audience, including Stewart, were laughing uncontrollably.)

“Please don’t make me laugh at this,” said Stewart, unable to stop.

For a few moments, the sadness that everyone was feeling, the sense of loss, was annihilated as they laughed about the absurdity that a man who had brought joy and knowledge to millions by his capturing and training of enormous saltwater crocodiles (some of the most massive and dangerous predators alive) should have been killed by a fish that is generally so harmless that tourists dive with them regularly.

Bergson’s third preliminary observation is that while the comic is a realm of intelligence rather than emotion, “This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other intelligences.” The comic has a social dimension. This is why, he says, a group of travelers may laugh among themselves as someone tells a story which an outsider finds either incomprehensible or merely unfunny; the third party lacks the frame of reference. Even when we laugh to ourselves, it is as if someone else were telling us the joke, or we imagine telling it to another. Bergson concludes, “The comic will come into being, it appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play nothing but their intelligence. “ Comedy must be human, it must be aimed at the mind rather than the emotions, and it must be social. Having established these elements, Bergson moves on to ask what it is, more precisely, that catches our attention, that “strikes the funny bone,” and makes us laugh.

Bergson argues that the comic element emerges when humans behave “mechanically” rather than in a human, rational fashion. He paradigm is absentmindedness. The absentminded person acts on habit even when it is inappropriate to the circumstances, or forgets what he or she was doing or saying, or forgets where something is or confuses two things. One of my professors said he resolved to quit smoking the day he suddenly realized he had a cigarette in his right hand, a cigarette in his left hand, and was struggling to light a cigarette. He also regularly walked around with shirts with holes in the pocket because he had put a lit cigarette in his shirt pocket again. If we saw that in a movie, it would be hilarious; and Bergson says the reason is that it is so funny is that in that moment what was most human about this absent-minded professor was that he lost the intelligence that defines the human and became a sort of zombie or automaton. His reason failed him precisely because of that other human trait, his character, as if his mind was undermining itself; and we are amused by the fact because we observers are employing our intelligences to spot the incongruity and to note its failure.[4] Likewise, Bergson claims the comedy of the pratfall is when the body betrays the person; his intellect sought to walk down the street, but he stepped on a banana peel or got splashed by passing car. Or, when we see a character in a play put acting absurdly because he or she is overwhelmed with jealousy or some other emotion, we again see the rational person ceasing to act rationally and instead being pushed along by outside forces, like a leaf in the wind, except that the leaf and wind are both elements of the jealous one’s own personality. Similarly, we treat society as a person, and may laugh when we see the entire collective society engaged in absurd and “mechanical” activity, Bergson says. Social ceremonies are important to social cohesion and as expressions of collective values, but when divorced from that context and just seen as actions they can quickly become comic, Bergson says, “from an ordinary prize-distribution to the solemn sitting of a court of justice.” During the waning days of the Cold War my father went with a group of doctors to visit Russia and learn about their achievements in eye surgery. While there, he was given a medal in a public men’s room by the attendant, apparently for “marksmanship.” To the Soviets, any expression of approval by the Party was meaningful, both because of the power the State had to do one good or ill, but also because it was an expression of one’s social worth as a productive member of society. Russians were frequently given these rather cheap medals for minor achievements, and someone must have thought them meaningful. To an American, however, getting a medal for not pissing on the floor seemed like a joke, and if it wasn’t an intentional joke then it was a joke on Soviet society as a whole.

In much the same way, it is humorous when a person is swallowed up by his or her official status and seems unable to respond humanly. Bergson tells the story of custom-house officials rescuing survivors from a shipwreck, and then asking them out of habit, “Do you have anything to declare?” Or sometimes humor arises when someone filling a social post doesn’t quite succeed in hiding his or her all-too-humanness. There’s nothing very funny about an American not being able to sing our national anthem; it is notoriously difficult. But when Donald Trump, standing as the Head of State at a public event, seems to not know the words or has to be reminded by his immigrant wife to put his hand over his heart, it becomes funny because while it is one thing for an ordinary person not to know the words or to neglect to cover his heart, it’s quite another when the nation’s leader is standing publicly as the representative of the national spirit and seems to be, in fact, only a rather mediocre citizen.

Another source of comic contradiction, says Bergson, is when the body betrays the mind.[5] This can happen when the body lacks the proper human suppleness, and seems too rigid and mechanical—or, I suspect, when it seems too supple. Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch is a good example of both physical and social humor. There is a great deal of comedy that comes from John Cleese, who is particularly convincing when playing a stuffy judge, businessman or government bureaucrat, meets with someone who is trying to invent a new silly walk, and the two of them talk as seriously as if a would-be engineer were applying to patent a new car engine; but when you add his physical gyrations and contortions that seem to go beyond what a human body should do or be capable of doing, it becomes hilarious.[6] As Bergson says, sometimes it is funny simply to be reminded that a person has a body, particularly when the body is not supposed to be relevant. This is likely why everyone thought it was so funny when, during the very first telephone hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court, we distinctly hear a toilet flush.[7] In the 1960s society was so squeamish about reminders of physicality that All in the Family could regularly get big laughs by simply having an off-screen toilet flush. But when this reminder of our universal physicality occurs during one of the most solemn of our social rituals, a meeting of the Supreme Court, the juxtaposition of the almost otherworldliness of the situation with the very earthy event is humorous.

Chapter II of Bergson’s essay largely develops this line of thought and extends it to verbal humor. Just as he has said that contradictions between a subject’s humanity—that is, his or her autonomy and rationality—versus physicality or mechanical behavior, so in verbal humor there is a conflict between the human, the rational and/or the moral versus some other, more physical or automatic implication. I think one example would be confusing “greatness” as in a great man or Great White Shark. As Bergson writes, “The rigid, the ready—made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct.”[8] Bergson sees this same sort of automatism at the root of both physical and verbal humor, from the pratfall to the pun to the most witty social satire.

The essay’s third chapter deals with the comic element expressed in character. Since, Bergson says, we started with the comic as a human and social phenomenon, we were already pretty close to character to begin; we need now only return to the original source of humor, which is humanity. After all, as he said earlier, humans are the only animal that laughs and, essentially, the only animal which is laughed at, since whatever we laugh at is only funny insofar as it reminds us of the human. Furthermore, we laugh as what does not essentially move our emotions, since emotions such as love or pity are undermined by humor. So, what sorts of character or person would we laugh at, and under what circumstances would we laugh at another?

Drawing on his earlier discussion, Bergson claims that we can laugh at another only when we do not feel any emotion towards the other. To some extent, we have to depersonalize the other in order to laugh at him or her. Furthermore, what makes the neighbor funny is some behavior reminiscent of a machine: behavior that is unnaturally rigid, inflexible, seemingly preprogrammed, unresponsive or out of sync with the actual circumstances. Thus, the most comic character is one that is not a real person, but more of a type. We have to feel as if we know this person, or know them well enough, but not to sympathize with them. Thus, the more depth with which the character is depicted, or the more backstory, the less comic he or she is likely to be. The knowledge we need of the character must be superficial. Thus, neither great monologues nor bold actions are comic, but rather gestures. A gesture can flow naturally from the character and reveal what sort of character lies at its root, but for all that is relatively meaningless. The NBC series The Good Place illustrates this idea quite well. The series is about four people who have died and find themselves in the afterlife, which turns out to be a planned community resembling a crossbreeding of Beverly Hills and Disneyland Main Street. Our first introductions to the characters are through gestures rather than statements or conscious acts. When Eleanor can’t remember the name of anyone she’s talking to or anything that person is saying, or when she steals shrimp at a party so she can take them home and scarf them later, we can see she is a completely selfish person. When Tahani compulsively drops names with sentences like “This is as upsetting as the time when my friend Kanye got in a fight with my good friend Taylor over my best friend Beyoncé,” we instantly know that she is obsessed with everyone knowing how important she is. The comedy of the show is largely driven by the flawed, shallow characters of these people, and their reflexive behavior. And as a result, they are also fairly unlikeable; and this is not good for a television series that wants repeat viewers. Thus, sometimes the writers give us flashbacks showing how someone’s horrible parents or toxic friends led them to become the sort of silly, incapable person they are now. This gives the viewers reason to sympathize with the protagonists and to want to see them struggle and overcome their obstacles and hopefully become better people; but these moments are rarely funny. Bergson would say this is exactly as it should be and as his theory predicts: we can sympathize with the protagonists or we can laugh, but we can’t do both at the same time. At best, we can alternate between the two. The funny moments are where we see them as The Social Peacock, The Antisocial Egoist, and so on, and see them saying and doing things quite mindlessly which reflect and flow from these types.

From what we have seen to this point, it is not surprising that Bergson sees something aggressive in comedy.[9] Bergson says that there is always a social element to comedy; we laugh at others, and among ourselves, so laughing defines the group of laughers versus those who are laughed at. We laugh at some sort of rigidity which marks the other as eccentric and not naturally fitting into society. Bergson likens it to a kind of hazing or “ragging,” which at its best is meant to gently chide the object of the laughter into coming to his or her senses, seeing that he or she has become laughable by becoming unnatural and mechanical, and thus perhaps waking up to the need for a more spontaneous, natural and aware life. This can happen when we mock the other as falling into a type, allowing some character trait, usually a vice but possibly a virtue, to cut one off from social life. [10] It is the unsociability of another that provokes our laughter, rather than the fault per se, so that even a virtue can become laughable or a vice, if it provokes violent emotion such as anger, is not. Sometimes the “type” is not a character stereotype at all, but a social one.[11] Every profession has its own standards, patterns of speech and thought, values and in short is a subculture within the wider society. Mocking these different groups can be a way to call them to account when some member of the profession begins to think his or her group is superior or self-sufficient. One example that seems to particularly reflect this sort of humor is Monty Python’s “Merchant Banker Sketch.” The Merchant Banker, busy extorting fees and concessions from a “Mr. Victim” seeking a loan, is approached in his office by a Mr. Ford who is collecting money for charity. Try as he might, The Banker cannot grasp this concept:




Banker: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.

Mr Ford: Well, yes you are.

Banker: I am! Well, what is my incentive to give you the pound?

Mr Ford: Well the incentive is to make the orphans happy.

Banker: (genuinely puzzled) Happy? You quite sure you’ve got this right?[12]



Any normal person understands the idea of charity, but the Merchant Banker is not “normal;” he describes himself as “very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very rich,” while introducing himself with “Er… I forget my name for the moment but I am a merchant banker. “ He is literally so caught up in his job and his wealth that he cannot understand anything else. Bergson would be pleased by this satire. At the same time, this is only funny because the Banker is unsympathetic but also nonthreatening; his exaggerated miserliness and abuse of others renders him unrealistic, so while his type is recognizable and seen as deserving a good drubbing, he is not personal enough to evoke genuine fear or anger.

To summarize, Bergson sees comedy as uniquely human and thus rational, aimed at the head rather than the heart, and primarily as serving a social function of (usually) gently punishing unsociability which results from an undue rigidity or mechanical behavior in another.

[1] Henri Bergson, Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic posted July 26, 2009 (

[2] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. I

[3] Laughter

[4] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. II

[5] Laughter, chapter I, sect. III

[6] Monty Python’s Flying Circus, BBC1, season 2, episode 1 (

[7] “Listen: Toilet Flushes as Supreme Court Holds Oral Arguments by Teleconference;” NBC News NOW May 6, 2020 (

[8] Laughter, chapter II, sect. II

[9] Laughter, chapter III sect. I

[10] For example, in The Good Place there is a character, Chidi, who is a moral philosopher and terribly indecisive. The audience is shown that he was unnaturally indecisive even as a child, but now his anxiety has been exacerbated by his morality itself. Faced with a simple question like whether to have a blueberry muffin for breakfast, he worries about the treatment of farm workers, what various schools of philosophy would judge to be better or worse, and becomes paralyzed. As a result, he makes everyone who cares about him miserable, not through any malice or immorality but by an excess of virtue: he is too thoughtful, too afraid of causing offense or violating his duty, and thus constantly offends and annoys and fails to do his duty or anything else.

[11] Laughter chapter III, sect. III

[12] “The Merchant Banker,” 2014 ( video here: