Laughter is an emotional response to emotional tension built-up from the benign violation of expectations.

When a comedian tells a story, he deliberately sets out to create a certain tension in his listeners, which mounts as the narrative progresses. But it never reaches its expected climax. The punch line, or point, acts as a verbal guillotine that cuts across the logical development of the story; it debunks the audience’s dramatic expectations. The tension that was felt becomes suddenly redundant and is exploded in laughter.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Laughter disposes of the emotive excitations that have become pointless (due to the violated expectation) and need to be released across the physiological channels of “least resistance.”

Physical Characteristics

It involves a stereotypical and predictable set of characteristics:

  • the involuntary contraction of over 15 facial muscles
  • altered breathing
  • it is associated with irrepressible noises

Evolutionary Perspective

Laughter might be a way to communicate empathy and build better relationships with others. The emotional response (laughter) is so familiar and makes it obvious to the comedian when their audience has understood their message.

Humor is also heavily based on aggression yielding selection pressure.

Philosophical Implications

Comedy and tragedy (pain) are two sides of the same coin. They are yin and yang: can’t have one without the other.

The root of humor comes from a fear of humiliation. Self-deprecating humor anticipates criticism and tries to get ahead of it by leading the audience to take the “other side” — realizing that the self-deprecation is an absurd inverse of reality — violating audience expectations.

The connection between humor and psychological pain makes some sense. Laughter is connected to our sense (and fear) of humiliation.

Nicole Dean