Feeling the Book

SUBSTITUTING LAUGHTER

Where does humor come from? One place might be the tension—or doubleness—between the opposing forces of social expectations in one direction and human desires in another. You might want to eat six slices of cake at a birthday party, or throw your computer out the window when work gets frustrating, or fall to the floor and sob at the death of a loved one. Most people, most of the time, play by the rules and moderate such feelings. But those opposing, less “civilized” impulses are part of how we are made, and comedy can both comfort and express the conflict. Laughter may sometimes be a psychological substitute for actual violence. (As in the term “punch line” or the way comics sometimes say of a good performance “I killed.”) Sonnet writers frequently use dying, killing, wounding, burning, freezing in exaggerated senses that are, in the context of their poetry, a variety of kidding.

Kidding also serves as a way to admit people into your feelings while controlling or tempering melodrama, self-importance, or sentimentality. For poets (as for psychologists and performers) humor can serve as a sophisticated way to express what might otherwise feel too unsettling, or too tragic, or too close to home. Often the best comedians can make the darkest or most troubling experiences funny, inspiring the kind of laughter that gives access to insight.