Why ‘comedy’ doesn’t make me laugh

What's wrong with me and my sense of humour that I’m not reacting properly?

Artwork by Matthew Fisher

It’s the most disconcerting feeling in the world. You’re sitting in a packed shoebox theatre, a cacophony of laughter bounces off the walls, audience members guffawing in sheer mirth. You sit there stony-faced, letting out a half-hearted chuckle here and there in an effort to blend in, signalling to the people around you that you ‘get it’ too.

Ask anybody and they’d tell you I’m a giggler. Funny GIF? I’ll cackle. Someone says something remotely amusing at brunch? I’ll keel over laughing. It’s uncontrollable and joyous, but vanishes once the actual ‘comedy formula’ is added into the equation.

I’m actively trying to develop a sense of humour to avoid these moments of alienation—I want to go to local stand up shows, improv sketch theatre and fringe festivals, and actually find things funny.

In my pursuit of laughter, I consulted Dr Rodney Taveira, a comedy scholar at the University, who assures me that it’s not uncommon to laugh more in day-to-day life than when  consuming comedy products.

“There’s a live theatrical aspect of stand up. Part of the reason you’re laughing is that other people are laughing,” he says.

“There’s a rhythm and an expected bodily behaviour… as an audience member. What leads to a lot of laughter is the expectation that you’re supposed to, and this person…has said the thing that passes the level of funniness that is appropriate for me to laugh.”

Though I respect the wit and intelligence it takes a comedian to craft each individual joke, they just don’t do it for me. When it comes to sitcoms, comedy movies or stand up shows, hard as I’ve tried, I just can’t understand what makes it that funny. The type of funny that incapacitates people, body convulsing and mouth open.

Dr Taveira points me towards one theory of humour, that laughter is a tension relief and release of pent-up nervous energy.

“You are consenting to what the comedian is saying when you laugh.”

“If the whole room’s not having it, what do you do now? There could be some sort of over compensation, and that allows the people who go ‘nup’ to ride the wave.”

Laughing is a way of building intimacy, a sympathetic and binding response that can bind a community. One big sticking point in my pursuit of self-improvement is a confusion as to how to develop my taste in humour.  Was it just that I wasn’t exposed to anything ‘funny’ as a kid, and now I’m stuck with warped tastebuds?

While a lot of comedy depends on one’s previous viewing habits or even a person’s identity, Dr Taveira says taste is really just about status.

“If you find something dorky like slapstick funny, it’s kind of saying something about you, so I think that’s where a lot of taste comes from in comedy…you feel this pressure because it’s revealing in some way,” he says.

“Some people say ‘I don’t laugh in Hollywood comedy, I only like HBO or improv’. I just think it’s people building their camps.”

Highbrow vs. lowbrow comedy is an understandable and simple explanation of my humour disconnect. It could just be that my subconscious steers away from comedy’s intellectual functions of  satire and lampooning.

This “comedy as commentary” is far removed from the laughter at the lower forms, which Dr Taveira describes as “more powerful and more intense and less able to be helped”.

“It’s more enjoyable when you say something hits you in the guts…When someone falls over and you laugh, that’s the more human aspect of it,” he says.

“[But] when you start having arcane references to 17th century literature…”

He warns me not to try educate myself in the technical, lest I figure out the constructions and patterns, in turn making the jokes less funny than they already are.

“If you’re not laughing, it’s not funny,” he says reassuringly.  “If you haven’t had moments where you weren’t conscious of laughing in support, maybe they’ve got to keep working on it.”

“[But] there’s something to be said for having a nice social interaction with a group of people, where everyone comes out smiling.”

As I watch on with envy as others around me shed tears of laughter, I think of a quote Jimmy Carr hails as his favourite of all time: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” I want to be enjoying this subpar live show as much as they are—is there something wrong with me and my sense of humour that I’m not reacting properly?

I asked Dr Taveira for some parting words of advice.

“Think less, laugh more.”

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