On April Fool’s Day, jokes and pranks inspire laughs throughout much of the Western world. Laughter is a behavior we associate with improving mood, having fun and enhancing relationships.
At Wake Forest University, a class entitled “Why Do People Laugh” reviews the behavior in detail as theater professor Cindy Gendrich’s students dig deep into what causes giggles and guffaws.
“I love to laugh more than anything in the world,” said Gendrich, who received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to develop the course. “I’ve always wondered why people laugh. It is an interesting question that goes all the way back to Plato.”
According to Gendrich, practical jokes are not a guaranteed way to generate laughter. “Lots of theorists have observed that compassion is the enemy of humor—from the Greeks to Henri Bergson.
“April Fools’ Day jokes fall into the same category as watching an episode of the TV show ‘Wipeout.’ Most of us stop laughing if someone gets hurt,” she said.
“The question my students grapple with is how we are sometimes able to turn our compassion buttons to ‘mute’.”
Laughter has psychological, physical and social benefits but also has negatives. In the class, students learn how laughter can exclude or victimize.
Students learn what makes someone or something an acceptable target for laughter. “We may laugh more at April Fools’ jokes if they seem somehow justified,” she said. But being the “fool” is not always funny.
In the class Gendrich explores many reasons we laugh that may or may not be directly connected to something funny.
“Laughter has a lot to do with human relationships. We laugh to put people at ease, to show approval, to flirt, to contribute to the energy of an event or a moment, to tell people we are not dangerous, to show we ‘get it’. We often laugh out of nervousness.”
Gendrich has students bring to class whatever they think will be funny. Sharing humorous examples is an ongoing class assignment.
However, it is often not easy to be funny as even professional writers struggle to pen something that is perceived to be funny.
In fact, an interesting component of laughter is that not everybody thinks the same thing is funny.
“I like it when we are laughing at the same things,” Gendrich said, “but it is super interesting when we are not.”
The class itself is anything but a joke as students are required to write essays on theories of laughter as applied to various plays, novels, short stories and film.
“We study different theories on laughter and students write papers supporting or challenging these ideas based on what they are reading and watching. So, they have all these great references and can support their arguments with things that actually made them laugh.”
Source: Wake Forest University