If you’re like most people, your emotions sometimes get the better of you. A driver inadvertently cuts you off in traffic, you contend with one too many interruptions while trying to meet a deadline, or a kid won’t stop kicking the back of your plane seat. Try as you might, feelings of tearful frustration or menacing anger bubble up to the surface.
In what seems an odd, and perhaps infuriating, transposition, such outward expressions of despair are sometimes met with laughter. It’s the exact opposite response you might hope for in that moment, namely understanding, sympathy, perhaps some empathetic irritation, or even rage—certainly not dismissive laughter.
Why does this happen? Why might people respond to negative emotions with laughter? Is it an indication of callous insensitivity?
The simple answer is no, or at least not necessarily. Fortunately, the newest theory to explain why we laugh provides insight into what might be motivating such a reaction.
According to the Mutual Vulnerability Theory, we emit this distinctive vocalization to communicate a sense of shared limitations or shortcomings. It reminds others that we all have vulnerabilities, ones that can be broadly subdivided into four types: physical, emotional, cognitive, and social.
Emotions are the drivers that motivate us to behave in certain ways and so each ultimately has physical consequences. When they are properly aligned with whatever physical and social environment we find ourselves in, they help ensure our survival. They bring us closer to our objectives and take us farther from potential threats. However, when they are seen as inappropriate in kind or in strength, they are can be interpreted by others as counterproductive, and thus fodder for giggles and guffaws.
We see this play out in much of the formal humor we enjoy. It comes in positive, negative, and even neutral “flavors.” It appears as over-excitement or jubilation, excessive pride, sensorial ecstasy, or uncontrolled attraction. It might manifest as irritation, alarm, disgust, jealousy, embarrassment, sadness, or guilt well beyond what the situation calls for. And it’s also found whenever emotions are stifled, such as with boredom, apathy, and lethargy.
I found a wonderful illustration of this comedic variety in one of the many Mr. Bean videos available on YouTube. Even if you’re not a fan of the Mr. Bean character, you should appreciate the brilliant way actor Rowan Atkinson morphs from tender, childlike innocence to near homicidal maniac in under a minute. I’m betting there is something in that rapid devolution that you will identify with…and find amusement in.
You can find it at timestamp 13:54 in “Hair by Mr. Bean of London.” Take a quick look, just until timestamp 14:56 (for now, anyway), then return here for a brief analysis.
The Mean Bean
Setting the Stage—The Mr. Bean character is a generally harmless individual, on the surface quite cordial and mild-mannered, but also immature, impatient, easily frustrated, prone to taking shortcuts, mildly devious, and rather curt to those who stand between him and immediate gratification.
The Scene—Mr. Bean makes an impromptu stop at a small, school charity event in the English countryside. After having failed at one game (one he eventually cheats to win), he finds himself at the “Hit the Headmaster” sponge toss where patrons pay a coin to throw a few soaking wet sponges at the principal of the school.
We see a young girl tossing her four sponges, missing slightly, but nevertheless giggling and thrilled for the opportunity.
Mr. Bean sees her and, finding the game interesting, happily offers up a coin to take the next turn. His first tentative throw misses his target but results in only some embarrassed, self-lifting Laughter. He misses again with the second and third sponges in quicker succession, getting slightly more irritated after each. After missing with his fourth, and now hearing some gentle laughter from the headmaster, Mr. Bean becomes somewhat agitated.
The TV audience is drawn in, feeling his embarrassment and frustration, identifying with his plight. Except he now goes beyond anything one would find appropriate. First throwing the food cans that would, if landed, cause substantial injury to the headmaster (with whom the audience, now, also identifies), then a cereal box, and in apparent desperation, even as he is being restrained by a worker, another can.
Finally, after being released, Mr. Bean loses all sense of proportion by attempting to take a chair to the headmaster’s head, stopped only at the last second. This rapid transition from magnanimity and smiles to embarrassment, impatience, frustration, disdain, and eventually murderous contempt is highly exaggerated to be sure, but the audience recognizes each emotion and understands the way one can bring about the next. They know, too, they are watching a comedy, so the actor playing the headmaster never faces any actual physical danger.
Note the context which inspires the audience to become invested in the players, each helping to raise money for a good cause. Observe how the prelude with the young girl supplies a baseline of normality with which to contrast Mr. Bean’s subsequent outburst. Appreciate how emotional vulnerability is immediately and directly tied to physical vulnerability (the headmaster’s) in a way that adds to the need for lifting laughter by the audience.
In all, it’s a wonderful example of emotion-based humor.
© John Charles Simon