A Few Thoughts About Laughter

A Few Thoughts About Laughter
Image via YouTube/NBC.

I had read about but never watched Joe Pesci’s SNL monologue the week after Sinéad O’Connor tore up a photo of the Pope during her set. Well, this week I watched it. “I'll tell you one thing, she was very lucky it wasn't my show,” he says. “‘Cause if it was my show, I would’ve given her such a smack.” Cue laughter, cue applause. Everyone loves it.

Host monologues are often spearheaded by SNL’s head writers, which at the time meant longtime SNL honcho Jim Downey. Imagine sitting down for another day at the office and your boss says, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if that 25-year-old girl we all worked with last week got hit?” And you’re probably not much older than her yourself, and everyone else around the table is laughing, and they’re honestly the funniest people you’ve ever met, and by the way this is the most important job you’ve ever had, your entire future depends on how well you fit in. Now imagine being the boss in a place like that—everyone laughing at your jokes for years, decades.

I can't think too hard about laughter without going a little crazy. It’s the end-all in comedy, the thing everyone's after, the ultimate measure of good and bad. It’s also totally meaningless. Laughter signifies one thing: that people are laughing, something people do for a million contradictory reasons, only one of which is that a joke was any good. Laughter doesn’t tell you anything about the truth. It doesn’t tell you anything about what’s right or wrong. It might tell you what people believe to be true and right, but people are very complicated, not to mention highly suggestible and often straight-up incorrect. You have to be critical of laughter to get to the meaning of it, which is impossible, because the pursuit of laughter is the pursuit of pleasure, and the surest way to diminish pleasure is to stop and scrutinize it. Which is why laughter is such an appealing metric, or really more of a higher authority—a divine judge, if you want to be dramatic about it. (I want to be dramatic about it.)

Who even said anything about truth and morality? Me, for one: I believe our senses of humor are informed by subconscious intuitions about how the world is and ought to be ordered. Speaking from experience, I also think that even the most hardened edgelord comics—and thousands of their fans—would argue that laughter confers merit on whatever inspired it, which is an argument for laughter as a source of moral authority. More pertinently, this is the organizing principle behind SNL. Lorne Michaels has spoken since the show’s earliest days of the relationship between comedy and laughter and truth. "The liveness is not for the audience, it's for us," he told Playboy in 1977:

There's no safety net, and that encourages everyone to relate to one another in a truthful manner. One of the major lies told to casts on taped shows is that the mistakes will be fixed in the editing; what happens is somebody else becomes the judge of whether something works and it becomes a different process. Whereas this show is theater. When it doesn't work, it's clear that it doesn't—there's no sweetening.

He made a similar case to Vulture in 2020:

All I feel is what I’ve always felt, which is it’s really important to get it right. And laughs are the clear indicator. That’s why the audience is so important. Because you just can’t come out and express your political opinions. There has to be something, something that gets close to the truth that you’re doing and that’s honest. And that’s where the laughs come from.

I think he’s right that laughs are a clear indicator, but it seems to me that what they indicate is how untrustworthy they are. I would hope that everyone involved in the Pesci monologue has the perspective now to recognize, how do I say this politely, that it was wrong. The joke may have been honest, but it was certainly not true. What it tells us three decades later is that laughter can be a form of mass revelation as surely as it can be a form of mass delusion. People laugh at the truth; they also laugh at lies they believe in. Dave Chappelle famously quit comedy over this realization years ago, which, oh well.

It’s often said that comedy ages poorly. I wonder if this is because so much comedy plays to its era’s basest instincts, naive or willfully blind to the fact that we don’t live at the end of history. If popular approval is your avatar for truth—if instant gratification is what you're really after—then you can only ever speak to the audience right in front of you, the one future audiences will look back at the same way we look back at Joe Pesci's. The pursuit of truth, I think, requires the humility to accept that it's hardly so easily found.

For most of us, anyway—