Some of the things that make you laugh are just not funny.

There’s a certain pitch of horror that, if it happens quickly enough, and is horrible enough, will make you laugh.

You might feel a little bad about it afterwards, of course. Laughing at other’s misfortunes: what kind of thing is that? Even if they fucking deserved it.

In my blog post (see below) about Vicki Hendricks’ Miami Purity I neglected to mention that, even in its darkest moments, the book is stalked by a kind of mad laughter. I feel terrible about some of the things that made me laugh out loud. Fortunately, to discuss them would produce major spoilers, so I have a good excuse for keeping them in the dark, where they belong.

But those cases–where a bad guy gets served, justly and deservedly–are usually not as funny as when some perfectly guiltless, innocent and unsuspecting person is hit with the worst thing imaginable. There is probably some calculable ratio between deserts and punishment that produces comedy, a tipping point beyond which there is nothing to do but to hit the floor laughing.

At a Thrillerfest panel on humor in thrillers, someone in the audience brought up Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust. Tony’s only sin is that he is a somewhat clueless traditionalist who is no judge of character. He seems to believe that deep down, in their heart of hearts, his fellow human beings are fundamentally good and decent.

He gets schooled some in this.

Tony ends up, after the rest of his life is crumpled up and thrown in the trash, deep in the Amazon jungle as the permanent guest of a Mr. Todd. Mr. Todd’s only recreation, aside from rescuing lost Englishmen, is reading Dickens. Or rather, having Dickens read to him. By Tony Last. Again and again. Over and over. Probably forever.

Now I find this funny to the point of brain seizure. This is well beyond schadenfreude, the shadow joy of laughing at something that might just as easily be happening to you. This is the comedic equivalent of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, being given a glimpse of the big existential ha-ha-ha. It makes you realize that laughter is probably at base a survival mechanism.

Joke’s on you, buddy.

What a riot.

Anyone feel like confessing to similar inappropriate laughter?


1 Response to “GUILTY LAUGHTER”

  1. March 15, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Hi !
    I found your note while searching how in earth I could translate ‘guilty laughter’ into french (yes, I’m French). I have a slightly better idea now.

    I actually see what you mean with the higher-than-schadenfreude thing. My favourite one was with my father, some years ago. He had a cancer and chimiotherapy at home, so very potient medecine to take. And as a responsible patient, he was reading the little notice they put in medecine boxes. Especially the – how to translate that – ‘what may happen to you’ part.

    I hope you have no reason to know what is written on the notice of chimiotherapy-drugs. There was nearly everything ; from nausea and tachycardia to anaphylaxis and pulmonary oedem. As I said to my father, the only thing not there was ‘instant death’. And if you can believe it, we were hooting with laughter. There was no explicit reason to find this funny, but we couldn’t help.

    I think laughter can be a protective reaction. We’re not actually enjoying what’s happening, we’re just protecting ourselves to really feel it.

    It’s my little contribution to your note, two years after it was written ! Take care.

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