Juxtaposition between the known and the unknown, the safe and the threatening, is almost always the culprit for causing that thing which we call ‘laughter‘. We giggle at sometimes inappropriate moments because of fear, or nervousness, or the simple fact that the injury, loss of face, death, etc, has befallen someone other than ourselves.
For example, despite the fact that I adored him, I got an uncontrollable fit of the giggles at my own father’s funeral. I pinched my thigh until my eyes watered and bit the inside of my cheek bloody, but no amount of pain would stop it and seeing my sister’s sweaty face all scarlet and howling only made matters worse. I tried to disguise my laughter, of course, burying my face in my hands and making crying noises, but with my shoulders shaking from mirth, I don’t suppose the other mourners were fooled for a second. No one said anything, but if looks could kill, me and dad would have been cremated together that day.
‘Schadenfreude’ is the name our German cousins give the act of finding humour in the misfortunes of others. That may sound callous, even spiteful, but I would suggest one’s laughter is more an expression of relief that the bullet of fate missed us, rather than any genuine pleasure at the other person’s pain.
Scientists aren’t sure why laughter is important, but believe it has some deep significance in terms of survival, in just the same way as the fight or flight reflex. What’s more, laughter isn’t confined solely to humans, but is shared with other species. For instance, if a monkey spots what it believes to be a poisonous snake, it will cry an alarm to its compatriots. When, however, it discovers the snake is nothing more threatening than a length of dead creeper, it spontaneously bursts out laughing in relief, as does the rest of the troop. Therefore, when some prankster springs out on us and shouts ‘Boo!’, we don’t laugh because they scared two year’s growth out of us, but because of the realisation a moment later that we are actually safe and unharmed.
Another example was filmed in a wildlife documentary on chimpanzees. The head of the troop, something of a bully, had fallen from a tree and hurt his wrist. As he limped along, the chimps behind him were mimicking the limp, but each time he stopped and turned, they would all instantly walk normally again and appear to be looking anywhere but at their chief. Put simply, they were taking the mickey out of him and thoroughly enjoying it – bit like the labour cabinet did with Gordon Brown – but didn‘t dare do it to his face for fear of retribution and having chairs kicked about the room.
It would appear that laughter provides the antidote to the rush of adrenaline pumped into our system by fear, signalling to the nerves, muscles and pulsating sphincter that, threat now passed, they may stand down from red alert. After all, it has long been known that laughter releases mood-enhancing endorphins within our brains, which not only promote a sense of general well being, but also gave rise to the old adage, laughter is the best medicine. Unless, of course, you have a brain tumour the size of an ostrich egg, in which case you might consider chemo. Or suicide.
Of all the beasts, the snake has the least developed sense of humour, apparently, because you can’t pull its leg (hat tip to the Beano circa 1965 for that one). Laughing hyenas have no real humour either, they just laugh at anything. Ugly, irritating bleeders.
Schadenfreude – or the malicious enjoyment of another’s misfortunes – is a great word, but trust those stone-hearted krauts to invent a word for sniggering as some bruised and bloodied old lady cartwheels down the up escalator, in a surreal race with her ancient wicker shopping basket, while flashing her piddle-stained bloomers at the world.
Mind you, I laughed until I nearly suffocated when I saw a bloke trip and fall while trying to jump onto the old route master bus he’d been chasing, so I can talk about stony hearts. It dragged him, twisting and turning, around a corner and for another hundred yards along Streatham High road. Why he didn’t just let go of the handrail, I will never know, but he made my day. I wonder if the conductor charged him for the journey? That would have cracked me up as well.
We have, of course, appropriated ‘schadenfreude’ into the English language and that’s what makes English the greatest language in the world. We steal all the good words from other languages and after all, a wigwam is a wigwam, a poppadam is a poppadam, why mess about making up new words when things already have perfectly usable names we can pinch and call our own? We did it with everyone else’s countries, so why not their words. Us English were never stupid and pretty damned good thieves. We should be proud. I know I am.