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Our inability to laugh is sometimes enough to make you laugh.

August 5, 2014

It caught my eye—a perfect example of the kind of editing error often encountered these days, even in the New York Times where I spotted this one.

It was not a typo but a matter of sense, a mismatch in the precision of phrases, which as a rhetorical “error” probably has a good Latin name.

The writer, wondering why a beach trip is part of the American summer psyche, said, “Sixty-one percent of Americans don’t live anywhere near a beach.” A puff of steam came out my ears at the absurdity of such a sentence.

But I read on, and soon I realized this was a pretty smart writer. The sentence quoted above actually had a sly wit. It now resonated with awareness—the carelessly absurd raised to the level of knowingly funny.

It’s not necessarily humor of deep intention but something that rolls off the tongue, out of the language of the moment. It’s as much discovered as intended.

Dare we go on? Is humor definable or merely something we know when we see it?

This is probably why Aristotle’s treatise on comedy disappeared. Someone said, “Stop!” and, with a frown, burned all the copies.

Eleven years ago in this column, we examined the book “The Morality of Laughter.” It leaned on the “superiority theory,” one of several major philosophical slants on laughter. Newer, “The Humor Code: the global search for what makes things funny” centers on the efforts of professor Peter McGraw and his Boulder lab—HuRL—to understand more about human laughter.

The book travels the world, and I was personally pleased to read of Japan (which by most accounts has a peculiar sense of humor) that its inscrutability falls out of a homogenous society.

Inscrutability is an issue also faced by readers of Japanese haiku. In both haiku and many Japanese jokes, there is a common knowledge shared by Japanese participants that permits the barest shorthand to conjure a complete poem or joke.

The problem is something like this: If you read the headline, “Pine tree planted in honor of George Harrison killed by beetles,” would you laugh? Chuckle? Smile? In any case, one needs to know that George Harrison was a member of The Beatles, and most likely one needs to read the headline in English, since it’s unlikely “Beatles” will have any connection to the word “beetle” in another language.

But humor is more than verbal jokes, of course. Even the overlap of humor with laughter is only partial.

There’s something about confronting the absurd, which continually breaks over us despite our ideas of what should happen. We are standing in the surf with an umbrella, and the absurd is the big wave that crashes down on us again and again.

What is a healthier reaction to such experience? Anger or laughter?

Various theories of humor over millennia have been less than complimentary about the source of our laughter, proposing a sense of or need for superiority, or relief of some kind, or, more flattering, confrontation with incongruity. Better, laughter as play.

A difficulty is that laughter is not always kind. It seems to be a behavior attached to a variety of motivations. Laughing does not mean you have a sense of humor.

I lean toward theories about incongruity or play. The unexpected challenges our habits of mind, which provides a taste of a certain kind of freedom. Humans don’t always enjoy this taste—there can be a bit of existential angst around it—so our reactions will vary.

If our capacity for joy wins out, we might feel enthusiasm or delight, but we might feel embarrassment, dread, or fear and anger.

Our inability to laugh is sometimes enough to make you laugh.

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