The Four Kinds of Laughter


John Wright is a theater director and acting teacher whose approach to performance fits in with the purpose of this blog.  I have his book Why is That So Funny?: A Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy (Softcover) and I have found some useful items to post here.  I would recommend buying his book to get the full value of what he has to offer.

The purpose of comedy is to elicit laughter from the audience.  But people laugh at things for different reasons.   Wright has named four different types of laughter:

1. The Recognized laugh.

2. The Visceral Laugh

3. The Bizarre Laugh

4. The Surprise Laugh.

Wrights description of the Recognized Laugh involves more storytelling than I want to recreate, but I believe I can paraphrase.  One of Charlie Chaplin’s most analyzed performances is in “The Pawn Shop”.   A customer enters and asks Charlie to look at his pocket watch.  The watch isn’t working, so Charlie investigates the problem.  All his movements are derived from those of a doctor performing a diagnosis.  He performs the operation with such accuracy we recognize what it is he is doing.   If he were to SAY, “I’m a watch doctor and I’m going treat the patient”, it wouldn’t be funny.  But as he begins the work we discover it in our own minds, and realize how odd, but appropriate it is.  It relies on the  performers choice of action, and quality of the acting.  Simply put, good mimicry is funny.

The Visceral Laugh may be the sort most pursued by animators.  It involves energy and impact, flight and falling.

The action in a cartoon film follows a similar pattern: a sneeze can blow a character across the room, through the window and into a tree where he could spin round and round a branch and end up staggering dizzily about the road in a disoriented dance until he’s squashed by a passing car.  Comedia is the theatrical version of a cartoon.

Wright goes on to explain how the performer must be able to convince the viewer of what he is seeing, such as slipping on a banana peel:

We’ve just got to believe in that trip.  If it looks even slightly premeditated, even slightly hesitant or set up, then nobody is going to laugh.  If we believe in the fall, then we enjoy seeing you out of control.

Wright gives the example of Monty Python’s Flying Circus as a source for “The Bizarre Laugh”  It is surreal, non-sensical, and defies logic.

The clown lives in a world of bafflement where one thing leads to another.  It’s a state of perpetual free association where we no longer have to ask the question “why?”  The bizarre laugh is the exact opposite of the recognized laugh.

Finally, The Surprise Laugh, is the most basic of all.  Wright reminds us of the Jack-in-the-box, and the infants game of peek-a-boo.

I remember watching a presentation when, at a crucial moment, we heard a violent noise at the back of the auditorium and everybody turned around to see what was going on.  When we turned back again, the scene had been changed.  We laughed because we’d been caught by a simple and effective little trick.

When Tex Avery’s wolf travels to the other end of the globe to escape Droopy, only to discover Droopy has arrived before him, we are hit with the surprise laugh.


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