Laughter 101

In these unpredictable times, we can’t afford to take the power of laughter for granted. It’s the glue that holds us together when the world around us feels like it’s falling apart. Like the touch of a wand, it has the magical effect of making everything feel okay, even if that’s just for a moment.

Members of the cast from HBO’s Insecure laughing. Possibly, the most hilarious show you’ll ever watch. Photo By Michael Loccisano/Getty Images For HBO via Scenester

“As much as we can be undone by one another through grief, we can also be undone in fits of laughter and that is a powerful political moment,” says Jessie Clark.

The Importance of Laughing Earnestly

It wasn’t until I deep dived into the realm of humour studies for my master’s dissertation that I noticed the huge difference between laughter, humour and comedy. These terms belong to the same family, but they all stand for very different things. Laughter is reactive, it happens to the body when your mind registers something that you find funny. Of course, it could be an awkward situation — we’ve all laughed in moments we shouldn’t have, a joke that landed well or neither of the two. Either way, it’s important to laugh earnestly and regularly. Whether that’s a curling lip at the corner of your smile, a nervous chuckle or cracking up with friends, and if you’re lucky there’s the full belly kind.

Given that laughter is a reactive force, it is far less political than humour or comedy. There’s no doubt that what makes you laugh and what you find funny has been shaped by your external environment, upbringing and politics. But in the comfort of your own home, there’s little power surrounding your laughter, so it remains relatively free.

Traditionally, there has always been a man commissioning comedy shows, booking stand-up acts for Live at the Apollo and other shows on TV, or Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And then, there’s the screenwriter who decides on what jokes will be told in a series or film. For a long time, these men dictated what comedy is — whatever it is that they deem worthy, in accordance with their external environments, upbringings and politics. But now, the internet has opened up the playing field and forced the gatekeepers to follow more closely what audiences find funny, instead of their assumptions of the universally funny.

The need for humour in 2020

With the Windrush Scandal, the BAME COVID report and Black Lives Matter protests, 2020 was a seriously overwhelming time for Black people in Britain. Beyond the looming threat of the coronavirus pandemic, we were also forced to face the ever-persistent racism, rearing its ugly head at every twist and turn. But, fortunately, as political geographer Jessie Clark says, “Humor and laughter are mechanisms by which this unjust world is survived and questioned.” We shouldn’t underestimate the power of humour as a political instrument, it can be wielded to resist injustice and raise questions that can disrupt the status quo.

From caricatures and political cartoons to satirical television series, humour and politics are entangled throughout traditional media formats. It’s only natural that it takes form on social media too. During the first lockdown period, people staying at home turned to the internet to keep entertained and up to date with the news. Nowadays, with it being lockdown no. I-don’t-know, we’re all glued to social media more than ever, and Collins ought to update the dictionary entry on ‘humour’ to reflect that. It should read “someone’s words or actions, or in a book, film or on the internet”.

Short and sharp but side-splitting

At the same time that our attention spans are shrinking, short sketches are taking over in the form of videos on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. The 60 second clips and rolling reels have seen the rise of Norwich’s very own Munya Chawawa and the delightful crisp-munching Elsa Majimbo further afield from Kenya.

Munya Chawawa via Twitter

Munya’s tasteful satire of contemporary racism among other serious matters and Elsa’s unrestrained mockery of the rich and social dilemmas provided necessary respite in the midst of the pandemic, and both remain laughter-inducing to this day. As such, in reflecting and ridiculing prejudice, their comedy serves to question and undermine the status quo because it’s our present reality that makes their jokes so funny.

Elsa Majimbo via Twitter

With many boomers and earlier born millennials, who are struggling to keep up with Snap, TikTok and Triller, relying on Facebook or WhatsApp, their feeds are fed the dregs of content produced elsewhere. Desperate to stay relevant, Zuckerberg’s empire continues to push Facebook Watch. But other than Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk and the ensuing entanglements, which probably didn’t intend to give the word a new meaning, Facebook isn’t doing much, if anything at all, for Gen-Z and its blossoming content creators. What’s clear is that these newer platforms are becoming comedy’s home. So you can either wait for the screenshots and reposts or join the laughter in real-time, allowing the algorithms to curate your very own comedic feedback loop.

At least, that’s exactly what I intend to do. Over the next week, I’m going to take another deep dive, this time I’ll immerse myself in TikTok’s humorous universe and report back. So far I have resisted without good reason, but life is too short to miss out on a good laugh.

Writer, Journalist and Editor

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