Laughter: ‘Tis a Puzzlement

By Elouise Bell



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SO I’M ON this trolley in a large European city. Fairly crowded. Lots of teens, 14–16. Their laughter catches my attention. One student says a few words, then the whole cohort laughs vigorously and at length. Brief pause. Another student says a sentence or so that ignites a new round of laughter. And repeat. It doesn’t seem like they’re holding an ongoing conversation, exactly, it’s more that they’re sustaining a mood or a style of interaction. But the pattern holds: a brief sentence or two resulting in a great deal of laughter.

What intrigues me in this scenario is the ratio of language to laughter. There are easily three times as many ha-ha-ha’s as words. After a twenty-minute ride among these students, I begin to understand: the laughter is not really a response to what is being said. Instead, the words are spurring the laughter; they’re sticks of wood fed into the fire to keep it blazing and warm. Laughter is not so much the effect of their talk as its purpose. In years to come, these people will not remember much of anything said on that trolley ride; but they will cherish the way they felt, and the bond of their laughter.

With the years, I have come to realize that laughter is far more complicated than I had thought. And in case you are wondering: no, thinking about laughter doesn’t take the fun out of it for me; it enriches this wondrous, exclusively human gift. (Don’t bring up hyenas: to us, their bark sounds like laughter; to them, it doesn’t.)

Last week at physical therapy, as I huffed and grunted and made wincing noises, I became aware of something more interesting than my aches. A fair amount of laughter bounced off the walls of the large therapy studio. But it didn’t come from a group swapping quips. Instead, one woman, working by herself on a torturous machine, would giggle nervously at another woman’s struggles half a room away. Or a second woman would laugh shakily as the physical therapist manipulated her unwilling legs. Occasionally the therapist himself would attempt a little joke. Eventually I realized that the laughter had its origins in embarrassment and pain. More acceptable in public, it was being used as an alternative to swearing, or to tears.

Mark Twain remains second to none in the pantheon of those who write comedy, hailed in South Africa and throughout India, in the South Sea Islands and on the London stage. Yet he makes a most intriguing statement about laughter. “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”1

Wow. No humor in heaven. Really? Not even from J. Golden Kimball? Elder Kimball was a prominent and beloved member of the First Council of the Seventy during the early 20th century—renowned for his colorful frontier language. Someone once asked if he wasn’t afraid his lively language and salty one-liners might jeopardize his Church status. Brother Kimball snapped, “They’ll never ex-communicate me: I repent too damn fast!”

Is laughter suspect among the Saints? It clearly has been in previous generations.

Once upon a private party, fun and merriment prevailed among a group of BYU faculty colleagues. Nothing off-color, I assure you, and not a whiff of Coca-Cola on anyone. Yet suddenly after a burst of hilarity, the host of the party smiled wanly and cautioned, “Not with much laughter, for this is sin.” I have mulled over his unexpected remark for thirty years. Did he really find the hearty guffaws sinful?

He was, of course, quoting a well-known phrase from D&C 59:12–16. In this passage, Joseph Smith is instructing the Saints on Sabbath observance, and in verse 15 says, “And if ye do these things with cheerful thoughts and countenances, not with much laughter, for this is sin, but with a glad heart and a cheerful countenance . . . the fullness of the earth is yours.”

My sense of this passage is that the five verses discourse specifically on how Mormons should observe the Sabbath: not with the long, sad Sunday faces commonly worn by members of many 19th-century sects (which Joseph had first-hand knowledge of), but with good cheer and smiles (emphasized twice in verses 12–15). On Sundays, Saints were of course not to be raucous and out of control, but certainly neither were they to be stony-faced and grim like the Puritans!

A closer look at the specific beliefs of early Puritans in America helps us understand D&C 59 a bit better. Joseph C. Sommer, in “The Dark Side of the Puritan Ethic,”2 tells us that they took a dour interpretation of many of Jesus’s New Testament sayings. They considered laughter, as well as pleasure and happiness generally, suspicious and undesirable. According to records from one town, a man was imprisoned for three days because he smiled during a baptism.

If we read D&C 59 again, keeping the uptight Puritans in mind, we may get a clearer understanding of Joseph’s stress on cheerfulness and bright faces, even on the Sabbath.

The Puritans preached no humor until heaven. Joseph Smith preached good humor now and in the life to come. But Twain says no humor even in heaven. Is he right?

For years, flying in and out of America’s airports, I have happened upon many reunions of returning missionaries with their families. You can spot them a concourse away: a youngish man in a dark, well-worn suit, engulfed by eager parents and families members who many months ago said good-bye to a boy who probably had a good deal more hair on his head, whose face was simpler, more knowable, less familiar with pathos and paradox than the one they kiss now. Mothers and sisters and girlfriends, awash with emotion, shed tears all over the fellow’s shabby suit.

Meanwhile, the fathers and brothers and friends, skittish about crying in public, find that their own emotions are bubbling high at this reunion. So they laugh. Oh, do they laugh! They call out clichés more ragged than the RM’s suit, and make loud, dumb jokes that cause the teens in the group to roll their eyes. The men grab for any shred of the comic, just so that they can have something, anything, to laugh at, lest they cry.

Is this laughter pathetic, Mark Twain? I don’t think so. I believe it is as close to undiluted joy as most of us get to experience in mortality. But there is pathos here, so Twain is mostly right. Jerry Lewis explained, “Comedy is a man in trouble.” And the source of humor, at least as we know it in this life, is sorrow, the tragedy of falling short of our dreams and goals, our pretensions and prayers; failing to achieve a perfection that could save us from Chaplinesque slips on banana peels, missionary gaffes at an investigator’s door, and wise-cracking Fools who prevent even more foolish Kings from believing that they really are the sun.

The older I get, the more I wonder if both laughter and tears may in fact be the shadow, and the foreshadowing, of joy.