Amanda has taken to laughing lately. Laughing, shrieking, squealing with delight at the most bizarre range of stimuli. The dog licking her feet. Learning to wave bye-bye. Her singing teddy bear. All endless sources of amusement.
At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, little baby laughs delight me more than anything else she has done to date. Perhaps because the laughter feels like a kind of personal communication with us that had been impossible for her up to this point. Laughter as communion and communication. Pondering Amanda’s expressions of amusement got me to thinking how far they are from how we often seem to think about laughter, particularly those sources of comedy entertainment in popular culture.
Admittedly, I did not major in Drama as an undergrad, but one couldn’t walk past the Dance & Drama department at Kenyon College without inhaling a big ‘ole whiff of Aristotle’s Poetics. One dim recollection from my Aristotelian indoctrination (by which I mean the department’s “baby drama” course) is the observation that comedy should depict people as “worse than they are.”
By such logic, the sit-coms of the past decade or so have succeeded by leaps and bounds (to say nothing of classics like Faulty Towers or the Simpsons). Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock. They are undeniably brilliant and leave us laughing at the foibles and faults of their less-than-perfect protagonists. As Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy observe about themselves at one point when putting their self-serving schemes into action: “We’re not the best people, but we’re not the worst people. Grad students are the worst.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love all the shows I mentioned above, and they have had me laughing to the point of tears at various point. But the prevalence of that type of comedy seems to suggest that We take it for granted that humour is grounded to a certain degree on meanness. We so often see laughter taking place at someone else’s expense.
Then, over the past couple weeks (when the chuckling cherub is tucked safely in her bed), Leeman and I got to watching the relatively new sit-com Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It is HILARIOUS. Seriously, that show has destroyed us and left us breathless with uncontrollable fits of gaffawing. Put simply–you should probably go binge-watch it on Netflix right now, and then be filled with a mild sense of loss as you realize you have no more stories to share with your friends from the NYPD’s 99th precinct.
Leeman and I realized that so much of what sets the show apart from so many other (admittedly great) sitcoms is that literally every character on the show is so darn likeable. (I’ve heard Parks and Recreation falls into this category as well, but I have seen only a handful of episodes–Fie on you Canadian Netflix!) From main character Jake Peralta who, though a cocky man-child, cares about upholding the law and supports his co-workers whole-heartedly. To Captain Ray Holt whose love for his detectives shines through his robotic exterior (bonus points for actor Andre Braugher portraying a refreshingly non-stereotyped gay character). And while Amy Santiago might try a little too hard at times, she is incredibly competent at a physically demanding job and never overtly sexualized as female leads so often are. These characters have their idiosyncrasies, but we never doubt their sincerity and commitment to one another. We may laugh at them, but we laugh at them as they laugh at themselves. It is a reminder to me of what laughter should be–something that brings us closer to one another–an intimate emotion we can share with our friends–rather than something that separates us from one another.
That is all so say that at the end of the day, laughter can be a weapon used to cut people down, or it can be a means of genuine, loving communion with one another. I think it is interesting that for my infant daughter, laughter is a pure, innocent form of communicating her delight in the world in the only way she knows how. She has not yet learned what it means cynically laugh at someone else. It is worth pondering that for a moment, and wondering whether the simple joy of laughter is one of those wonderful gifts God has given us that we manage to make … not so nice. How much more powerful is joyful, mutual laughter among intimate friends and loved ones.