Some say that laughter – being able to laugh – signifies our humanity; it makes us relatable. But I cannot agree, for all laughter is vestigial: a guttural, obscene reminder of that which we didn’t symbolize. Here is what Baudelaire had to say:
From now onwards I shall call the grotesque ‘the absolute comic’, an antithesis to the ordinary comic, which I shall call ‘the significative comic’. The latter is a clearer language, and one easier for the man in the street to understand, and above all easier to analyse, its element being visibly double-art and the moral idea. But the absolute comic, which comes much closer to nature, emerges as a unity which calls for the intuition to grasp it. There is but one criterion of the grotesque, and that is laughter—immediate laughter.
Baudelaire offers an apology for the significative laugh – that response at least clings, neurotically, to word-play. But the absolute guffaw is psychosis: free from paternal law and symbolic order.
Consider T.V.’s laugh track. Perhaps that kind of laughter is super-egoic, telling us when and how to manage our little psychotic breaks (before the commercial breaks, of course). The laugh track fixes the significative boundaries of the comic, it teaches us not only when to laugh, but how – duration, timber, challenging fidelity to the joyful audience. Mechanical reproduction tames the laughter. But today’s sitcoms are no longer funny by law – the laugh tracks keep disappearing.
And as the laugh track becomes unfashionable, television enters the grotesque. What do we do when we don’t have to laugh?