Laughter unites, but jokes divide

Laughter is one of the most treacherous of all fields of history. Like sex and eating, it is an absolutely universal human phenomenon, and at the same time something that is highly culturally and chronologically specific. Every human society in the world laughs, and whatever their race or language, people make almost exactly the same sound in doing so. Not only that, but they represent the sound of laughter in almost exactly the same alphabetic or phonetic form. Whereas Albanian dogs apparently go "ham ham" rather than "woof woof," and Hungarian pigs go "rof rof rof," not "oink oink," there are few language communities in the world that do not represent the sound of laughter with some variant on "ha ha" or "hee hee."

It even extends to primates. Charles Darwin was one of the first to recognize that Aristotle had been wrong to claim that human beings were the only animals to laugh. And since then many scholarly hours have been profitably spent tickling the underarms of chimps, and watching them at play, to confirm that they do indeed laugh exactly like Homo sapiens. Or very nearly so. The sound of human laughter is made only as we exhale. Chimp laughter occurs also as they inhale. The difference may (or, of course, may not) be crucially significant.

Yet things look very different when we go beyond such physical stimuli to reflect on jokes, cartoons, pictures, and performances that provoke laughter. Never mind what we may share with the primates; it is often hard for the English to share a joke with their neighbors across the Channel, or to respond to cartoons penned a century ago. It is all very well for comedians to claim that "the old ones are the best," but anyone who has picked up a nineteenth-century copy of a comic magazine such as Punch is almost bound to have been disappointed. Even when they are not referring to the minutiae of some now forgotten political crisis, the vast majority of the cartoons simply don't make you laugh. It is sometimes easy enough, on a few moments' reflection, to get the joke and to see why it might once have seemed funny; but that is a very long way from feeling the remotest temptation to laugh oneself. In that sense laughter does not travel across space, time, or even necessarily—as any encounter with a group of under-fifteens will tell us—between different age groups in a single community.

—Mary Beard in the New York Review of Books, reviewing Jim Holt, Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, and John R. Clarke, Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 BC–AD 250.