According to James R. Kincaid, when discussing the issue of laughter, “some degree of oversimplification is inevitable.” At the core of the debate about laughter is whether laughter is incompatible with sympathy or geniality, that is, with empathy. Kincaid identifies two camps, the “dark-laughter” theorists, deriving from Thomas Hobbes, and the “genial-laughter” theorists, deriving from Jean Paul Richter. As I understand it, at the heart of the debate is whether laughter is ever anything but disguised hostility and aggression. Laughter may be a consequence of so-called “civilized” behavior, in which one’s real attitudes and beliefs must constantly be disguised and hidden.
In one of the world’s great books, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud argues that the technique of the joke is similar to that of the “dream-work”: the latent content of the joke, like the latent content of the dream, is disguised through the operations of condensation, displacement, and so on. “Wit,” a means of producing laughter, originates in aggressive or “obscene” tendencies, but the aggressive (or obscene) content is activated in the unconscious but disguised by the joke-work so that the psychic energy aroused can be safely relieved. A successful joke results in what Freud describes as “the economy of psychic expenditure” - the psychic energy required to repress the dangerous or obscene content is released as laughter, which (presumably) nullifies the actual threat posed by the obscene material (e.g., the humor of scatological jokes). The so-called “pleasure” of a joke lies in the psychic release called laughter.
Perhaps Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears Of A Clown” is good example of the “economized expenditure of affect”:
People say I’m the life of the party
Because I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue
So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears
By saying that his inner heartbreak is disguised by laughter, as listeners our empathy is aroused but shown to be unnecessary. That is, despite his situation, if the singer is able to muster a laugh, then our pity is not required. In the face of his self-described clownish behavior, we can repress the need for empathy. The song does not arouse laughter as such, but reveals the operation of the joke-work nonetheless.
The Beau Brummels - Laugh, Laugh
Bob Dylan - It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
The Guess Who - Laughing
Charles Jolly - The Laughing Policeman
Napoleon XIV - They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!
Randy Newman - Laughing Boy
The Residents - Laughing Song
Neil Sedaka - Laughter in the Rain
The Teardrop Explodes - Ha-ha I’m Drowning
Mary Wells - Laughing Boy