"Comedy" is no more a genre of performance than "music" is. Its forms are so heterogeneous that the only thing uniting them would appear to be laughter. But laughter itself is bewilderingly diverse. We laugh "with" and "at". We laugh out of embarrassment, joy, spite or anger. We laugh at dumb things and at clever things. We laugh when someone walks into a lamppost; we laugh when they narrowly miss doing so. We laugh when our preconceptions are confounded, but also when they are confirmed. We laugh when powerful men are brought low by an ironic twist of fate; we laugh at a dog wearing a bra.
My supposition is that laughter isn't one thing, but at least seven different things, which are entirely distinct from each other. Some comedians work to elicit a particular kind of laugh, and if they receive the kind of laughter they are aiming for, then the performance feels not just successful, but authentic as well. Other comedians either don't know or don't care what noise the audience is making, so long as they are laughing. Their performances can feel somehow forced and unnatural.
How many different laughs are there? There are innumerable words in the English language. For the purposes of this taxonomy, however, I have omitted such laughs as the Holler, the Howl, the Bellow and the Hiss, as these words are also used for non-laugh or semi-laugh noises. My list is restricted to seven primary laughs. The order in which they are described corresponds to their principal vowel sound, their placement in the vocal cavity, and their putative source in the body, like the seven chakras of Hindu traditions. These are:
- The Titter
- The Giggle
- The Snigger
- The Cackle
- The Chuckle
- The Chortle
- The Guffaw
The Titter is the lightest permissible laugh, often suppressed, often barely audible. It is kept in check by societal conventions and the strictures of propriety contained in the Biblical commandment: "Titter ye not". The Titter is a female laugh, and its forbidden status reflects a historic patriarchal stifling of the female voice in general, and the female laugh in particular (see The Cackle).
The Giggle is the laugh of children, originating before language, and along with crying is the earliest form of self-expression. Like crying, giggling needs no object other than itself; just as one can cry simply because you are tearful, so you can "get the giggles", laughing at laughter itself. Some children are instructed not to giggle; is being told not to cry any different?
The Snigger (US: "Snicker") is located high up at the back of the mouth, and is impossible to accomplish without a tightening of the facial and pharyngeal muscles. As a result, it is not a relaxed laugh, but one more associated with fear or aggression, and is used more often for "laughing at" than for "laughing with". The Snigger is popularly associated with male privilege: hence "sniggering schoolboys".
The Cackle, another tension laugh, is identified almost exclusively as the laugh of witches, and could be said to be the female equivalent of the Snigger. It is, however, located further towards the back of the throat. It has historically been linked to evil intent, and is itself held to be taboo by social norms. Hence, the Cackle is a political laugh, the laugh of progressive satire.
The Chuckle, by contrast, is a relaxed laugh located largely in the larynx. It is perhaps the most private of laughs. One can chuckle to oneself or at oneself. The Chuckle is ironic: the least aggressive and the most balanced of laughs.
The Chortle belongs to the chest cavity. If the Chuckle is private, the Chortle is invariably social. The importance of the Chortle as an endorsement of the shared values and experiences of a particular group cannot be understated. It can both affirm the group's system of beliefs and isolate the outsider.
The Guffaw, in evolutionary terms, is the oldest laugh, perhaps predating mammalian life itself, as it exists principally in the digestive system and gut, almost entirely detached from rational higher brain functions, and can cause us to expel fluids from eyes, mouth and bladder. Thus this laugh transcends social conventions, connecting us on a deeper level with our bodies and with humanity as a whole.
So far as I can tell, these seven laughs are entirely distinct from one another. These notes represent only my preliminary thoughts, and I welcome any feedback on the subject of laughter. There's plenty more research to be done, enough to fill a book. Maybe one day I will write that book.
If I ever get round to that, however, I will certainly add, by way of a further supposition, that there is an eighth laugh. This is the Silent Laugh: the laugh that originates from outside ourselves, the background laughter of the universe. Like our own heartbeat or the rumble of urban traffic, we learn to become deaf to it. The deepest ironies of the human condition are conveyed by it down the millennia. To enjoy the Silent Laugh, we must abandon ourselves to it, to become both its source and its object.