A Laughing Matter

There was a giant elm tree in the back of our property that died from Dutch elm disease in the late 1950's. Prior to that it had been the source of much pleasure in my youth. It was at the edge of a small woods, and it provided a rather secluded spot for youthful fantasies. During my high school geometry class I was able to determine the height of that tree using its shadow and some basic triangulation. It was 122 feet high, and the spread was at least that.

One of the activities that centered on the tree was a rope swing. The tree was atop a small hill and we could swing out over the thicket below. To enhance that experience, I made use of a 12' wooden ladder that could be utilized as a stepladder. Launching our swings from the top of that ladder gave us an extra 10' of swinging height and provided much needed thrills for myself and other thrill-seeking kids who were brave enough to stand atop a 10' step ladder. The experience is as vivid today as it was then.

Foremost among my memories of the elm tree escapades was one provided by a childhood friend whose name I believe was Melvin, but I could be wrong about that. I recall Melvin taking the challenge and climbing to the top of the ladder to experience his first swing. Just as he got to the top and was turning around to prepare to swing, the ladder started listing to the right and, almost as if it was happening in slow motion, Melvin and the ladder went crashing into the small trees and thicket.

It was, without a doubt, the funniest thing that I can remember from my first 18 years of life. Had his name been John instead of Melvin, perhaps it wouldn't have been as funny. But when I tell that story, as I have on a number of occasions over the years, no one thinks it is especially funny. I've always chalked it up to the old, "you had to be there" explanation, but lately I've been wondering about that. It's gotten me thinking about humor and laughter.

Most of the time when people laugh, they do so when nothing funny has occurred. When I watch people talk, whether they are giving a formal speech, an informal presentation, or simply talking to others, they laugh way more often than their audience, and usually about nothing that was funny. I've concluded that humor is only one reason why people laugh, and it is not the primary one. Laughter is one of the ways we interact socially.

My interest in what makes us laugh led me to start reading about it. I discovered that there are people devoting a good portion of their lives to researching the matter. Sigmund Freud's book Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious appears to have been the first documented research. The most recent is a book by Robert Provine titled, Laughter, A Scientific Investigation. Neither of these two books is funny.

Provine states that you are 30 time more likely to laugh when you are with other people than when you are alone. I laughed when I read this, but it wasn't funny, and I was alone. I laugh more when I am alone, so that makes me wonder about myself. I tend to laugh out loud most frequently when I'm reading. Perhaps I need funnier friends.