Taking Back the Laugh: Comedic Alibis, Funny Fails

Critical Inquiry 43:2 (2017), 528–49

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Remember the last time someone told you to lighten up? It’s a gut punch, a low blow. Accusations of “why so serious?” feel like serious attacks, striking at a core failure of character in societies ruled by laugh tracks, witty tweets, and punny headlines. Even (or especially) in times of strife, humor should presumably serve as fantastic armor against no-good realities. But this armor is not so much iron as it is ironic; for within neoliberal logics, people who endure systemic oppression (blacks, queers, crips)—who might have the least reason to lighten up arbitrarily—tend to be the ones who are most exhorted to gain a sense of humor, to take a joke, and to laugh things off. A quotidian illustration involves men who goad women to smile, as if an unhumored female countenance (Resting Bitch Face) were an affront to physiognomic aesthetics and social mores. Yet when disenfranchised people do appear overpeppy or do laugh out loud, they can get slammed anyway.

A familiar saying is that “against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,” a Mark Twain gem uttered today in inspirational contexts (despite the lesser-known fact that it’s spoken by Satan in Twain’s novel). Beyond its advocacy of using mirth against malevolence, however, this quotation can be read another way: that when our bodies are assaulted by our own impulsive laughter, we show our cards and lose our moral credibility, leaving no leg—nothing—to stand on. If you snicker at a comedian’s racist joke, it becomes that much harder for you to scramble onto high ground because, listen, you laughed; the evidence is in the vibrations, right here (not someplace else, no alibi). Yes, you may argue after the joke that you were laughing cynically and knowingly at the structural racial injustices that fuel such cruel comedy, but by this point you’re necessarily on the defensive, carrying the burden of proof. In any case, having to say something was just a joke already implies that court is now in session, that some possible offense lies in need of retraction or explication. Complicating every aspect of the comedic alibi, furthermore, is the fact that people don’t always know (how to describe) why they laugh. And just as people hate explaining jokes, most loathe having to rationalize their laughter out loud.


In this article, I perform an acoustemology of comedy’s alibis in contemporary media. I listen for means by which laughter—its emission, contagion, suppression—can serve as audible barometers of how alibis either fly or bomb. A paradox emerges from the ways spontaneous-sounding laughter can simultaneously free us from societal scripts while shackling us within our own telltale, tittering bodies. A laugher’s accountability poses a moving target precisely because so much of comedy’s generic success relies on procedures of failure, impropriety, and breakage. Through three progressive cases, I delve into modern technologies of taking back laughter via the breaking and hacking of cultural texts. Each case features a do-it-yourself (DIY) phenomenon that exposes the stakes and choreographies of comedy’s consumer sovereignties: first, television fans who, through techniques of editing and recomposition, remove laugh tracks from comedies (The Big Bang Theory, Friends) or, inversely, add laugh tracks to dramas (Breaking Bad, The Wire), using the silence or surplus sound to break the show’s original mood; second, a YouTube game show that tries to make contestants break into smiles or laughter by presenting them with outrageous videos; and, third, Apollo Theater audience members who, through brash laughter and boos, use their collective judge-it-yourself authority to make or break the dreams of hopeful performers on amateur nights. All three of these examples hinge on the breakage of norms and the breaking in of new normals, embodying or eliciting laughter that may variously sound ambivalent, uncomfortable, or out of line. Lending a musicological ear to laughter’s stubborn materialities and technical hackability opens resonant perspectives into some of comedy’s funniest alibis. I conclude with a tribute to laughter’s Debbie Downer cousin: the groan.