Why do we laugh when we shouldn’t?

laugh-cryWe’ve all done this don’t you think?  Laugh when it was inappropriate? Laugh when we shouldn’t or when something isn’t even funny.  Maybe even at something that’s sad.

We were watching a movie review of the new Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino.  It looks like an excellent movie and I will buy it when it comes out just because, hey, it’s Clint Eastwood.

But it’s apparently a very racist movie (I’m sure he redeems himself in the end) which had people wondering why there was so much laughter in the theaters during very hurtful and racist statements. There was an expert who tried explaining why people do this.  Some people just get nervous.  Some just simply can’t believe what’s being said and laugh out of shock.  Remember how we all used to laugh at Archie Bunker?  It didn’t mean we agreed with what he was saying or that we even found it funny but we, at least I, just couldn’t believe he was saying the things he was saying on TV.  

Did anyone ever see the Mary Tyler Moore Show when Chuckles the clown dies?  It’s explained a little more here.  Everyone laughs the entire episode except for Mary.  The funeral comes and everyone is sad but Mary breaks out in hysterical laughter.  Here is it for those of you who want to see it.


I remember this episode and felt quite like Mary did.  I also know I’ve laughed at things I shouldn’t have and at things that weren’t funny.  Once it starts, it’s also very hard to stop.   Have you ever gotten the giggles and no matter what, you couldn’t stop laughing even though at times you were in church or somewhere that you really had to stifle yourself?  I remember my cousin Pam and I broke out into a fit of giggles once during supper at one of our uncles house.  We made him so mad he made us go sit outside and even out there, all we had to do was look at each other and it all started over again and we really didn’t want to but just couldn’t stop.

This can also happen to me when I’m with my brother.  We kind of read each other’s minds and there have been times I’m with him and can’t look at him or I know all hell will break lose and I will start laughing at the wrong thing.  Not because I think it’s funny per say, but we can be awful smart asses when alone together.

I think the same thing can be said for smiling.  I know there have been times when I’ve been so irritated and the only thing I could do was smile because I knew if I couldn’t keep it together, I’d really snap.  I also smile if I tell a lie and my youngest son is the same way.  Neither of us can tell a lie to save ourselves so we just grin. So does this just happen when we are uncomfortable?  Do we smile or laugh in sadness or shock as well as when something is funny?

How about you?  How many of you have had a fit of laughter or the giggles at the worst possible time?

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22 Responses to Why do we laugh when we shouldn’t?

  1. SKL says:

    That used to happen to me a lot when I was a kid – the fit thing. I think the last time was when I was 16 and had just begun college. Well, the prof was talking about an abusive husband and a friend behind me whispered, “what a toad.” Well, something about calling a wife-beater a “toad” was just too much for me. I was visibly fighting laughter for quite a while, to the point where the prof looked at me and said, “I know it’s hard to imagine, but these things really do happen.”

    As far as laughing when things aren’t objectively funny, I think there are several things going on. One, yes, some people react to shocks with laughter. Like when my sister busted out laughing after our neighbor fell down some steps. Nothing at all funny but it was such an unexpected crisis, it drew that reflex. As far as the racist stuff goes – well, humor is an art that can be applied to various media. Racism itself isn’t funny, but a racist joke can be funny by virtue of its clever combinations of words, surprise factor, creative cause-and-effect sequence, etc. It’s the style, not the content, that is funny. I think most people are mature enough to appreciate the talent of “wit” without agreeing with the racist content.

    I have made a few light-hearted comments about my kids’ adoption that would highly offend the adoption community. Of course I don’t “mean it.” But it would be a sad world if we didn’t have license to play with words.

  2. coffee says:

    Clint Eastwood did a great job of using his outward crankiness to come across as mean as well as somehow heroic this newest film of his

  3. Sue says:

    Oh, I’ve laughed when I shouldn’t have both in fits and just a chuckle. I think it’s easier to laugh at a situation when you’re not involved directly in it. If we have to start appologizing for when we laugh that’ll take the cake!

  4. SanityFound says:

    I don’t know, sometimes I say inappropriate things around family members like at my uncle’s 60ieth birthday party I told him oh dear now its all down hill and that I hoped he had his prescription for viagra… he apparently doesn’t need it and was most offended that I thought he did – at that age I didn’t have a problem (will never naturally) and didn’t quite get how sensitive an issue it is – I do now

    Laughing wise, I tend to laugh when I hurt myself other than that I don’t know… I laugh a lot, sometimes people just look at me…

  5. jefner says:

    I’m famed in my family for laughing at bad moments, and I normally drag my cousins and sister down with me.
    At my Gran’s funeral me and one of my cousins had just done an eulogy, we went back to the pews and started singing a hymn and I BURST into laughter, it was so funny, my cousin is completely tone death (as am I) and it sounded awful.
    I did the same thing with her when we to church on Christmas eve for midnight mass.
    My poor family wanted to disown us right there and then!!

  6. Morocco says:

    Of course, we are all human and all have moments in which we express levity. Much to my dismay, I had to stifle my laughter once at a funeral (I wasn’t laughing at the deceased, something at the service triggered a funny memory)! But I was able to cover it up by pretending to have a fit of coughs!

  7. Joy says:

    Funerals seem to trigger this impulse for some reason. Maybe because they are such serious situations.

  8. Elena says:

    If I had a nickel for every time one of my kids came running to me, crying and shouting, “I hurt myself and *insert sibling’s name here* is laughing!” I’d be living in a mansion.

  9. Doraz says:

    Laughing is definitely a way for all of us to cope, Timing is everything.

  10. SKL says:

    Oh my gosh, I always smile and laugh at funerals! I haven’t been to that many, but somehow it brings that out in me. At my grandma’s funeral, we went to my aunt’s house afterwards and she told us about the two ladies who sat behind her during the service. They were elderly and obviously hard of hearing, and they didn’t realize that they were holding a rather loud conversation including “WHERE’S THE BO-O-ODY?” (she’d asked not to be laid out) and “You got any candy? If I could just find it in my purse . . . .” My cousin was chuckling and I was laughing my butt off, it was totally hilarious. I believe my grandma would approve.

    Then my mom’s best friend of 50 years died and her daughter, who is my age (and also single), and we started a conversation about “men” and we were laughing hilariously. Honestly, she was so upset I think she needed the laugh. It wasn’t planned but somehow that’s how it always works out.

  11. SKL says:

    Sorry, my last comment has a confusing typo. It was the daughter and I who were laughing about men at the funeral.

  12. Laura (LS) says:

    I had an unfortunate outburst when Sparky was in the hospital. He was still in the ICU, but ‘out of the woods’ – we knew he’d survive, it was just a matter of time before they could bring him out of his medically-induced coma. They were giving his body time to heal. Well, because of his alcohol history, they had to be careful with the meds they gave him – certain painkillers are very addictive – and at one point, my brother and I were back there when his nurse was preparing to change his IV bag, and my brother said something like, “Just put a martini in there.”

    It was seriously inappropriate, but given the absurdity of the remark, and the seriousness of the life-and-death struggle we’d all just sat vigil through, I burst out laughing, and my brother and the nurse were laughing, too. And couldn’t stop the resulting giggles for several hours after. Even in the face of his mother, who found this extremely (and I mean EXTREMELY) offensive, and yelled at me for my reaction.

    But in the situation I was in, it was either lose it to laughter, or lose it to tears. Laughing is MUCH healthier.

  13. Just a Mom says:

    I am known for laughing at funerals. It is my way of getting through it. Plus in some instances I know the deceased would rather us be laughing instead of being all serious and crying.
    And the giggle fits, we have them at my house every day it seems like!

  14. I have to agree with what you said, Joy, I think we really do laugh at the wrong moments because of being nervous or shocked.
    I have definitely had my fair share of laughing at the wrong time! One of my friends and I sat together at school for a couple of years, and there were certain classes where we just couldn’t stop giggling, even if it was for no reason at all! We got into quite a bit of trouble about it too, but being good students they couldn’t really do anything to us. Ha! Beat the system :P.

    How fun that you have that sort of relationship with your brother! Must be amazing :).

  15. nikki says:

    I laugh when Jason and I argue, I have to look away from him! I love getting into laughing fits for no apparent reason. One time I can remember was just last summer. My friend Brei and I were sitting in Reliable Auto waiting for her car to be finished getting the oil changed. It was just her and I at first and we were acting goofy, then a man walks in. This room was like the size of a bathroom with like 4 chairs and a desk. We were occupying 2 of them. He didn’t sit down and the 2 of us busted out laughing and could not stop! I had to stop looking at her it was so bad! I felt bad too because I’m sure he thought we laughing at him and really we were just being dorks! I had tears in my eyes!! I love laughing, it’s great exercise for the abs and the best kind of medicine!

  16. mssc54 says:

    I think the bottom line answer of why it is we laugh is simply to make ourself feel a bit better… in any situation.

  17. kweenmama says:

    I tend to laugh to make myself feel better in a difficult situation. I try to stifle it if it is at an inappropriate time. Other times I just let it go.

    The other day my ex and I were discussing some possible disciplinary actions for one of our kids over the phone. He started in on my stating that I was “making” our child make certain choices. As I was trying to explain my point of view he kept interrupting me and his voice started to raise. I pointed out that he was raising his voice and he yelled, “I am NOT raising my voice!” I busted out lauging. Needless to say, he was not amused.

  18. Joy says:

    LOL Kween. I love it when someone screams at you telling you they’re not!

  19. Amber says:

    Did you read my post long ago Joy when I burst out laughing when I was 19 in the middle of a church when someone started speaking in “Tongues”? Made all the worse by my best friends mother patting my hand piously trying to be encouraging telling me it would be ok which made me laugh harder???? The more she did, the more I laughed, the more horrified I was with myself, the harder I laughed… it was beyond HORRIBLE… Packed CHURCH I was in the middle of the pew!

  20. Joy says:

    No Amber, I’ve never read that one. I’ll have to check it out. Things like this can be so embarrassing.

  21. javajunkee says:

    here is my story that I may end up posting on my blog and ask some of my other readers the same question.

    here is probably the most embarrassing time for me that could not be controlled. This has been like hundreds of years ago …ok well at least like 15 maybe.

    my bff and I have always had a hankering for onion rings at this drive in place we still have in town. We can’t wait for the “official” sign of spring to us is when this joint opens up. So we are headed down to get our first order of the year. She made me drive cuz she never liked to be the one to have to order…as we are headed down there is a pigeon making it’s way across the road. Now all signs would point to that when I get closer he will fly away. NOPE…don’t know if he was committng suicide or what his gig was but the next sound we heard was the shearing of feathers and flesh off the now road kill. As sick and sad as that sounds we started laughing. Thought about it and decided ..what the hell we are still getting onion rings even though we’ve just shredded a pigeon.

    …………fast forward to a few sundays after that in church. We alway sat in the second row to the front. (bad idea)…anyhow we are sitting there with our families and all of a sudden the pastor goes off on some metaphor or analogy about a bird. You know what happens first right..the shoulder shake. I think I got it first and then I knew her shoulders started shaking. Hands go to mouth to cover up the giggle that wants out. People are already looking at us…but it just got worse the pastor kept going and the more he said about this bird the worse it got until I’m not shitting you we were both howling and had to get up and leave the room. People were looking at us as we are busted up walking across the room to leave it. And I’m sure when we got out in the corridor room we were heard even more.
    I ended up calling him during the week and explaining to him what had happened. He started laughing and then thought it was funny. We skipped the next few sundays just to give it time to kind of fade from memories. That was the absolute worst thing as far as laughing and not being able to stop. If he could have just figured out something with birds was causing this maybe he could have switched to a different animal or something…but he didn’t.
    We still talk about that to this day…and still laugh and still get onion rings and when we go past that spot we are like…dude remember that pigeon.

  22. Ah, the good ol Giggle Loop!!! We’ve joked about these for years after seeing an episode of the BBC show Coupling where the characters are caught in a giggle loop at a funeral. It seems to have inflicted everyone at one point in time!

    Here’s the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iKjkPgVQcE

    I think it describes the situation perfectly!

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