Sometimes people tap you on the arm and say, “Oh, hey, I’ll give you a laugh,” but what they really mean is the opposite, that you have to give them a laugh. If they’re particularly enthusiastic they’ll promise you a “real laugh”, and so that’s what you have to give them: a real laugh.
Just knowing you have to give a laugh or a real laugh can spoil even the funniest anecdote. When do you have to do your laugh? Will it meet expectations? So it’s good to have a fake laugh up your sleeve, tucked away next to your funny bone.
I’ve been developing a new fake laugh recently that surprises me with how authentic it sounds. To be honest, I can hardly tell the difference. In the past I’ve struggled with nearly-theres and wonky prototypes, but this is to humour what Dyson is to vacuum cleaners – nothing short of a revolution. But, a bit like having a Dyson, you don’t want to brag: it’s just a vacuum cleaner; life goes on; tragedy is just a step away.
My new fake laugh takes care of itself. Someone was telling me about something that happened to them that I could tell wasn’t funny. I thought I would need to throw in one of my old fake laughs which – combined with a table slap and a tilt of the head – were sometimes passable but never entirely reliable.
When they got to the punchline, which sadly didn’t involve them falling in public and ripping some vital piece of clothing, my new laugh came out fully formed. Up it soared, out it bubbled. Someone else was telling me a long, boring work tale with no discernible purpose. Up it soared, out it bubbled.
I’ve been having barrels of faux fun ever since.
Real laughs can’t be cajoled or persuaded. Film buffs sometimes say you’re going to laugh your socks off – two hours later you’re sitting crumpled in the cinema, socks still on.
Laughter work best when it’s unexpected. One afternoon, when I was about eight, we were drawing figures for a Native American scene to go up on our classroom walls. I quickly sketched a squaw that looked exactly like my best friend David Hardie’s mum. When I showed David he burst out laughing, and then I did, and then we couldn’t stop.
We were dragged out of the classroom and had to stand in the corridor, where we still couldn’t get the image of his Hiawatha-mum from our minds’ eyes. When Mrs Wilson came out five minutes later to give us a talking to we were hoarse and nearly spent. And then she banged our heads together and we started chortling again. Anyway. It was a real laugh.
Real laughs can come when you’re being tickled or reading Franz Kafka. When the writer read the first chapter of The Trial at a public gathering he had to keep stopping because both he and his audience were laughing so much at the absurdity of the novel’s premise. And then Orson Welles got hold of it and made it – wrongly – a brutal tale about state persecution, and put everyone on a massive downer.
I like telling people my Kafka story when they say “Christ, my life is Kafkaesque,” because I think it’s funny and might cheer them up. When I finish they’ll sometimes slap the table, tilt their heads back and giggle. I don’t know how genuine they’re being. I’m pretty sure they’re only pretending.
First published on Herald Scotland.