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Laughter and Literature: A Play Theory of Humor

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 28, Number 1, April 2004
pp. 1-22 | 10.1353/phl.2004.0002


Humor seems uniquely human, but it has deep biological roots. Laughter, the best evidence suggests, derives from the ritualized breathing and open-mouth display common in animal play. Play evolved as training for the unexpected, in creatures putting themselves at risk of losing balance or dominance so that they learn to recover. Humor in turn involves play with the expectations we share-whether innate or acquired-in order to catch one another off guard in ways that simulate risk and stimulate recovery. An evolutionary approach to three great literary humorists, Shakespeare, Nabokov and Beckett, shows that a species-wide explanation not only cuts deeper but in no way diminishes individual difference.