If you want to see human beings in society at their most animated, check out the spasmodic absurdity of a full-blown guffaw. Here, in Late Empire America, the howler is typically overweight, if not obese, so when he begins to shudder and redden and gaspingly go har-har-har, he’s literally shaking, rattling, and rolling. [I’m picturing ‘Bama KA pledge (pasty white complexion, dirty blonde buzzcut) who is stoned and watching Austin Powers 3 in a frat house].
If you’re an alien from a Spartan planet – TriMinicon, let’s say – and encounter for the first time an earthling in a full-throated guffaw, you might be tempted to whip out your Zapgat and instantaneously demolecularize the brute. (On the other hand, if you’re an extraterrestrial from enlightened Eulipia, you’ll discretely slipslide through a portal vector out of harm’s way). Whatever the case, you don’t want anything to do with this snorting, teeth-baring biped. Detaching yourself and viewing guffawing through alien eyes, this species of laughter appears as what-it-is: a loss of self-control, a brain seizure that results in gasping, weeping, and other heaving involuntary spasmodics.
If you think I’m exaggerating, the next time you see some knee-slapper rolling in the aisles, record it on your cell phone. Later when you’re all alone in a quiet moment, watch the contortions of the subject as if you’re an anthropologist. As ephemeral as it might be, guffawing is obviously a form of somatic insanity. It’s simian. No, check that: monkeyish.
What lurks in the heart of humor that triggers the brain of a humanoid to go apeshit? Here’s a rudimentary answer from Dr. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland: “Laughter,” he writes, “is an ancient, unconsciously controlled vocal relic that co-exists with modern speech—-a social, psychological and biological act which predates humor and is shared with our primate cousins, the great apes.” His research suggests that laughter is fundamentally social behavior, a nervous reaction, a non-verbal method of communication that facilitates social cohesion.
However, we’re talking guffawing here, not the harmonious chuckling of a studio audience. And I’m not so sure that guffawing is all that socially advantageous because it makes you look brain-damaged. Once you’re in its hairy-handed grip, the guffaw shakes you until it feels like letting go. (You’re Fay Wray; it’s King Kong). What in Darwin’s name could be the mating advantages in such a display?
If a coed unexpectedly comes sauntering into the room where my Bama fratboy is leaning back in congested high-pitched convulsions, I can’t imagine her inner E.O. Wilson Puppet Master Gene prodding her to mate with him. The frat boy sees her, wishes he could stop the seizure, wishes drool weren’t streaming from the corner of his mouth, but the sight of this lovely, mysterious stranger revs his engine, and the poor boy starts literally howling, his mouth wide open, his beer gut a-quiver; idiotically, he’s slapping himself on the thigh, a complete and utter slave to the Imp of the Perverse. Again, what kind of humor or situation triggers such a spastic physiological reaction? What could it be that has thrown this 20-year-old college student to hysteria?
I’m betting nothing positive. On the DVD, he might have seen Austin Powers take a sip of Fat Bastard’s liquefied feces and complain that the coffee’s “a bit nutty.” The horrible absurdity of unknowingly ingesting shit could very well “slay” our fratboy. But why? I’m afraid that when I search my memory for instances of my own personal guffawing, I can’t conjure one example that doesn’t somewhat smack of sadism. Now, I don’t profess to be in any way typical (or normal, for that matter), and I’m hip to the existential fact that the high Roman decadence that tickled Petronius the Arbiter’s funny bone isn’t likely to prompt peals of laughter from Billy Graham. Nevertheless, I bet that the vast majority of uncontrollable laughter has its origin in some sort of unwholesome shocking occurrence and is an involuntary response to that shock, and if it is at someone else’s expense, so much the better.
Here’s my earliest remembered guffaw. The year is 1960 or so, because I’m in my grandmama’s apartment (where I spent the night of the Kennedy Nixon election), so I’m seven years, give or take. The apartment takes up most of the upper floor of a ramshackle subdivided Victorian house. It’s the type of place with glass doorknobs and twelve-foot ceilings. On this particular night, we’re getting ready to go to bed or to go home – I can’t remember which – but my brother David finds a half empty Coca-Cola bottle and taunts me with it. I beg for a sip – to share – just one sip – but he laughingly refuses, and to torture me to the fullest, he throws his head back, lifts the bottom of the bottle to the ceiling, and starts chugging as if it’s a bottle of Champagne and he’s just won the Indianapolis 500.
Unfortunately (at least for David), my father has extinguished his most recent cigarette in the bottle, and when David tastes the butt in his mouth, he screams, spits it out, and starts vomiting as I fall to the floor in convulsions, tears gushing from my eyes, and now, he, too, is guffawing – guffawing and vomiting – though managing to keep his feet in a stagger while I’m rolling on the floor back towards the wall to escape the splattering.
This instance of boomerang karma hardly seems funny at all in retelling it, but as I was typing just now and re-visualizing the event, I actually chuckled aloud. If my brother were here, and I reminded him of the story, we’d both share a laugh, but we wouldn’t guffaw. You probably can’t replicate a guffaw, the way you can a maniacal mad-scientist laugh, but you can come close.
Although guffaw’s noun definition: “a burst of coarse laughter” does suggest a certain lack of sophistication, a quick scan of the OED’s quoted usages doesn’t necessarily confirm my notion that “guffawing is involuntary.” In fact, guffaw’s earliest published appearance in the language is a 1720 a quote from someone called Ramsay from his work Wealth: “Syne (sic) circling wheels the flattering guffaw.” Of course, we lack context here, but Ramsay’s fragment implies the guffaw is artificial in that someone seems to be obsequiously guffawing to kiss-up to a superior, which runs counter to my notion that guffawing on cue is an impossibility (except for your Marlon-Brando/Meryl-Streep caliber actors/actresses). The second OED entry is more sinister. It comes from a 1728 translation of the Aesop Fable, “The Ant and the Caterpillar.” You may recall that in this fable an obnoxious ant accosts a lowly caterpillar with unprovoked scorn. “Prithee get out of way,” the ant says in Thomas Bewick’s 1813 translation, “and do not presume to obstruct the paths of thy superiors, by wriggling along the road, and besmearing the walks appropriated to their footsteps.” The ant continues to berate the poor caterpillar:
In the 1728 translation that the OED cites, the Ant ends his tirade with this: “The airy Ant syne turn’d awa (sic), And left him with a loud guffa” (sic). Although smacking of sadism, this example also doesn’t suggest that guffawing is essentially uncontrollable laughter. A colleague, a Latin teacher and astute student of languages, disagrees with my characterization of guffaw. He sees it as a sort of contemptuous snort, a growl of contempt.
The OED’s definition of the verb form of guffaw reads “[t]o laugh loudly or boisterously; to laugh coarsely or harshly.” Cited examples include 1819’s, “they guffaw and smirkle (sic) in their play”; 1853’s “M’Roy guffaw’d like a laughing hyenar” (sic); and 1860’s, “how men grin and guffaw behind her back.” All of these, I submit, smack of a certain element of unkindness but not that sense of hysteria that I see as a defining characteristic of guffawing, so I’m off on an unscientific Yahoo image search to see if I can detect hysteria in the photographic subjects. Of course, I’m finding the range of so-called guffaws ridiculously broad, but here are two examples deemed guffawish enough to include the a form of the word guffaw in their titles:
Ironically, you wouldn’t be surprised to find these photographs in an image search for “keening:” Here’s a photo from my Yahoo keening image search:
To me, it looks as if the keener on the left’s having a better time than the person in “Guffaw’d Out.” Any competent Photoshop artist could cut and paste “Guffaw’d Out” on a fitting torso in Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, and it would fit right in.
Obviously, the Venn diagram of physiological symptoms associated with guffawing and keening has a whole lotta of shading going on. The American Heritage Dictionary defines guffaw as “a hearty boisterous burst of laughter.” The AHD’s definition of boisterous reads “1. Rough and stormy; violent. 2. Noisy and lacking in restraint and discipline.” The verb burst suggests explosion. So I still maintain that essentially a guffaw is unrestrained and unpremeditated.
On the other hand, my initial hunch that some sort of sadism is involved seems less assured. For example, what about that guffawing infant in the first photograph? How can sadism be involved since, surely, an innocent babe isn’t going to revel in another’s misfortune? Based on my own parental experience with infant guffawing, I’ve noticed the phenomenon usually results from some tactile buzzing-bumble-bee teasing that the little one demands you to repeat time and time again ad nauseum as if she has been frightened out of her wits, then relieved, so now she wants to relive the process as a sort of naturally-selected desensitization exercise. In fact, it looks to me that the infant in that first photo might be getting tossed in the air, or at least being tilted way back and perhaps undergoing some carnival-ride-thrill-brain-blood displacement. Come to think of it, what about the appearance and behavior of roller coaster riders and other adrenalin-booster junkies? Mouths wide open, they scream and laugh and shed tears. It’s obvious that sobbing, guffawing, and panicking seem to all produce somewhat similar bodily reactions.
So what’s the common denominator? Fear? Shock? Sadism? Let me toss one last monkey wrench in the works: religious enthusiasm. In my web surfing for hysterical laughter, every other hit led me to a religious website documenting an epidemic of guffawing in Pentecostal sects across the Late Empire. The phenomenon, which is known as “holy laughter,” has caused quite a stir in charismatic Christian circles. Someone named Dr. Cathy Bates (not a fan) fingers the South African evangelist Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne as “the person most responsible for this phenomenon.” Here’s Howard Browne himself in his book The Touch of God describing “holy laughter”:
Dr. Burns goes on to describe disapprovingly “[s]ome other phenomena that take place at these laughing revivals: shaking, jerking, loss of bodily strength, heavy breathing, eyes fluttering, lips trembling, oil on the body, changes in skin color, weeping, laughing, ‘drunkenness,’ staggering, travailing, dancing, falling” [. . .] Obviously, we’ve really wandered into some dark, pre-human irrational sphere that might even give Tarzan’s faithful sidekick Cheetah the heebie-jeebies.
Although laugher may be good medicine, guffawing appears potentially life threatening. The above description of the god-smitten guffawers certainly seems unhealthy. We’re talking heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, staggering (picture one of those raptured revival-goers crossing a busy street), etc. Yet, guffawing must serve some purpose, because it’s instinctual. I’m going to offer a guess here [based my noodling around the word in my lazy, unscientific (but convincingly intuitive) way]. I posit that the guffaw, a laugh that goes beyond a belly laugh but doesn’t reach the holy laughter stage, is a physiological response to a startling surprise, a startling incongruity, or a slapstick pratfall of someone who could very well be, but thankfully is not, we. Suddenly, we, the soon-to be-guffawers, become cognizant of the hilariously horrifying danger inherent in being alive, and this realization quite literally makes us crazy. Our brainstem short-circuits our cerebrum, and we start howling, a not unpleasant metabolic kickstart. We’re alive! The person next to us is starting to laugh because we look so ridiculous. The planet’s spin has gotten us dizzy. Now she’s guffawing, and the raucous laughter has chased the terror away. We release accumulated tension and anxiety in a comedic catharsis akin to Aristotle’s description of vicarious psychological benefits of viewing a production of Oedipus Rex.
My most recent guffaw, the last that I can recall, occurred in the morgue of the Medical University of South Carolina, an easy place to feel uneasy. I had volunteered to chaperone a field trip for the Advanced Biology class at the high school where I teach. I reckoned that at the morgue I’d be entering would be the Nuke-Plant-grade, mirror-chrome-gleaming medical facility like you would see on Quincy, but when the retired professor guide ushered us into the laboratory, we discovered a dimly lit disorderly space in which an elderly male corpse silently screamed, “Look at me! Look at me!” I did. “The old gentleman,” as our guide Dr. Mori called the carcass, lay on its back with head seemingly undisturbed but with its chest cavity open to the sight of little numbered pennant-like triangular flags rising from his various organs. Oddly, I thought of a putt-putt course, but then I remembered the fetal pigs from Biology II, and anyway, Dr. Mori was into his falsely detached rundown of the organs and explanations of why they might appear as they do – the lungs, for example, blackish in hue from seventy-years of breathing exhaust fumes.
Of course, in various existential reactions ranging from acute curiosity to creeped-out eye-aversion, we formed a circle around the table. “The brain,” Dr. Mori said, “what about the brain?” He reached into the sort of white plastic pail that painters clean their brushes in and – presto! –a brain appeared in the palm of his hand, a brain presumably belonging to this former person who had “donated his body to science.” Dr. Mori went on to add that an unpreserved freshly extracted human brain is about the consistency of jello. The unpristine condition of this calcified pretender seemed to disgust him, so he flung it back into its plastic pail, producing a splash of liquid (brain juice? formaldehyde?) that besprinkled the shirt/blouse of a boyfriend/girlfriend adjacent pair. The looks on their faces! Disgust incarnate! Revulsion embodied! Horror!
I might have been all right, but I made eye contact with a colleague, who witnessed the same stricken expressions on the faces of the young lovers. Our guffaws started as vain attempts to smother the impending bellowing, a pursing of our lips, the air pfffff-pfffing through. Our faces began to flush, and we started rocking back and forth in the vain attempt to throttle the animal within us that was bursting out in a heaving roar of raucous laughter. Embarrassed, we staggered away from the dead thing, the discomfited professor, and the confused students, but we’re having the time of our lives – we were alive!