Dedicated to the memory of Max Anacker, global citizen with a distinguished career in Chemical Engineering, denizen of Climate Etc and Serf Under-ground Journal, witty and wise.

While laughter and the nature of the comic have been the subject of many earnest studies, I do not propose to burden the reader, or myself, in their detailed pursuit. Rather a selection supported by illustration from the cornucopia of comedy, examples from film, the cartoonist armoury and from the litera-chure.

Extracts on Laughter.

# ‘The most striking thing about the people of the Western Desert was their ready laughter.’The neighboring Aranda men used to say of them, ‘They are always laughing. They can’t help it.’
(Carl Strehlow in ‘The Songlines’ Bruce Chatwn,  (Picador) P305.)
# ‘That laughter is proper to man is a sign of our limitations, sinners that we are  …Laughter, for a few moments, distracts the villein from fear. But law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God.’
(Blind prophet The Venerable Jorge in ‘The Name of the Rose,’ Umberto Eco. (Picador) p 474.)

# ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’
(Mr Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Jane Austen, (Penguin) p 343.)

Theories on Laughter.

# The Superiority Theory of Aristotle focusing on the darker side of comedy, specifically that we laugh in response to our elevation over others’ unfortunate situations or social standing. Tsk!

# The Relief Theory of Sigmund Freud that focuses on laughter and humour as a form of  emotional release, funneling energy away from pent up emotions and, you guessed it, sexual repression.

# The Incongruity Theory of Immanuel Kant in which something funny revolves around derailed expectations or an effective, unpredictable punchline that takes us by surprise.

Then there’s Henry Bergson’s theory in his essay, ”Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic,’ which includes some of the above, particularly the incongruous, and more, ‘with no aim of imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition,’ instead seeking ‘a practical acquaintance, such as springs from a long companionship.’ …  Say, I like that.

So what does Bergson’s long acquaintance with the comic uncover? Herewith some extracts and let’s see how they fit with the divine comedy, well ‘human’ comedy actually.

Henri Bergson on Comedy.

‘The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside of what is strictly HUMAN. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it  – the human caprice whose mould it has assumed.’

‘Here I would put out a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE of FEELING which usually accompanies laughter, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.’

… Hmm, more of this later.

‘To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all, we must determine the utility of its function, which is a SOCIAL one.’

Say, could laughter, as an evolved instinctive response, be linked to social survival, kinda’ like the zig-zag dance of the Stickleback in me previous edition on ‘Virtue and  the Selfish Gene?’  Jest askin’.

James Thurber Cartoons ‘The Overt Act ‘and ‘The Battle on the Stairs.’

1 + 2

James Thurber ‘The Thinker.’


So what do we laugh at? Seems what makes us laugh is a rigidity of attitude, ‘closely akin to mere absentmindedness. …The rigidity is the comic and laughter is the correction. What life and society require of us is a constantly close attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation, together with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to adapt ourselves in consequences.’

Maxwell Smart, always good for a laugh concerning a comic inelasticity of mind. Take his calling for the ‘Cone of Silence’ in his private talks with the Chief.You might almost consider it a fetish.



The Maxwell Smart single dimension character demonstrates a difference between comedy and tragedy in presentation of character, the generic in comedy, compared with individual decisions in tragedy. While the vices in each may be similar, ‘the vice capable of making us comic is, on the contrary, that which is brought from without, like a ready-made frame into which we are to step. We do not render it more complicated, on the contrary, it simplifies us.’

Think Jane Austen’s cannon of comic characters, Mr Collins, Mary Bennet, Mrs Elton, deficient in self awareness, defined by self satisfaction.

‘The whole party were assembled … and Mrs Elton  in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting or talking. Strawberries and only strawberries, could now be thought of and spoken of. “The best fruit in England – everybody’s favourite  – always wholesome. – These the finest beds and finest sorts. Delightful to gather for one’s self – the only way of really enjoying them .Morning decidedly the best time – never tired – every sort good – hautboys very scarce -Chili preferred – white wood finest flavour of all – price of strawberries in London – abundance about Bristol – Maple Grove – cultivation – beds – when to be renewed – gardeners thinking exactly different – no general rule – gardeners never to be put out of their way – delicious fruit – only  too rich to be eaten much of – inferior to cherries – currants more refreshing  – only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping – glaring sun – tired to death – could bear it no longer – must go and sit in the shade.’
(‘Emma’ Ch17. The Strawberry Picnic.)

Many comedies have a generic name as their title whereas ‘drama, even when portraying passions or vices that bear a name, so completely incorporates them in the person that their names are forgotten., their general characteristics effaced, and we no longer think of them at all, but rather of the person in whom they are assimilated, hence the title of a drama can seldom be anything else but a proper noun.’

Well yes, ‘Oedipus,’ ‘Othello,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Medea’ versus ‘L’Avare,’ ‘The Miser,’  ‘Le Misanthrope,’ or maybe butcher,  baker, lawyer, thief, characters defined by prescribed behavior and habit, so moving us to laughter where tragedy may  arouse in us emotions of pity, fear or sympathy.

In Moliere’s L’Avare, the actions of the miser, Harpagon are so controlled by his avarice that it is no sooner repressed than it goes off again like a spring. When Valere points out to Harpagon the wrong that he would be doing in marrying his daughter to a man she does not love, then points out the character flaws of this man that Harpagon would compel his daughter to marry, Harpagon  exclaims, ‘No dowry wanted!’ as a repeating burst every few minutes.’No dowry wanted!’ His exclamation, recurring so repetitively suggests a machine set going by an automatic mechanism.

Of Comedy in Movement.

‘A man running along the street stumbles and falls; the passers by burst out laughing. They would not laugh at him, I imagine, could they suppose that the whim had suddenly seized him to sit down on the ground. They laugh because his sitting down is involuntary … A RESULT IN FACT OF RIGIDITY OR OF MOMENTUM, the muscles continue to perform the same movement when the circumstances of the case called for something else …’

‘The victim of a practical joke is in a position similar to that of a runner who falls – he is comic for the same reason. The laughable element in both cases consists of a certain MECHANICAL INELASTICITY just where one would expect to find the wide-awake  adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being.’.

In life, movement never halts but is ever-changing. In comedy movement becomes gesture. The more unconsciously the gesture is repeated, the more puppet-like, the more striking the comic effect.

(JacquesTati ‘ Playtime.’)

Of Comic Physiognomy.

‘When we speak of expressive beauty or even expressive ugliness, when we say that a face possesses expression, we mean expression that may be stable, but which we conjecture to be mobile. It maintains in the midst of its fixity, a certain indecision in which are obscurely portrayed all possible shades of the state of mind it expresses, just as the sunny promises of a warm day manifests itself in the haze of a spring morning. But a comic expression of the face is one that promises nothing more than it gives. It is a unique and permanent grimace. One would say that the person’s whole moral life has crystallized into this particular set of features. That is why a face is all the more comic, the more nearly it suggests to us the idea of some simple mechanical action in which its personality would be forever absorbed.’

‘We shall now understand the comic element in caricature. However regular we may imagine a face to be, however harmonious its lines and supple its movements, their adjustment is never altogether perfect: there will always be discoverable the signs of some impending bias, the vague suggestion of a possible grimace, in short some favorite distortion to which it seems to be particularly inclined. The art of the caricaturist consists in detecting this, at times, imperceptible tendency,  in rendering it visible to all eyes by magnifying  it.  He makes his models grimace, as they would do themselves if they went to the end of their tether. Beneath the skin-deep harmony of form, he divines the deep-seated recalcitrance of matter.’



Take Off That Mask, Cape, Hat!

In contrast to living supple behavior, Heni Bergson likens comic situations to the mechanical actions of a child’s toy, a marionette or a jack-in-the box.

‘This view of the mechanical and the living dovetailed into each other makes us incline towards the vaguer image of  SOME RIGIDITY OR OTHER applied to the mobility of life, in an awkward attempt to follow its lines and counterfeit its suppleness. Here we perceive how easy it is for a garment to become ridiculous. It might also be said that every fashion is laughable in some respect. Only, when we are dealing with the fashion of the day, we are so accustomed to it that the garment seems, in our mind, to form one with the individual wearing it. We do not separate them in imagination. The idea no longer occurs to us to contrast the rigidity of the covering with the living suppleness of the object covered.’

‘Suppose, however, some eccentric individual dresses himself in the fashion of former times: our attention is immediately drawn to the clothes themselves, we absolutely distinguish them from the individual, we say that the latter is DISGUISING HIMSELF, as though every article of clothing were not a disguise! – and the laughable aspect of fashion comes out of the shadow into the light.’

Heh, remember those flared trousers and weird hair styles of the nineteen seventies?

‘Let us then follow this logic of the imagination in the special case at hand. A man in disguise is comic. A man we regard as disguised is also comic. So by analogy, any disguise, any masquerade, is seen to become comic, not only in a man, but in a society also. See James Thurber, ‘Battle of the Sexes’.


‘Let us go on to society. As we are both in and out of it, we cannot help treating it as a living being. Any image then, suggestive of the notion of a society disguising itself, or of a social masquerade, so to speak, will be laughable. Now such a notion is formed when we perceive anything inert or stereotyped, or simply ready-made, on the surface of living society. There we have rigidity over again, clashing with the inner suppleness of life. The ceremonial side of life must therefore always include a latent comic element, which is always only waiting for an opportunity to burst into full view. It might be said that ceremonies are to the social body what clothing is to the individual body: they owe their seriousness to the fact that they are identified, in our minds, with the serious object with which custom associates them, and when we isolate them in imagination, they forthwith lose their seriousness. For any ceremony, then, to become comic, it is enough that our attention be fixed on the ceremonial element in it, and then we neglect its matter, as philosophers say, and think only of its form.’

(Fellini ‘Roma’ Costume Parade.)

The Language of Comedy.

For the language of comedy we must make a distinction between the comic expressed   in language and the comic created by language itself. The former could possibly be translated into another language whereas it is generally impossible to translate the latter.

The comic created by language, ‘owes its entire meaning to the structure of the sentence or to the choice of words. It does not set forth, by means of language, special cases of absentmindedness in man or in events. It lays stress on lapses of attention in language itself. In this case it is the language itself that becomes comic.’

‘It would seem that what is called wit is a certain DRAMATIC way of thinking about words. Instead of treating his ideas as mere symbols, the wit sees them, he hears them and, above all, makes them converse with one another like persons.’

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -neither more nor less.”
“The question  is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
(‘Through the Looking Glass.’ Lewis Carrol.)

And for an isolated phrase to be witty, it must bear some sign within itself of evident absurdity, either a palpable error or contradiction. Take for instance the remark by one of the characters in a play by Labiche, ‘Only God has the right to kill His fellow-creature.’

‘A COMIC MEANING IS INVARIABLY OBTAINED WHEN AN ABSURD IDEA IS FITTED INTO A WELL ESTABLISHED PHRASE FORM. ..Sometimes too, the effect is a complicated one. Instead of one commonplace phrase form there are two or three  which are dovetailed into each other … This Reciprocal Interference of two sets of ideas in the same sentence is an inexhaustible source of amusing varieties.’

‘Cecily:  You, I see from your card, are Uncle Jack’s brother, my wicked cousin Ernest.’
Algernon:  Oh! I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily.You mustn’t think that I am wicked.
Cecily:  If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.’
Algernon: ( looks at her in amazement.)  Oh! Of course I have been rather reckless.
Cecily:  I am glad to hear it.
Algernon:  In fact, now you mention the subject, I have been very bad in my own small way.
(The Importance of Being Ernest. Act 2.)

A comic meaning is also achieved by a process of inversion, by putting the object in place of the subject, for example, in Lewis Carrol’s ‘ Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter poses a riddle: “Why is a raven like a reading desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.
” Do you mean that you think that you can find the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.”
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least    -at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.”
“You might just as well say,” said the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe.”

‘TRANSPOSING THE NATURAL EXPRESSION OF AN IDEA INTO ANOTHER KEY,’ is another potent source of comedy. ‘The means of transposition are so rich and varied … the comic is here capable of passing through so great a number of stages, from the most insipid buffoonery up to the loftiest form of humour and irony’ Transpose the solemn into the familiar, the result is parody, … make small things large,…exaggeration, is always comic when prolonged and especially when systematic ….

The divine Chaucer, the little to the big, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, a farmyard drama.



Tsk, I haven’t even mentioned the Marx Brothers or Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in ‘The Producers!’ 9  … Or Eddie Cantor!


  1. Big post. Will have to re-visit.

    Good to see Thurber revived. Let his poor drawing competence work for him. Not many bad draughtsmen can be great cartoonists. None at all, really. Just Thurber.

    RIP Max. We hardly knew ye.

    Fleet foot on the correi,
    Sage counsel in cumber,
    Red hand in the foray,
    How sound is thy slumber!

  2. I often corresponded with Max and met him and his wife in Switzerland. He had a fine intellect, a good sense of humour, a keen awareness of the natural world and mans place in it and I am proud to have called him a friend.


    • Tony,
      You and Max were two of a kind, global citizens with a wide
      ranging and long historical perspective… I think of your
      ‘Long Slow Thaw’ historical study, which i know Max Anacker
      Beth the serf.

  3. mosomoso

    I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the serfs hereabouts are getting too educated and uppity, if one did indeed write this journal which includes a cornucopia of literary references. Surely they can’t read let alone write?

    It appears to me they are aching for a rebellion against their betters. We need to put spies in their midst and learn of their plans. I know someone called Wat Tyler who seems very reliable. I will contact him.


    • Tonyb, I haven’t struck one of the female serfs in weeks. Well, not hard. I’m trying to take a more modern approach for a while. If I can increase the cost of their electricity they won’t have so many distractions in the evening. Can’t read much Jane Austen in the dark, can they?

      But the serfs are getting out of hand, and something will have to be done. This Wat Tyler…he’s some sort of community organiser, is he?

    • Wat Tyler, my predecessor. He captured the Tower of London in 1381, I led the next capture, in 1964, to kick off a student rag rather than to promote the peasantry. Unlike poor Wat, I suffered no penalty for my actions.

  4. Mosomoso

    Wat Tyler is a reliable sort. In fact for my next article, ‘tranquility transition and turbulence’ I am relying on him to supply first hand accounts about the excellent weather we have all been enjoying in recent decades.

    He is a tiler of roofs by trade as opposed to a thatcher. A tiler is someone who attends to the sturdy roofs of gentlefolk unlike thatchers who merely patch up the raggedy hovels of serfs. He moves easily between the two worlds though and will be able to find out who is organising these serfs. I understand he is very social, so perhaps calling him a ‘social worker’ rather than a community organiser would seem a more apt phrase.

    I doubt he is educated enough though to understand the fine words and sentiments expressed in this journal.


  5. Beth

    This compilation is a very fine piece of work. It must have taken a lot of time and dedicating it to Max was a very nice gesture which reflects well on you. Thank you.

    Can I add a couple of items? Firstly, in the spirit of Eddie Cantor here is jerry mouse and Gene Kelly dancing

    https://www.google.co.uk/search?sourceid=navclient&aq=&oq=gene+kelly+and+stewie+&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4DSGL_enGB415GB416&q=gene+kelly+and+stewie+dance&gs_l=hp..1.0l2.………..0.ebgy_nnM0-charningf moment that FG is not normally known for.

    50 years later Stewie Griffin from Family Guy was inserted into the self same movie.


    This provided a charming sequence. If you don’t know FG its not normally associated with Charm


  6. I know Max Anacker from Judith Curry’s blog Climate Etc, which I’ve visited regularly since its early days. Max was the poster for whom I felt most affinity. His approach, his understanding of the issues and his policy responses to them were very similar to mine. In addition, I appreciated Max’s courtesy and patience, his preparedness to reply and explain to people who at times were exasperating. I set great store by honesty, integrity and dealing harmoniously with others, and Max epitomised these qualities. I am glad to have known him, even if only via a blog.

  7. I am really sorry Max Anacker has gone. I really miss his comments. He was one of the very best, if not the best consistent poster on ‘Climate Etc’.. He was always polite and very patient, He was one of those rare people who could see the ‘big picture perspective’ as well as deal with and explain the detail. His explanations of difficult concepts were exceptional in their clarity and brevity. He would have been an excellent mentor for all he worked with and all he had dealings with.

    I did post a comment on CE shortly after Judith informed us he’d passed away. And I’ve mentioned in a few comments since how much I miss his comments. I feel some regret that I was rather abrasive with him in one exchange a few months ago and took offence when none was intended. I feel really sorry for that now.

  8. Thx Peter for your tribute to Max. Always enjoyed your interchanges
    with him @ CE. Denizens could benefit from the wealth of professional experience you both brought to the debate.

  9. Max sounds like a great person, wish I had know him.

    On laughter, came across this today. It’s funny. Suppose the elephant thought so too? “i once heard a story about a large African elephant who would get drunk on fermented fruit and then go around looking for trees full of baboons. He would grab a tree’s trunk with his trunk, and — to the baboons’ chagrin — shake it empty. There’s nothing funnier to a drunk elephant than an annoyed baboon.”

  10. Max was a great person I believe. His wife said in an email that he
    was one in a million.

    Liked yr joke. Some elephants get anti-social when they’ve had
    a few drinks don’t they? )

    rls, check out Jame Thurber on dogs. His Thurber Carnival has
    a story called ‘The dog that bit people.’I have ordered the Guilio
    Tononi book you recommended.

  11. He nailed it. One more thought about laughter; It amazes me how early in age and how readily children laugh. And sometimes they laugh fully, their bodies consumed. I enjoy it.

    • Beth

      I have been to Baghdad three times. I am glad I am a vegetarian as I was there once with my manager many years ago and we observed the virtually open sewer that passed for the river. That evening we were official guests of the government and were served with fish caught just that day in the river. My excuses were accepted and I watched my manager force his portion down with relish.

      The previous trip I had met Sadaam Hussein who was moonlighting as head of the Govt Dept that imported goods. He had just got back from France where he had been royally bribed by our competitors and had just bought a villa in the South Of France with a side trip to Switzerland to salt away ‘his’ money.

      The highlight was a trip to Babylon where I was able to recount the ‘How many miles to Babylon’ rhyme.


  12. Now look Tony … brace yrself fer a long reply. I know yr engaged
    in a time consuming and somewhat unique ENTERPRISE (not quite
    going where no man … but almost,) concerning empiric and testimony
    records throwing light on our see-saw climate, but here yer mention
    Baghdad and Babylon and REALLY, isn’t it time yer wrote some
    memoirs like ‘The Surgeon’s Log’ by James Abraham in1913 ?
    If HE could find time what with healing ‘n such, ter write a WHOLE
    BOOK on his travels : ‘Chapter One: finding a Ship, Liverpool; to
    Port Said.’ Chapter Two: The Indian Ocean. Chapter Three …
    surely a climate historian can do likewise. Me Blog’s toujours
    available. )

  13. “Thurber? ). Like u said at cliscep. don’t explain the joke.”

    Exception: when I don’t get it.

    Then you have no choice.

    Besides, there’s nothing to lose, cos I didn’t get it anyway.

  14. 🙂 You’re asking me to explain a joke to you, comedy doyen?

    Well, er, hesitates, clears throat – ‘The war of the sexes’ is an
    abstract expressing our human propensity to feeling hostility
    towards ‘the other,’ in this case gender ‘other.’ Thurber’s
    cartoons give a down on the ground reality to this abstract but
    within a broader context of historical warfare allowing for witty
    allusions and contrasts

    ‘The Overt Act,’ with its catchy alliteration references the trigger
    events of war, Archduke Ferdinand assassination thingy, but
    here, more connotations, tableau scenario, the insult prelude to
    the duel that Georgette Heyer novels portray, ‘The Strike,’ not
    with a glove but a fan, (symbols’ humour.) You can almost hear
    the communal gasp, like the gunshot that echoes round the world.
    ‘The Battle on the Stairs,’ giving a local habitation and a name to
    battle in War, ‘The Battle of Valley Forge’ or ‘Hopper’s Crossing,’

    And Thurber’s drawings are to die for, – the tableau, classic body
    language of aggression and outrage, facial grimaces expressed in
    a few lines and dots, the glaring eye, the furrowed brow, the open
    mouth, generic yet particular at the same time. ‘The Battle,’ not
    cavalry or artillery, but up close hand to hand combat, Romans
    and Boudica, body clashes vertical and horizontal, more at-the
    -movies’ stuff, suggestions of the Western, John Wayne, ‘The
    Battle in the Saloon!’

    Well that’s enuff of the long war, Helen and Troy, Caesar and Cleopatra,
    The Prince and Diana… you have yr own comedy-war with the cli-sci-
    agenderists et AL.

    Please fergive spelling misstakes.

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