A Natural History of Laughter
by Jacques Mitsch
Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2011 (copyright), 2012 (release)
DVD, 48 mins. col. Sales, $348.
Distributor’s website: http://icarusfilms.com.
Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth
Giving a documentary the title ‘A Natural History of Laughter’ is rather ambitious while it is clear that within the scope of 48 minutes it is hardly possible to discuss the full scope of this subject. It would, therefore, have been better to call it, for instance, An Investigation of Laughter in Six Chapters. Starting off with the research of Robert Provine, an American neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Maryland devoted to the study of the evolution of human laughter, we first see what his studies have revealed about the human brain. It is made clear that the origin for this by all means unusual gesture can be found in our animal ancestors, which is demonstrated through the comparison with laughter in apes, especially through the research of the Dutch ethologist Jan Van Hoof, another pioneer in laughter sciences who is primarily concerned with human and ape research. It becomes clear that laughter plays an important role in the sustenance of social cohesion through its contagious character, which in itself can be rather scary as demonstrated in a group session of laughter yoga. Where the evolutionary approach in itself is no doubt qualitative, it doesn’t hold that many surprises; whereas, the suggestion of laughter in rats and other animals through the research of Dr Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University indicates a more innovative understanding of laughter in living creatures in its totality.
Although the documentary ends with the suggestion that laughter is serious matter and as a whole deals in an informative way with pioneering interdisciplinary research, its overall tone, so-called humorous graphics and soundtrack, are somewhat irritating. If seen as specifically aimed at an audience of high school students, postgraduates, and aspiring scientists, this approach may make sense. However, although laughter is contagious, it is also clear that there are different qualitative ways to make people laugh.