Laughing at the Misfortune of Others – Not New, Also Not Good

August 4, 2023

At Laughter on Call we make a big deal about not laughing at others. We always say we’re a laughing with company not a laughing at company. Recently someone challenged me on this, “What do you mean you don’t make fun of people? How do you make people laugh? Plus, with the egos of leaders, you have to make fun of them. They love it!”

Do they, though?

Does anyone really enjoy being made fun of? Okay yes, they do. I have very clear memories of my father, a generally warm-hearted guy, laughing until he cried at Don Rickles’ scathing material, and Comedy Central roasts are hugely popular. But if I had to show up to that every day at work or at home? All I can think is, “ouch.”

But maybe I’m too sensitive. The impulse to enjoy laughing at others is centuries old. The Superiority Theory of Humor dates back to the days of Plato and Aristotle. It's premise is that we find humor in the ridicule of others. We laugh because we get to feel superior – hence the name. Then the Germans took out the funny and contemporized this human instinct with their schadenfreude. Schadenfreude doesn’t have to make you laugh, but it does recognize that someone’s else’s misery can give you a pep in your step. Not that I’ve ever experienced this.

And...that’s another little comedy trick called sarcasm.

Of course I’ve savored a little schadenfreude in my life! But only for mean people who rejected me. Which is, according to the experts, exactly the reason people like put-down humor. When we are feeling insecure, putting someone down with a sarcastic barb is a delicious flex. It’s an “aren’t-I-clever,” impulse that can feel satisfying in the moment. The problem is that it doesn’t get you what you want long-term, which is to feel better about yourself. You may get the laugh, depending on how much everyone has had to drink and the age of your audience, but you also push people away. Not usually consciously, but anyone witnessing this exchange is likely wondering when they’ll be the next target. Rather than bracing for that, they might disappear. You wonder why your phone doesn’t ring, why you’re scrolling past so many friends’ parties you didn’t know about and end up feeling even worse about yourself.

Fortunately as a sentient being, you can stop the madness! You don’t have to insult people in the name of being funny. If you find you have a compulsive need to make fun of things, do it about inanimate objects – anything that doesn’t have a heart is fair game. When it comes to people, you can challenge yourself even further by replacing your call to disparage by doing the opposite! Say something you appreciate about the person instead! You might get some eye rolls, especially in a room of teenagers, but you might make someone’s day.

Clearly if the ancient Greeks picked up on people’s instincts to get laughs at the expense of others, this is not a contemporary threat like global warming, A.I. or pumpkin spice lattes showing up in August. Nevertheless, we are in an historically record-breaking era of  rampant feelings of loneliness and devastating mental illness so how about we respect another comedy tool of timing and put Superiority Humor on pause until we all feel a little better?