Thomas Hobbes defined laughter as "nothing else but a sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly." In other words we laugh when we feel superior.
With each confrontation we know that eventually, however much Punch promises to behave, he will, like a child, forget and react instinctively. It is our anticipation of the inevitability that generates suspense, which is released in laughter the moment we realise that we are right.
The same situation obtains when Punch intrudes his preposterous nose too near to the crocodile's jaws. We are not sure just when, but we are quite certain that those jaws are going to snap and this builds tension. When they do snap we laugh, as much in relief as at Punch's indignant shrieks.
The violence element within the humour troubles some people, though generally these people are theorising about Punch and Judy rather than commenting upon an actual show. They fail to appreciate that the violence of the Punch show is not real violence which hurts, it is slapstick mock violence which is noisy and choreographed and painless.
If we see an old lady slip in the street we are full of concern and rush to her aid, but if we see a clown in the circus take a tumble, accentuated by a great cymbal crash, we laugh. We have no concern for the clown's well-being.
Similarly if we see a situation where an accident is about to happen we are suffused with horror-filled anticipation, yet we watch a Laurel and hardy film where one signalled disaster follows another and our anticipation of each brings excitement and laughter.
One of the reasons that we laugh is probably because we recognise something of ourselves in Laurel's exaggerated clumsiness or Hardy's overstated pompous stupidity. Perhaps we feel superior that we are nowhere near as bad as they are.
We laugh at the often painful consequences of their imperfections - yet we wish them no harm. On one level we believe in them (we must - for the magic to work) yet all the time we are aware that they are actors and their misfortunes a pretence.
In Mr. Punch we recognise the total selfishness of the child thrusting aside all those who thwart his immediate desire, and secretly within us all is that child, now tamed by manners and society.
Yet who would not, at times, like to deal with petty officials with a poke on the nose, or to toss a mewling infant out of the window? Of course, in real life, the consequences would be horrendous. In real life it is only the sick, or the deranged and wicked who do such things, yet isn't the potential within us all? Is that what we recognise in the Punch and Judy show? Here we can laugh openly at Punch's single-mindedness, at behaviour we have, since childhood, been taught to repress. Because this is the unreal world of the puppet show we can safely acknowledge that we too are flawed, and so we laugh.
You may have noticed a crude and grotesque quality to the figures used in a Punch and Judy show, which is not true of all puppets, and this is not by chance. This is all part of the unreality which coupled with the almost ritualistic nature of the show allows even the youngest audience to recognise the heads as wooden, impervious to the slapstick blows. And there lies the magic of the puppet, we believe in them since we react to their antics, yet at the same time we are fully aware that they are just dolls and can feel no pain. That is why we feel free to laugh.
Chris Somerville 2002
1 : a device made of two flat pieces of wood fastened at one end so as to make a loud noise without hurting when used by an actor to strike another.
2 : comedy stressing farce and horseplay and pretended violence; also : activity resembling slapstick
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