“There is no effect without a cause,” lectures the wise Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide (1). It is undoubtedly in the spirit of this invariable truth that Descartes, Spencer, and Freud set out to explore the cause of the strange bodily phenomenon we call laughter. Their conclusions comprise the basis of “Relief Theory,” or the notion that laughter is the physiological release of nervous bottled-up energy. Relief Theory serves as a good explanation as to why one might laugh at the antics of Pangloss or any other character in Voltaire’s very tragic and pessimistic comedy – the situations are uncomfortable and Voltaire’s jokes provide us an outlet to cut through the tension he creates. For a more contemporary example, Relief Theory can account for the draw towards popular “cringe comedies” like FX’s Louie or HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Essentially, Relief Theory illustrates how and why we can laugh in the face of awkward and sometimes troublesome situations.
Descartes, Spencer, and Freud are all in agreement that laughter is caused by the release of some sort of tension. For the cynical Descartes, this tension can be caused by scorn for an individual. The release comes when we unexpectedly realize he has come upon “some small evil” (24). For Spencer, laughter occurs when our mind deems any given emotion to be suddenly unfit (104). The tension we have built up escapes through the biological sensation of muscular movements of the mouth and chest. Freud built on this theory, arguing that laughter comes as a result of an unexpectedly interrupted psychological undertaking (111). When we realize the energy we have gathered is unnecessary, our body releases it through laughter.
This theory of laughter through unexpectedly relieved emotion finds application in Voltaire’s telling of “The History of Cunegonde”. In this chapter, a female character offers a graphic description of her brutal rape. It is a serious subject that likely evokes unsettling images for female readers. She describes: “I cried, I struggled, I bit, I scratched … not knowing that [rape] … was the usual practice of war” (17). Suddenly, the tension built by the horrific tale is undercut as Candide abruptly responds with a lewd comment rather than sympathy. The pent-up nervous energy is alleviated before Cunegonde continues with her story.
Through this set up, Voltaire uses Relief Theory to mitigate the serious issue of rape and the sexual exploitation of women. Today, we see plenty examples of this type of “cringe comedy” in sitcoms and movies. Instead of mocking difficult to joke about subjects outright, writers will portray them with gravity before making a joke to relieve the tension. In one uncomfortable episode of the always-edgy and sometimes-funny sitcom Louie, Louie attacks his love interest with uncharacteristic and terrifying violence. She is afraid and fights back, ultimately freeing herself and remarking: “You can’t even rape well.”
The degree to which these comic setups are actually “funny” is debatable. However, if extremely distressing subjects like rape, war, and racism are to have any place in comedy whatsoever, it seems more appropriate that they be framed with some sort of lens of sincerity. To this end, perhaps Relief Theory is a necessary convention, providing us with an outlet for the discomfort caused by knowledge of the inconceivable but unavoidable evils that continue to plague our society.