What makes children laugh? First and foremost, disaster - other people's disasters, naturally. My daughter, at the age of two, was so overcome by the exquisite funniness of her cousin knocking a plate from the table that she lay on the floor and sobbed with laughter. Disaster is, of course, a vital element in farce and clowning, but a child can find humour in the sort of domestic mishap that an adult would have to see on the stage before he could laugh. (Or does the humour of disaster appeal only to the Western mind? We were once the only Europeans present at a Boxing Day performance of Oh Mr Porter in a back-street cinema. Four men were whirled around on the sails of a windmill; we fell about with laughing, the Pakistani children who made up the rest of the audience were silent. They either found the situation totally unfunny, or else lacked the instinct that an English child would have, that everything would come right in the end.) It can go beyond ordinary calamity - Mitford aficionados will remember the glee with which that terrifying family chanted: 'Crushed to death in a lift-shaft; man's long agony in a lift-shaft.'
LRB 21 February 1980 | PDF Download