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Let us now praise. . .

Laughing babies

By James Parker
November 8, 2009

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IN THE MATTER of forwarded Internet tidbits, I am, I’m afraid, reliably ungracious. Send me a link to something pertinent, shocking, or just plain LOL-hilarious that you’ve come across in the course of your 2.25 hours of daily Web-noodling, and I’ll ignore it. I don’t care if it’s the cleverest blog post ever, or footage of two polar bears in combat: the tiny current of excitation and interest that might have run twice around the world already will stop dead with me.

Why am I such a non-conductive grump? Because I’m 41, dammit, and my powers of concentration are weak. My attention span is not a span at all; it is a reed, a strand, a sliver. I need focus, that’s what I need. So: links, hyperlinks, amusing pictures, YouTuberies, and headlines from The Onion - nothing to me but the sound of the Great Blogger Below, the arch-manufacturer of distraction, tapping happily at his fireproof keyboard. Get thee behind me, Internet tidbits!

Or most of thee, at any rate, because there is one class of frivolous Web stuff for which I make an exception. Shoot me a link to a laughing baby, and - immediately, avidly - I’m there. If you’ve never seen one, these are micro-videos, generally less than a minute long and filmed under the most domestic of circumstances, of very small children laughing their heads off. A 9-month-old named Ethan, for example, seated on the floor like a miniature Diogenes, takes hold of a sheet of newspaper; his father, extending an arm from behind the camera, pulls it away; a brisk and delicious tearing sound is heard, and Ethan is left holding a ripped fragment. What could be funnier? Ethan literally collapses with merriment.

Repetition, of course, improves the joke enormously - an important element of the laughing-baby video is the unnerving sense that, with no change in the dynamics of the situation, the baby might just go on laughing forever. As his father proffers the newspaper again and then pulls it away (rip!), proffers it again and then pulls it away (rip!), Ethan’s delight seems to corkscrew in on itself, bearing down in spirals toward some white-hot point of airless, completely silent baby laughter.

Baby Ethan is very popular on YouTube, but the Elvis of infant mirth, the craze-starter, is William Nilsson, the Swedish baby filmed laughing in his kitchen. Ping! says his off-camera dad in a high voice and then Pyong! in a lower voice, while William sits in his high chair chuckling rosily and complacently, as if at some especially fine piece of dinner theater. Since the video was posted to YouTube in 2006 it has been viewed more than 95 million times. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain has seen it at least once: when she visited Google’s London headquarters in October last year Her Majesty was ceremonially exposed to the laughing baby. You can find it (naturally) on YouTube - the Queen, surrounded by grinning Google-serfs, watching baby William with her most unreadable smile.

For Aristotle, laughter was what separated us from the beasts. Man, in his defining essence, was both animal syllogans and animal ridens - the creature who reasons, and the creature who laughs. This kind of thinking offends the modern mind: a study published this year in Current Biology makes the case that, since gorillas and baby bonobos can be induced (by tickling) to make laughter-like noises, laughter itself is no longer to be considered “anthropomorphically” but rather zoologically, as a cross-species phenomenon. The behavioral neurologist VS Ramachandran has speculated that laughter evolved as a response to false alarms: “The main purpose of laughter might be to allow the individual to alert others in the social group that the detected anomaly is nothing to worry about.” Relax - ha, ha, ha! - it’s a tree stump, not a saber-toothed tiger. Something like that. Then there’s the view that laughter comes straight from the mouth of God, and is synonymous with Creation itself: “at the seventh burst of laughter,” as a third-century Egyptian alchemical papyrus has it, “the soul appeared.”

Where along this spectrum can we locate our explosive, cackling babies? Their laughter is obviously pre-linguistic and innocent of the trappings of “humor,” and yet at the same time it has a peculiar quality of age or knowingness: they sound less like cherubim than like bawdy medievals, saluting with bronchial enjoyment some particularly monstrous and perennial punch line. Laughter has an ancient association with rebellion, too - revolt at the cosmic order, and the toppling of earthly idols. We might look again at the Queen’s encounter with baby William, at the expression of faint forbearance on her face as she stands there in her stodgy hat and coat, eavesdropping on his uproar. A crowned head discomfited by a laughing baby - now that’s a link worth linking to.

James Parker writes regularly for Ideas and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.