Did all comedy arise from tickling games played with babies? Aaron Schuster draws attention to this theory in a long and surprisingly serious essay on the philosophy of tickling. Psychologist and adult laughter expert Robert Provine has speculated that the anticipation of a tickle might have been the first ever ‘joke’:
Linking tickling not only with humorous laughter but also with the prehistoric birth of comedy, Provine writes: “I forge recklessly into the paleohumorology fray, proposing my candidate for the most ancient joke—the feigned tickle. (Real tickling is disqualified because of its reflexive nature.) The ‘I’m going to get you’ game of the threatened tickle is practiced by human beings worldwide and is the only joke that can be told equally well to a baby human and a chimpanzee. Both babies and chimps ‘get’ this joke and laugh exuberantly.”
Thus tickling a child will call out a wriggling and squirming response. But the child will laugh only—and this is the crux of the matter—if an additional condition is fulfilled: it must perceive the tickling as a mock attack, a caress in a mildly aggressive disguise. This explains why people laugh only when tickled by others but not when they tickle themselves. …
The mechanism is essentially the same as in comic impersonation: the tickler impersonates an aggressor, but is simultaneously known not to be one. It is probably the first situation encountered in life which makes the infant live on two planes at once, the first delectable experience in bisociation—a foretaste of pleasures to come at the pantomime show, of becoming a willing victim to the illusions of the stage, of being tickled by the horror-thriller.
It’s an interesting theory and, of course, one that we will never be able to prove or disprove. But I, for one, love the idea that the giggles of ancient protohuman babies provoked the invention of comedy.
Thanks, ancient babies!