Who hasn’t gotten a LOL after an intended or not funny post–the acronym for laugh(ing) out loud or lots of laughs. OK, great. That means the person is laughing, did laugh, think they should say they laughed, or aren’t sure how to respond, so they typed LOL. Still, you don’t know. But what’s it mean, really?
Problem is, laughing is a social response. It’s immediate, it’s telling of what the person is thinking or feeling, and it builds community. Funny laughs incite further laughing, like the comedian Tim Hawkins demonstrates in his stand-up on funny laughs.
But in a post, it loses all of that. It can’t transcend its three font letters. LOL doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. But it tells us something about the chasm between online communication and face-to-face communication. People laugh 30 times more in the company of others than they do at home. LOL online is singular in nature and ambiguous. Call it the unbridgeable gap.
So why do we laugh and why is laughing in groups so much more natural? It’s what makes us human, in a way. It’s social. It goes beyond something that may be funny. It can be flirty, soothing, or it can be an exclusive gesture or behavior–tuning someone in or out or even humiliating them by laughing. It’s less about jokes than about relationships, says Jason Zinoman, critic and author of comedy.
And laughing signifies different things in different venues. Late-night hosts, like Jimmy Fallon, laugh to make their guests feel more welcomed. It’s polite. And it makes the audience feel good. Stand-up comedians work it more strategically. Some do what’s called a “pre-laugh,” like Dave Chapelle dropping the mike to his body, doubling over laughing, and running upstage. Eddie Murphy’s iconic laugh is both a signal of something funny and a reason to continue laughing. You’re laughing at his laugh. Other stand-ups, like Jim Gaffigan, are known for their deadpan expression after a joke but will occasionally chuckle. Jonathan Winters made his roast subjects howl at his off-beat humor, including the one roasting Johnny Carson whose laugh was infectious by itself. They all evoke social responses in the audience.
See for yourself. Plus, laughing releases endorphins. It makes you feel good.
And when the president of the United States does it, it says something no speech, PR spin, or press conference can do. It makes the leader of the free world appear more human and connected to us, maybe just a tad like you and me, as President Obama did during his stand-up at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner in 2011 when he roasted Donald Trump. Talk about irony.
Unfortunately, the current occupant of the White House has declined the invitation to attend this year’s dinner. LOL.