Created By: Zedek on November 29, 2011 Last Edited By: ArtemisStrong on December 8, 2011
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Tension-Cutting Laughter

When extreme tension and hostility is broken by laughter

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Trope

Alternate Name: Laugh It Off

Related To: Everybody Laughs Ending, Gallows Humor, Laugh with Me

Laughter that deflates the tension built up over a scene or sequence.

Laughter is a reaction normally associated with good humor, shared insight, and merriment being had. Other times, it signals that your are not going to get shivved in the back. Tension-Cutting Laughter is that second kind, the kind that says "Ah, so the Don doesn't think I'm a rat selling him out to the Feds" or "So Bob isn't going to kick my ass for insulting his daughter" or even simply "Mary does get I was kidding about selling her cat on e\Bay." It is akin to an exhale of relief after a particularly tense bit of drama has been wound up, the source of which is usually a misunderstanding.

Tension-Cutting Laughter is an efficient way for writers to build and release tension rhythmically throughout a narrative, and as such should be viewed as a Plot Device unrelated to whatever it is the characters are laughing about. The laughter could be in response to anything, whether it be the ridiculousness of the situation, something new and unrelated entering the scene, or even a joke. It could even simply be just laughter on its own, apropos of nothing. The point is it cuts the tension, allowing the audience to relax a little.

Can be a source of Mood Whiplash, doubly so if the Tension-Cutting Laughter is followed by the revelation that the one laughing actually is taking everything seriously.

This will often be found in stories employing Gallows Humor. May be the key ingredient in an Everybody Laughs Ending. Sometimes doubles as a Laugh with Me moment.

Examples

Film
  • Done famously in Goodfellas after a prolonged scene where Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) appears to be offended at being called "funny" by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), his rage visibly building over the course of several minutes. A bit of a twist in that it is Ray Liotta who breaks the tension.
  • Subverted in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End after they escape the Locker. Everybody pulls guns on everyone else, and after a minute they all start laughing... but then they remember that, yes, they do all have people to threaten.
  • Found at the beginning of Batman Returns. Max Shreck, a villain, and Selina Kyle, his secretary, break out in this after Max makes like he's going to choke her to death. After the laughter subsides, he pushes her out of the 45th floor window.

Live-Action TV
  • In Breaking Bad, Tuco is the master of this.
  • On Farscape D'argo and John Crichton frequently did this.

Comics
  • In JTHM, there's a scene where Devi and Nny are on a date. Devi jokes about killing Nny and leaving his dead body. Both fall silent, but after a moment they both laugh.

Literature
  • In Deryni Rising, though the protagonists are anticipating trouble from Charissa at Kelson's coronation, there's some larking about whilst dressing for the ceremony. Morgan strikes a pose in his finery and Duncan calls him conceited, wagging a finger in the role of scolding priest, whereupon both men burst out laughing, Morgan holding his sides and Duncan collapsing into a chair. The chapter's epigraph is "For surely laughter masks a nervous soul."

Community Feedback Replies: 24
  • November 30, 2011
    SonofRojBlake
    The obvious example being Joe Pesci in Good Fellas. Seen It A Million Times.
  • November 30, 2011
    Insignificant
  • November 30, 2011
    CrypticMirror
    .
  • November 30, 2011
    Zedek
    Having a block as to what the title should be
  • November 30, 2011
    ArtemisStrong
  • November 30, 2011
    Zedek
    Wait shouldn't it be Laughter Cutting Tension?
  • November 30, 2011
    hevendor717
    Tension-Cutting Laughter. The hyphen is implicit.
  • November 30, 2011
    AFP
    Tension Cutting Laughter works, in my opinion, but as an alternative: Laugh It Off?
  • December 1, 2011
    fulltimeD
    D'argo and John Crichton frequently did this on Farscape
  • December 1, 2011
    dalek955
  • December 1, 2011
    Zedek
    Well it's not that though. Although the are very close. An everbody laughs ending is an ending. While Tension-Cutting Laughter can be in the middle of the story.
  • December 1, 2011
    dalek955
    Read the second paragraph of the description. It doesn't have to be at the end.
  • December 1, 2011
    Zedek
    I don't think it quite fits
  • December 1, 2011
    dalek955
    If you're sure...

    • Subverted in Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End after they escape the Locker. Everybody pulls guns on everyone else, after a minute they all start laughing...and then they remember that yes, they do all have people to threaten.
  • December 1, 2011
    BooleanEarth
    In JTHM, there's a scene where Devi and Nny are on a date. Devi jokes about killing Nny and leaving his dead body. Both fall silent, but after a moment they both laugh.
  • December 2, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    How about this one: In Deryni Rising, though the protagonists are anticipating trouble from Charissa at Kelson's coronation, there's some larking about whilst dressing for the ceremony. Morgan strikes a pose in his finery and Duncan calls him conceited, wagging a finger in the role of scolding priest, whereupon both men burst out laughing, Morgan holding his sides and Duncan collapsing into a chair. The chapter's epigraph is "For surely laughter masks a nervous soul."
  • December 2, 2011
    KJMackley
  • December 2, 2011
    Zedek
    IT's not quite gallows humor either. The laughing is done due to either offensive or otherwise unfunny things but it's not a way of masking pain.
  • December 3, 2011
    KJMackley
    I was the one to launch Gallows Humor several years ago. That is EXACTLY what it is, humor in the face of pain that makes things all better. Otherwise it is just Black Comedy, laughter at the sake of something very dark and serious.
  • December 3, 2011
    Zedek
    IT's really just laughing at something which isn't funny but it's funny to them. They aren't laughing to make things better they just thought it was funny in a really weird way.
  • December 3, 2011
    ArtemisStrong
    ^^This is not the same as Gallows Humor, because this trope isn't even about humor. It's specifically about the moment of tension being built in a scene that is then alleviated by laughter. It actually has nothing to do with using humor to make unpleasant things funny, it's a gimmick storytellers use to accomplish any number of things.

    I think noting this distinction from Gallows Humor (or relation to, cause there is certainly crossover) might help the description.

    Something like "In works employing Gallows Humor, expect Tension Cutting Laughter a lot."

    It'd also be nice to point out the different flavors this comes in such as when the laughter is seemingly used to deflate a tense scene, but later in the scene (or in a later scene) it is shown that the tension is still very real, and the laughter was a smokescreen.
  • December 3, 2011
    Zedek
    Artemis just take this, it's yours.
  • December 4, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    I think there's also an aspect of dealing with tension by finding something to laugh at. Also, it can serve to furnish a scene that's a humorous breather (for both the characters and the audience) before things get serious again.
  • December 6, 2011
    Zedek
    .
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