Laughter that deflates the tension built up over a scene or sequence. You've Seen It a Million Times
Laughter is a reaction normally associated with good humor, shared insight, and merriment being had. Other times, it signals that you 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 eBay
." 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
, where an actor inadvertently starts laughing during a serious scene.
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- In Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, 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.
- 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.
- In The Hunt for Red October, when Jack Ryan, Captain Bart Mancuso and Seaman "Jonesy" Jones arrive aboard the titular sub, there is dead silence as the Americans and Russians stare at one another. But when Ryan accepts a cigarette from one of the Russian officers, he coughs while smoking (earlier, he'd explain that he doesn't smoke, repeatedly turning down cigarettes), which amuses the Russians and soon eases the tensions between both sides.
- 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."
- There are several occasions in Discworld novels when the narrator notes that characters are laughing at not-very-funny lines, because people who thought they were about to die will laugh at anything. In The Truth, Sacharissa's Tension-Cutting Laughter lasts too long, and William realises the tension isn't cut at all, and this is "the kind of laughter you die from".
- In Galaxy In Flames, Fulgrim is raging to Horus about the latter's orders, with Horus trying to flatter him into obeying. After a terse pause, Fulgrim breaks out laughing and points out he knows what Horus is trying to manipulate him but it's working anyway.
Live Action TV
- In Breaking Bad, Tuco is the master of this....and then beating someone to death anyway.
- On Farscape D'argo and John Crichton frequently did this.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer - near the end of season four, Angel visits Sunnydale to try and mend fences after a falling out with Buffy on his own show. Instead, he gets in a Let's You and Him Fight with her new love interest. When Buffy asks what he was trying to do, he replies "I was trying to make things better" and they both crack up.
- In the season six finale, Buffy tells Giles the ways the Scoobies have stuffed up in the half-season since he left, ending with "And I've been sleeping with Spike." She then looks nervous as she waits for Giles to tear strips off her...only for Giles to burst into laughter. After a moment Buffy can't help but join him.
- In The West Wing - in the first season episode "A Proportional Response", President Bartlet has been angry all episode about the fact he doesn't think their response to Syria shooting down a plane and killing everyone on board (including the President's physician) has been strong enough. Finally, right before the President is scheduled to go on network television, Leo McGarry and the President argue it out in private, and though passions are running high, Leo manages to convince the President they're on the right course. Then the President says this:
: Oh man Leo. When I think of all the work you put in to get me to run, when I think of all the work you put in to get me elected...I could pummel your ass with a baseball bat
. (Leo and the President both burst into laughter
- In Game of Thrones, there's a very tense scene when Robb Stark, who's risen to patriarch of his House very young due to the murder of his father, is struggling to maintain the loyalty of his bannermen, who see him as a "green boy". An argument with Boisterous Bruiser Greatjon Umber leads to a dagger being drawn and Robb's wolf biting off two of the man's fingers.
Robb: My father told me it was death to bare steel against your liege lord. Doubtless Lord Umber merely meant to cut my meat for me.
Greatjon: [cradling his hand] Your meat... [tense pause] is bloody tough! [whole room starts laughing]
- Subverted when Tryion and his sellsword Bronn encounter the Mountain Clans. Shagga asks Tyrion how he wants to die. Tyrion replies "At the age of 80, with a bellyfull of wine and a girl's mouth around my cock." Shagga gives a short laugh and Tyrion starts to smile...then Shagga tells his clansmen to kill Bronn and capture Tyrion, who has to resort to some fast negotiating to convince them otherwise.
- On an episode of Sports Night, the staff is all on edge because of a ratings expert that's been called in, and the shows have all been stiff lately. At the rundown meeting, everyone looks grim until Elliot reads a memo about how one of the legs on the craft services table is wobbly, so they should be careful when getting food. Dana makes Elliot repeat what he said, and then busts out laughing, after which everyone else follows suit.
Casey: (mock serious) Hey! The show's important, but first things first — there are bagels on that table. (everyone laughs even harder)
- The infamous forced laughter scene from Final Fantasy X is in the spirit of this.