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Mirthless Laughter

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You wouldn't expect the Joker of all people to be a Sad Clown, would you?

I'm the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral.
Can't understand what I mean? Well, you soon will.
Barenaked Ladies, "One Week"

Characters don't just laugh when they find something funny. Laughter is an involuntary response which may arise from any swell of overwhelming emotion — not just humor. During or after the moment, characters may cry as well, as tears are another way for people to react when important events happen that they cannot control.

This can manifest in different ways and convey different meanings:

  • Shock: Characters tend to do this when they are reunited with a lost loved one or something they care about deeply. When Stepford Smilers and other characters that have fragile facades do this, it's a sign that their mask is about to break. This type of laughter is usually followed by crying.
  • Relief: Characters often laugh for relief when a monster avoids them or when lengthy suffering is put to an end. People living in a deserted island tend to do this when they find food and shelter or when they can finally get off the island. This type of laughter is also sometimes followed by crying, for different reasons.
  • Anxiety: Characters sometimes laugh nervously in response to an upcoming disaster or horrifying event. This often causes other characters to look back at them as if something was wrong with them. Characters also laugh nervously in response to something sorrowful that happened, like the death of another character, and may or may not break down crying afterward.
  • Awkwardness: People have a tendency to laugh when they don't know quite how to respond to a situation, and may do so when they hear particularly strange, scandalous or shocking information. This can come off as unintentionally insensitive in cases where they're laughing in response to hearing someone else talk about something like the death of a loved one, but, most of the time, the source of the laughing isn't showing their true thoughts on the matter. That being said, as many an episode of a tabloid talk show can demonstrate, if you gather a big enough group of people to listen to such allegations as infidelity, sexual assault, drug-taking, murder, child abuse and worse... there's a good chance at least some of the people in the stands may genuinely find it hilarious in their own slightly-depraved way.
  • Rage: Accompanied by the Grin of Rage, some people may begin ominously laughing after someone else has just made them pass their Rage Breaking Point. If they don't stay in a state of Tranquil Fury, this laughter will gradually grow louder and louder until they’re on the verge of going full-on Laughing Mad (if they're not there already), all while now completely berserk, with the laugh often developing into a full-on scream of unhinged fury right before the fists begin to fly. This is a time to run away from the laugher as fast as you can... not that it will make that much of a difference anyway.
  • Fear: People tend to laugh in fear when cornered by a monster or in an Oh, Crap! situation while pleading the monster, person or event to stop. This horrified laughter is the least prone to crying afterward. If characters do cry, however, it's Tears of Fear. Timid characters and cowards are the ones who tend to laugh in horror. They often tend to scream afterward.
  • Madness/Despair: Related to mirthless laughter from Fear and Anxiety. Characters that have undergone an outbreak of psychological instability, especially in response to crossing the Despair Event Horizon during a moment of great stress or trauma may begin laughing uncontrollably, often interspersed with screaming, intense crying and mumbling unintelligible or nonsensical words.
  • Irony: Characters can laugh at some revelation or something a person says when it strikes the one laughing as bitterly ironic or Entertainingly Wrong. Usually, the irony is only apparent (or even understandable) to the one laughing, and is also tied to some kind of personal trauma, regret, or desire. Notably, while laughing at irony can be genuinely mirthful, it can also be completely mirthless, depending on the specific circumstances. This type of laughter is one of the most likely to lead to Laughing Mad.

This trope is Truth in Television, as it is generally theorized that laughter developed as a way for the early humans to release tension and express relief. Therefore people tend to laugh, often times even involuntary, when extremely nervous or stressed. People might also laugh when they are in physical pain.

Compare Technically a Smile, where smiling is not for happiness or friendliness but is the animalistic and predatory act of baring one's teeth. If a character is forced to laugh with commands or threats, compare Laugh with Me!. If the laughter is dispassionate or sarcastic, compare Flat Joy.

Not to be confused with Laughing Mad, which is about laughter as a sign of a crumbling psyche.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Attack on Titan: The anime adaptation changes Annie's reaction to being outed as the Female Titan to this (from a Slasher Smile in the manga), combined with a Luminescent Blush. It's as creepy as it sounds. The author of the manga later said that the laughing was a mixture of relief and anxiety over being outed and no longer having to pretend.
    • Eren does this twice, first after the death of Hannes and again after the death of Sasha.
  • During the latter half of The Big O's second season, Angel confesses her feelings for Roger, but he fails to reciprocate. When she asks why, he hesitates, then finally answers that he isn't sure himself; which stuns Angel. Then it hits her. Roger apparently held feelings for R. Dorothy. The realization is so jarring for her, it results in bitter laughter. This marks the beginning of her downward spiral for the remainder of the series as her life falls apart.
  • Cursed One-Piece: Discovering that the titular dress has merged with her daughter Kaori, becoming a second skin, causes Kaori's mother to descend into a bout of this.
  • Throughout Higurashi: When They Cry, characters tend to laugh this way whenever they fall into disease-related bouts of paranoia.
  • Isekai Quartet: The opening includes Ainz and Subaru standing awkwardly beside each other, sharing a spate of mirthless laughter fueled by their discomfort.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure:
    • Subverted in Stardust Crusaders: at one point, an enemy Stand has taken the form of the Sun itself and traps the heroes in a desert cave where they slowly succumb to heat exhaustion and dehydration. One by one, everyone starts laughing hysterically, except for Joseph, who believes that they've gone insane from the heat and despair of the situation. It turns out that they were actually laughing because they noticed the way to defeat this enemy.
    • Diamond is Unbreakable: Josuke and Rohan both laugh with unease humor after their dice game starts displaying the obvious fact that Josuke is cheating, and then Rohan stabs his finger.
    • Golden Wind: The only sound Carne makes other than grunts of pain after Mista shoots him is a very disturbing staccato chuckle. It doesn't help that his pinprick pupils get even smaller and he gets a really creepy smile on his face when he does it.
  • Jim suffers a bout of nervous laughter, in the midst of a panic attack, during Outlaw Star's 14th episode.
  • Riding Bean: Semmerling and Bean share a brief moment of stress laughter together after he body-checks her car. Doubles as Pre-Violence Laughter, as they immediately go back to trying to kill each other.
  • Tenchi Muyo!: In episode seven, Ryoko and Ayeka join forces to try to win Tenchi's favor by eliminating the competition including each other. They start by tricking Mihoshi into returning to Galaxy Police headquarters, then attempt to seal Washuu in her lab. One by one, however, their plans backfire, which ultimately lands them in the lake outside. And at the exact moment when it seemed things couldn't get worse, Mihoshi returns. The two share a laugh as the last of their schemes blows up in their faces.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: Three Jokers: One of the three Jokers, "The Criminal", actually hates laughing since it causes him physical pain (he's the Joker from the very first Batman comics, who rarely laughed or smiled). He seems to do it most often when things aren't going his way, like when Jason Todd mocks him or when Batman foils his scheme at the end.
  • The Incredible Hulk: In issue #159, after learning from the Hulk that he spent two years in a coma before his Healing Factor restored him from their last fight, when he fell to Earth from orbit, the Abomination begins alternatively ranting about the situation and laughing at it. The Hulk tells him to stop laughing, because it sounds all wrong, and then finally sucker-punches the Abomination to leave him out cold and stop the laughter.
    Abomination: A-ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha haaaaa! "Nothing can hurt the Abomination", I said! Not even falling out of space! It may put me in a coma — but when I wake up, I don't even know know about it! ''How wonderful to be a freak! I can lose whole sections of my life! Isn't that funny, Hulk? Isn't that just hilarious?! Ha ha ha ha haaaa
    Hulk: Do not laugh! Hulk does not like your laugh! Sounds like crying.

    Fan Works 
  • In All This Venatori Nonsense, protagonist Trevelyan laughs hysterically out of pure shock following the revelations at the end of the story.
  • Arc Corp: One arc involves a Magic 8-Ball that apparently gives specific and accurate answers to any questions asked of it. Given that the Schnee family is willing to auction it off, ARC Corp assumes that there must be more to it. Then they discover that the 8-ball's answers are based off the asker's knowledge; it can't tell the user anything they don't already know. Jaune bursts into despairing laughter, realizing that the Schnee company intentionally sparked a gang war that killed hundreds all for the sake of maintaining a lie.
  • Arc Royale: After Knight demonstrates a small portion of his power, Fate starts laughing at how incredibly outclassed the rest of the Arcs appear to be by comparison, meaning the odds of any of them surviving the competition at all, much less winning, are incredibly low.
  • A Certain Droll Hivemind: When it turns out that Abe Eiko is the product of painful experiments and was once a Dark Side assassin, she is happy to finally be able to talk to Misaka-11111 about it. "Happy" being a relative term.
    "Lucky," Abe Eiko said. She slumped down, still smiling. "It's... it's good to have someone to talk to about it, you know? Sumi and 'Yoko don't have a clue." She laughed, although I did not see what the joke was. "They think Academy City is a nice happy place where everyone gets to learn and become better."
    We then saw the joke. We did not think it was a very funny joke.
  • In Child of the Storm, both Harry and Carol tend to laugh mirthlessly when in a bitter mood, usually accompanied by biting sarcasm, often self-deprecating. With Harry in particular, it tends to relate to memories of the Dark Phoenix.
  • Conversations with a Cryptid:
    • When Izuku tells All for One that he shouldn't concern himself with Izuku, given how much he hates All Might and how poorly he's treated Shiragaki, All for One chuckles bitterly to himself.
    • During the sequel, Kidnapping of a Cryptid, All for One laughs this way at the irony of Izuku accidentally managing to turn people against the government and Pro Heroes, something he'd spent 200 years trying in vain to accomplish himself.
  • From Fake Dreams: Shirou combines this with Tears of Joy when he finally manages to kill Zouken.
  • He Has The Heart: When Penny asks for confirmation that her uncle wasn't "mutilated or anything", John (who was just unwillingly converted into Inspector Gadget) starts chuckling to himself in this fashion before escalating into loud, hysterical sobbing.
  • Jaune Arc, Lord of Hunger:
    • In "Fear", when Yang casually asks Jaune how he's doing after he's nearly disemboweled and is lying in a pool of his own blood, Jaune laughs at the absurdity of her question before responding with his own Casual Danger Dialogue.
    • When Darth Nihilus uses his telekinesis to crash Ironwood's airship into Beacon, Qrow can't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation while everyone around him stares up in horror at the incoming airship.
    • In "Vengeance", Amber starts ruefully chuckling upon seeing all the destruction caused by Nihilus due to feeling guilty that she hadn't been awoken in time to stop him.
  • A Moth to a Flame: Marcy reacts this way upon learning that King Andrias and the Core had always planned for her to become the latter's host... regardless of whether or not they were able to convince her to go along with it.
  • In My Poltergeist Report, Izuku chuckles lifelessly after learning that his whole life, including his death, was going to be miserable and utterly pointless in the grand scheme of things. The only thing that snaps him out of it is Botan's offer to bring him back to life.
  • Owl's Hell That Ends Well:
    • Following a long, emotional discussion about their insecurities and fears, Blitzo and Octavia both find themselves laughing hysterically at the absurdity of how they'd been effectively fighting over which of them was the biggest loser.
    • Blitzo has another spate later after being forced to recount one of the worst experiences of his lives, followed by injuring himself in front of his daughter and many other witnesses.
  • In the Sonic the Hedgehog fanfic Remember When, the final chapter is this trope.
  • Sunsplit Saga: When Twilight Sparkle brings up Sunset Shimmer, Sunburst immediately demands to know where she heard that name. Realizing that he just made that demand of a princess, he hastily backs down and awkwardly claims that he was only asking "out of academic curiosity," laughing nervously in this fashion.
  • In Sword Art Online Abridged, Kirito gives some of this off when Suguha complains that he could've gotten out of the hospital sooner had he not ripped his own dick in half.
  • In This Bites!, Robin utters Saul's "Dereshishishi" laugh when the memories of Ohara and the Buster Call come back. It's chilling.
  • Those Who Stand for Nothing Fall for Anything: Light falls into this when L not only rejects him, but beats him up.
  • Thy Good Neighbor: Rickard falls into this after officially receiving the Hunter's rent, realizing that he's now in prime position to become the most powerful Northern Lord Paramount ever... but would gladly trade all his prestige away for the chance to have his son safely back by his side.
  • Wings of Rebellion: After revealing himself to the Phantom Thieves and explaining his motives, Crow abruptly realizes that his original plan never would have worked out the way he'd desired. He starts laughing at his own stupidity, descending into a Laughing Mad fit.

    Films — Animated 
  • Just before the terrifying reveal in the second segment of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad the former, Ichabod Crane is getting petrified at every sound in the forest - when he finally sees that cattails in the wind are making noises like hoofbeats he starts laughing in frightened relief with a bit of Laughing Mad thrown in.
  • Jafar does this uncontrollably in Disney's Aladdin and it is a laughter of relief, disbelief at the irony and triumph as he sees tables turning in his favour until Iago snaps him out of it.
  • In Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, a brainwashed Tim Drake breaks into hysterical laughter after he kills the Joker, then it transitions to sobbing.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods: Following Goku's battle with Lord Beerus, the latter reveals that not only is his servant Whisky stronger than Beerus himself, but some of the other eleven universes boast even stronger residents. Goku responds by laughing this way before passing out.
  • The Great Mouse Detective: When both Basil and Dawson are stuck in Ratigan's Death Trap, Basil is stuck in the throes of a Heroic BSoD. Dawson declares that "Well, I know you can save us. But if you've given up, then why don't we just set it off now and be done with it?!" Basil chuckles mirthlessly and echoes the remark, before repeating it, having just realized how they can escape.
  • Hercules: Hades does this as he's walking away from Mount Olympus after his fellow gods burst into laughter on a pun made by Zeus regarding his workaholism.
  • In Storks, Tulip realizes pretty quickly that Junior laughs when he's uncomfortable which only causes Junior to laugh louder and more uncomfortably.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Avengers, Hiddleston's performance includes Loki doing the nervous laughter variant of this whenever flustered or wrongfooted - he usually uses it to play off Thor's attempts to reach out to him, but he also does it to pretend he isn't afraid of something.
  • Cold Enough For Snow: Bevis has a massive fit of mirthless laughter just after hearing an extremely lame pun, because he is extremely upset about his son leaving home.
  • In Face/Off, Archer (disguised as Troy) tells Deitrich that he knows so much about Archer because he "sleeps with his life". This leads to Dietrich and his goons to laugh and then Archer joins in (ironically).
  • The Fugitive. Gerard tells Kimble that his friend Charles Nichols used his keys to let his wife's killer into his house. Kimble laughs bitterly at the realization that had he not done something so simple as loan his friend his car, his wife might still be alive.
  • Luke, Leia, and Han break out into this in Star Wars: A New Hope after R2-D2 manages to shut down the garbage compactor that was about to crush them. They're so raucous that C-3PO first thinks they've actually been crushed.
  • Poltergeist: After the family searches for Carol Anne in her bedroom they find a small body lying motionless under a bed sheet. With much trepidation they pull the sheet only to find it's the creepy clown doll and not their little girl. The mother, Diane, who was on the verge hysterics breaks into laughter, out of a mixture of both nervousness and relief.
  • Ready or Not: Grace breaks into relieved, but slightly unhinged giggles when her murderous in-laws are gibbed one by one for failing to uphold their end of their Deal with the Devil.
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: Memorably, the film ends with Sally Hardesty laughing after escaping Leatherface on the back of a pickup truck, having endured a night trying to escape a Cannibal Clan that have killed her brother and friends.
  • When Trumpets Fade: Manning's last act on this Earth before he dies is to let out a disheartened laugh as Sanderson promises that he'll take him home.

  • Happens once or twice in Animorphs, when characters laugh at a joke more than normal after an adventure because it's "relief laughter. We're-still-alive-laughter".
  • In The Belgariad, Mandorallen is stricken by fear for the first time in his life after an encounter with a Wacky Wayside Tribe. Unable to deal with this unfamiliar emotion, which he mistakes for cowardice, he asks his companions for advice on the matter. When someone notes that some people control their fear by laughing at it, he takes the suggestion rather too literally and develops a habit of charging into combat while laughing maniacally.
  • At the end of Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado, Fortunato laughs and acts as though he's praising Montresor for his supposed prank, but it's obvious that he's now absolutely terrified at his impending fate.
  • In the second book of The Dark Elf Trilogy, Dinin breaks into laughter once he realizes that not only is their family under attack and likely about to be wiped out, but also, his sister has just killed his mother to take over power.
  • Laughing from relief or anxiety often crops up in the Discworld novels, usually in the context of someone making a lame joke, and the narration noting that it wasn't funny, but the tension was such that people would laugh at anything. One example is the joke Sacharissa makes in The Truth after the print shop's been smashed up; the dwarfs laugh, but Sacharissa herself keeps laughing, and William realises that "this was the kind of laughter you died of".
  • Harry Potter:
    • In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when people are telling Harry Potter about Sirius Black's supposed crime of having killed a streetful of muggles, they make sure to point out the fact that he stood there laughing afterwards as further proof of just how off-the-rails he is. As we learn by the end of the book, it was actually Sirius's friend Peter Pettigrew who killed all those people, then used his animagus power to transform into a rat and flee the scene, leaving Sirius to take the blame. Author J.K. Rowling has clarified in interviews that Black's laughter was this type of laughter, evoked by the sheer insanity of the situation.
    • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
      • Molly Weasley gives one such laugh when Arthur mentions the use of stitches as an alternative attempt at curing his wounds, believing that even Arthur, a xenophile towards the Muggles, wouldn't be stupid enough to try it. The "laughter" part goes out the window once she finds out that he did just that.
      • Neville gives a nervous laugh when Hermione makes a joke under her breath in the Department of Mysteries that is fueled by fear and nervousness since they're six students breaking in and expecting to have to fight a group of Death Eaters.
  • Near the end of the novel Helsreach, an Ork Nob challenges Grimaldus to a one-on-one duel during the Black Templars' Last Stand. Grimaldus kills the Nob in a single hit, prompting all of the remaining Black Templars to burst out into laughter in front of their attackers. It's very clearly a combination of hopeless humor and yet another way to mock the Orks, however - the Black Templars are still very much doomed.
  • Fistandantilus is explicitly described as laughing like this in the Kingpriest Trilogy- one character explicitly notes that he'd never imagined a laugh could be so utterly devoid of mirth. In this case, Fistandantilus laughs as a calculated expression of contempt for his dupes and to keep them off-guard, rather than for any of the above reasons. On those occasions he actually does find something funny, it's usually more of an Evil Laugh.
  • Modern Faerie Tales:
    • In Ironside, after Kaye reveals to her mother that she's a faerie, she starts laughing nervously and can't stop.
      The nervous giggling wouldn't stop. It was like the absurdity and the horror needed to escape somehow and the only way out was through Kaye's mouth.
    • In Ironside, after Roiben learns that his opponent in the duel will be his own sister:
      His laugh was almost a sob, short and terrible.
  • In the Planet of the Apes novel, Ulysse has this reaction when he definitely realizes the situation he is in (naked, in a cage with animal-like humans, and commanded by armed sapient apes). His laughter also could be the horror version but the shock in being in this position is what most likely caused it.
  • Sherlock Holmes: A guy who'd had his thumb ripped off that night gets it bandaged up by Watson, and only when it's done does all the stress come back and start laughing. As Watson puts it, "all my medical instincts rose up against that laugh".
  • Samuel Beckett spends over a page of his novel Watt describing various types of mirthless laughter:
    Of all the laughs that strictly speaking are not laughs, but modes of ululation, only three I think need detain us, I mean the bitter, the hollow and the mirthless. They correspond to shall I say successive...suc...successive excoriations of the understanding and the passage from the one to the other is the passage from the lesser to the greater, from the lower to the higher, from the outer to the inner, from the gross to the fine, from the matter to the form. The laugh that now is mirthless once was hollow, the laugh that once was hollow once was bitter. And the laugh that once was bitter? Eyewater, Mr. Watt, eyewater. But do not let us waste our time with that. . . . The bitter, the hollow and — "Haw! Haw!" — the mirthless. The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! — so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs — silence please — at that which is unhappy.
  • Rand Al'Thor of The Wheel of Time series does this increasingly as his sanity depletes under the strain of his prophesied role. When pressed, he maintains that he laughs to keep from crying, while others point out that it would be better for him to do the latter.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Mentioned in As Time Goes By when Judy tells her mother Jean that she's envious of how Jean has her life together. Jean's reply is "You've heard of a hollow laugh? If I knew how to do one, I'd do it."
  • In Battlestar Galactica (2003), Colonel Fisk of the Battlestar Pegasus is on the CIC of the Galactica as part of an ulterior plot by Admiral Cain to assassinate Commander Adama and his command staff. He bursts out laughing after Cain noticeably does not give him the codeword to carry out the job, and Colonel Tigh saying that he looks like he could use a drink.
  • Breaking Bad:
    • A chilling example happens in "Crawl Space" when Walt, realizing that he now has no way of escaping his situation, completely snaps and starts laughing until he goes catatonic.
    • "Felina" has Jesse Pinkman laughing brokenly, but relieved, while driving off towards freedom.
  • In the first season ender of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she walks in on Giles and Angel discussing an ancient prophecy that foretells her facing the Master and dying - they're only alerted to her presence as she starts laughing.
  • Abed in Community does this on occasion but mostly because he doesn't know the proper way to laugh in certain situations.
  • In Degrassi: The Next Generation, Craig bursts into inappropriate laughter at his abusive father's funeral.
  • This is often a reaction of chefs at times who are in Hell's Kitchen. Unfortunately, Chef Ramsay doesn't quite seem to understand the concept and will chew them out for not taking things seriously... either that, or he understands perfectly well and is being purposely obtuse as a means of upping the show's drama.
    Van: I'm not laughing at Chef Ramsay. I laugh when I'm nervous. I laugh when I'm happy.
  • Doctor Who: In "42", after having been rescued at the last second from the living sun that was possessing him, the Tenth Doctor reacts by laughing hysterically in relief.
  • Fort Boyard: Celebrity contestant Sally Gray laughs hysterically when she lowers herself down the side of the fort, in a mechanism which spins her very rapidly. She says afterwards that it was because she was so nervous.
  • Odd Squad:
    • This is a common Running Gag with Xavier and Xena, who do this as part of their shared Evil Laugh and takes the shape of HA HA HA—No.
    • In "The Creature Whisperer", the Big O (read: actually his decoy) asks Oprah if she's stalling for time by having Otis dance for him to distract him. Her response is to break out in a fit of nervous laughter, then give Otis a Prompting Nudge to encourage him to start nervously laughing as well. The Big O isn't fooled for so much as a second and stops their laughing fits dead in their tracks.
    • In "Oscar Strikes Back", Oscar attends Lab-Con for the first time with Oprah and explains to Odelia how Oona, his assistant, is in charge of the lab while he's gone. He then lets slip one of his fears of leaving such an experienced Scientist in charge of the lab, in that Oona could press a button and the place could explode. Odelia and Oprah get a good genuine laugh out of his remark, but Oscar's laugh is much more anxiety-ridden, and he tries to pull a Screw This, I'm Outta Here before Oprah stops him.
    • At the climax of "Dr. O No" when Oona, going through gradual Sanity Slippage, hits her Rage Breaking Point and yells at Oprah and New Dr. O, the latter is reminded that she's out of mayonnaise, and pays no mind to the harsh words that her so-called "friend" gives her, instead leaving to go to the grocery store. This causes Oona to laugh in a strained manner as she asks Oprah in disbelief if New Dr. O really just left to go buy mayonnaise while a man is in need of medical assistance.
    • In "Villains Always Win", while Olympia is a contestant on the eponymous game show, host Game Show Gary asks her and the other contestants to perform their best evil laugh. All she can muster is a painfully-fake laugh which doesn't impress anyone and leads to boos from Studio Audience.
    • In "It Takes Goo to Make a Feud Go Right", Baroness Goo meets Oprah in the tube lobby and accuses her of scheduling her and her enemies for the same time at the same place. Oprah responds by nervously laughing out "No-o-o-o-o-o, Baroness Goo!" before diverting the subject to what the Baroness wants for dessert.
  • Our Miss Brooks: This happens to Miss Brooks out of stress in "Hobby Show".
  • Sock from Reaper bursts into fearful laughter in the first episode when facing imminent death. It's described as a character tic, but doesn't really come up in the rest of the series.
  • Schitt's Creek: After they lose their fortune and are forced to move, Moira's husband reminds her that if she wants a flower garden, she'll have to plant it herself. She answers with a long sarcastic chuckle that builds to a full-on cackle, all without moving her face or blinking.
    Moira: ...These are dark times, John, but not that dark.
  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the backstory, mere days after he graduated from Starfleet Academy, a young Ensign Picard is in a bar fight with a pair of aliens twice his size and ends up stabbed in the back through the heart. His response is to look down at the blade sticking out of his chest and laugh as he collapses to the ground. It's unclear whether this was out of shock or if he found some humor in it, but, observing the event again from the future, the stoic Captain Picard is only embarrassed by the recklessness of his youth. It gets revisited in "Tapestry", and this time, Present-Picard in Young-Picard's body is laughing from relief because he knows history is back on course.
  • In the series finale of Strike Back, the remaining members of S20 do this upon realizing that the $15 million they just risked their lives to steal is counterfeit.
  • Kitty from That '70s Show does this a great deal.
  • In The Wire, George Glekas, (the fence and smuggling specialist for the a worldwide drug and sex trafficking organization) can only shake his head and give an angry chuckle when he learns that Ziggy, who he hired for a job smuggling some stolen cars, has decided to take one of the missing cars for a joyride and currently has it parked right outside Glekas's store. He does it again shortly afterwards, when Ziggy starts arguing with him over payment for the job, when Glekas only gives him half of the price that was agreed. A Television Without Pity recap of the episode summarized it thusly:
  • On one episode of Would I Lie to You?, after a particularly bad showing from his team without a single correct guess all evening, David Mitchell declares in frustration that if his team's final guess also turns out to be wrong (and, to add further insult, is when he's siding with a teammate who had previously guessed correctly only to be overruled each time), he's simply going to "laugh at death". Sure enough, the answer turns out to be wrong, provoking a burst of loud, humourless laughter from David:
    David Mitchell: I AM SO MERRY!

  • ''The Book of Mormon": The second verse of "Turn it Off" ends will all the missionaries awkwardly laughing after Elder Thomas brings up how he ignores the fact that he might one day die of cancer.

    Video Games 
  • ANNO: Mutationem: At Skopp City, one NPC is laughing around on the streets only because he's pretending and thinks he'll forget if he stops.
  • Widespread in the Dark Souls series and its Spiritual Predecessor Demon's Souls; NPCs often end their dialogue with a hearty chuckle at the Crapsack World they inhabit.
  • Divinity: Original Sin II: One ghost giggles all the time he has the player character sort out his Unfinished Business, and then, when he realizes he's still not passing on, his laughter escalates into a scream of horror.
    Narrator: And as the black shadow of eternity looms over him, he becomes hysterical.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • In Final Fantasy IX, Freya lets out a mirthless laugh of shock upon learning that her long-lost boyfriend, Fratley, has amnesia and no memory of her whatsoever.
    • Final Fantasy X:
      • Tidus and Yuna's fake-laughter scene. They're practicing laughing as a way to de-stress when things get too sad or scary and then they laugh for real over how silly they sounded trying to practice laughter. At least, Tidus does. It's never made clear whether Yuna, given her situation, was actually capable of genuine laughter at that point. Wakka expresses concern for both of them, thinking that they had lost it.
      • Later, Yuna oversleeps at the Djose Temple and the party lets her sleep in. Afterwards, the party makes fun of her for having "bed-hair."
        Auron: Once Lady Yuna can fixes her hair, we leave! (everyone laughs)
        Tidus: (narrating) I hadn't really laughed like that in a long time. It was only later that I realized... The only one really laughing then... was me. Laughing must have been the only thing keeping them going.
      • There's also Rikku's laughter when she panics over the lightning at the Thunder Plains.
        Tidus: "Heh heh heh..." You're givin' me the creeps!
    • Firion's pre-battle quote when fighting Kefka in Dissidia Final Fantasy has him remark that he has "never heard a sadder laugh." Also, after Terra defeats Kefka for the final time during the game's story mode, he goes off on a nihilistic rant about the pointlessness of cherishing existence in the face of inevitable destruction before he explodes, leaving behind the echo of a sobbing laugh.
  • DiZ/Ansem the Wise does this twice in Kingdom Hearts II, first when Riku, having embraced the power of darkness to defeat Roxas, introduces himself as "Ansem" while physically looking like "Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness", unaware he's addressing the real Ansem, and again at the end when his Kingdom Hearts Encoder starts to break down and it fully hits him just how stupid the plan really was.
  • Near the end of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, after King Daphnes uses the Triforce in order to finally destroy Hyrule, Ganondorf's response is to start laughing, starting with a chuckle and then immediately cackling like a madman as water starts pouring into the kingdom. He then takes out his swords and starts the game's final battle.
  • Metal Gear:
    • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots: When some soldiers Snake encounters become under heavy fire, they break into laugher over their situation. This can be invoked by using a laughing bullet.
    • In the "Jetstream" DLC of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Sam lets one out at the end after Armstrong manages to defeat him and cut off his arm, deciding that his vigilante campaign has effectively ended and accepting Armstrong's offer to join him. Armstrong in return chuckles menacingly with him.
    • Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes: When Snake rescues her, Paz will occasionally be subject to fits of nervous laughter. Considering the torture she's been through, it's not unjustified.
  • In Persona 5, Yusuke does this a few times as the crimes of his teacher/foster father Madarame are slowly exposed. After Yusuke's faith is Madarame has been completely shattered with the reveal that Madarame essentially let Yusuke's mother die so he could profit off of her painting, Yusuke starts sadly laughing, then thanks Madarame for completely removing any reason to forgive him.
  • The Kookaburras of SongBird Symphony laugh at everything. This includes when they're scared, which led to a misunderstanding of sorts with Cassie: she assumed they were visiting just to laugh AT her, when they were actually fearfully checking up on her and laughing nervously, worried about what she might do.
  • Super Mario Bros.:
  • In the Meet the Medic video of Team Fortress 2, the Heavy does this as the Medic prepares the Mega-Baboon heart transplant. It's even subtitled on Youtube as "Worried Laughter".
  • Undertale:
    • Some fans theorize that the First Child's laughter at King Asgore getting sick from poisonous buttercups in a pie they and Asriel made for him was this instead of a case of Evil Has a Bad Sense of Humor. It's really up to fan speculation whether it was a genuine mistake (confusing "buttercups" for "cups of butter") or them trying to play The Usurper by poisoning Asgore to take the throne and delighting in his sickness while passing it as "laughing it off".
    • Toriel falls under this trope as well, if you either kill her as part of your No Mercy run or if you strike her down after she’s stopped attacking you.
  • In Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, LaCroix starts laughing when the sarcophagus he opens is full of dynamite instead of the Antideluvian he intended to diablize, and sees a mocking note from Smiling Jack and a timer reaching 0:00; crosses over with Laughing Mad.
  • In Wolfenstein: Youngblood after the twins kill their first Nazi Jess initially pukes all over the floor, then the two of them suddenly burst out laughing, likely out of fear mixed with relief that he didn't kill them instead.
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon: The ironic version appears in the ending, as Ryo Aoki tells the story of how his ex-girlfriend, who only dated him for his money and later dumped him for being a Mafia Prince, complimented him when they met after he reinvented himself.

    Western Animation 
  • Amphibia: In "The New Normal", after Anne's parents talk about how they heard someone trashed the cooking aisle and are glad Anne would never do something like that, Anne nervously chuckles and the Plantars laugh hysterically.
  • Ed, Edd n Eddy: In "Little Ed Blue", Ed yells back at Sarah, she then laughs nervously as she backs away and complies with his demand to leave.
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Starlight Glimmer is prone to these after she becomes a good guy. Because she's so socially awkward, any situation that Starlight finds upsetting or stressful makes her nervously chuckle, especially if the implications of something terrible that's about to happen are pointed out to her.
  • The Owl House: In "Eclipse Lake", Amity finds Hunter digging in the ground at Eclipse Lake and wonders what he's doing. He tells her that there's no Titan blood left and starts laughing as he explains that since he's failed his one shot at redeeming himself for Belos, he's digging his own grave.
  • Steven Universe:
    • Pearl has laughed out of nervousness at least once.
    • Peridot also did this once she realized she wouldn't be able to escape from the Cluster.
    • This seems to be a favorite way of showing distress amongst the characters. Lapis does this after Steven answers her question of "What if something bad happens?" with the Armor-Piercing Response "What if something good happens?" Lapis chuckles mirthlessly at her own trauma-induced paranoia before breaking out into song.
  • The Running Gag of an episode from The Tom and Jerry Show, where Robin Ho-Ho tries to get his Merry Men to laugh and they respond with just "ha ha ha... ho ho ho... hee hee hee."

    Real Life 
  • This is the real reason behind the spotted hyena's infamous "laugh": it's a response to stress, whether it's from food or group infighting. Even though Hyenas do have quite solid group hierarchies, they will regularly squabble over resources, be it among themselves or against creatures far stronger than them, so their eerie laughing is quite a common occurrence.
  • Cats purring when distressed may be their version of mirthless laughter, in the sense that it's a sound that usually indicates positive emotions turning up when the animal is feeling negative emotions. A domestic cat purring usually is a sign of contentment, but they've also been known to purr when in extreme pain, such as due to injury or when giving birth. Theories for why this happens vary; a popular one is that purring in stressful situations is a self-soothing mechanism, not unlike the theory that humans laughing when we're not happy is a holdover from laughter starting out as a tension-release mechanism.


Video Example(s):


Sock's Nervous Laughing

Sock bursts into hysterical laughter when he's nervous, this happening when Ben gets nails in his leg from Ferry's attack on The Work Bench.

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Example of:

Main / MirthlessLaughter

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