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Tension-Cutting Laughter

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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.

This is Truth in Television - according to some researchers, release of tension is the entire point of laughing.

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 (overlapping with HA HA HAŚNo or Pre-Violence Laughter).

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.

Compare Corpsing, where an actor inadvertently starts laughing during a serious scene. Also note the hyena (the actual animal, not our trope named for it) is an example, as its signature giggling call is usually given when losing a disagreement over food or rank. "Ha ha ha, you thought I wanted to fight? Just kidding, boss! Ha ha - don't bite me!". See also Pre-Violence Laughter.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Black Lagoon. Balalaika's Evil Laugh (possibly insane laugh) does this for the three-way Mexican Standoff in Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise. Balalaika had just been saying that when you have a gun to your head you'd better come up with a reason why you shouldn't die, or find a way to humor the person doing so. Fortunately, Rock achieves the latter.
  • Digimon Data Squad: When Suguru Daimon and BanchoLeomon met Craniummon who was telling them that he's guarding Yggdrasil, Suguru and his partner laugh in relief because after a very long search, they finally got the confirmation that Yggdrasil did indeed exist.

    Comic Book 
  • 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.

    Fan Works 
  • Turnabout Storm: The massive laughter coming from the courtroom after Dash's Embarrassing Old Photo is shown almost makes forget the fact that she was going to be declared guilty just a few seconds ago. Of course, this being Ace Attorney, Mood Whiplash strikes again quickly.
  • Here We Go Again!: After Itami gets knocked out by Piña Co Lada (by accident), Kincaid and his fellow tank crewmen learn the princess's name. Cue peals of laughter and no one getting killed, as opposed to the feared slaughter by the "iron elephants".

  • 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.
  • Done in a Gallows Humor way at the end of Blood Diamond, when Solomon admits to a dying Danny that he'd suspected the latter would betray him and take the diamond for himself. Danny admits that he'd given it serious thought, prompting the two to share a laugh.
  • Evil Dead 2 famously has a scene involving this that both cuts through and exaggerates the tension; after enduring nightmare upon nightmares worth of horrors, Ash ends up pratfalling in a busted chair, to which everything in the cabin comes alive and starts laughing at him, and Ash joins in. It manages to be very creepy (implying that Ash finally broke and lost his mind), but it's also legitimately goofy (also implying that everyone is realizing just how farcical it's all become and deciding to have a jolly good laugh before Ash gets back to shooting stuff).
  • Weaponized by Jack Frost in Rise of the Guardians to deflate Pitch Black's attempts to sow fear among his allies and feed off it. One snowball to the face in the middle of a dramatic speech gets everyone in a laughing mood that steels their morale and allows them to rally in their Darkest Hour. It's this that helps Jack realize that he's the Guardian of Joy.

  • 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 realizes 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 
  • On one episode of The Daily Show, after showing news footage of a Republican criticizing the President for cheering upon learning of someone's death, Stewart quipped, "He's cheering the way you would when the doctor tells you "It's benign."
  • 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.
  • 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 "Grave", 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.
  • Angel. Wesley suffers Conflicting Loyalties when he finds a prophecy that Angel will kill his own son. After spending the entire episode wrestling with his conscience and consulting an oracle in the shape of a giant plastic fast food hamburger, Wesley starts to laugh after hearing Angel talk about how much he loves his son.
    Angel: What's so funny?"
    Wes: Life. Life is funny. Listening to stupid people talking to hamburgers is funny. Worrying about things that will never... It's all so incredibly funny and...and beautiful.
    • Subverted moments later when several portents of doom happen at once, throwing Wesley back into turmoil again.
  • 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:
    President Bartlet: 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)
  • 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 Tyrion 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 belly full 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)
  • In the second season of Battlestar Galactica (2003), Admiral Cain and Commander Adama are each planning to have the other assassinated after the conclusion of the upcoming battle. Their respective assassins have both been put into position, but both decide at the last moment not to order the assassination. Afterwards, Saul Tigh, who was ignorant of the situation, remarks that Jack Fisk looks like he could use a drink. Fisk, who had been dreading the order to move against Adam, lets out an explosive laugh in relief that gets him looks for all across the CIC.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: In "Rocks and Shoals", the crew has been shot down and crash-landed on a hostile world in Dominion space. As they make their way from the ship, O'Brien starts shouting in frustration.
    O'Brien: Oh no!
    Sisko: What?
    O'Brien: I can't believe it!
    Sisko: What?
    Sisko: You... you tore your pants?
    O'Brien: (realizing) Yeah, I tore my pants!
    (everybody laughs)
    O'Brien: I guess... I guess I'm really in trouble now, eh?
  • M*A*S*H: In the ninth season episode "No Sweat", on a sweltering hot night where no one can sleep, B.J. is irritated about a letter he received from his wife about the gutters in their house, because it makes him imagine all kinds of scenarios he'd rather not think about (which irritates Hawkeye), Charles is trying to deal with his family's money problems (thanks to a crooked accountant), Klinger, who took the PA system apart to see if he could put it back together, is having trouble doing so, and Margaret has come down with a severe rash on her butt. She tries to explain to Col. Potter, who's zonked out on a sleeping pill, that she wants him to call ICorps and have them include calamine lotion on a chopper they're sending (to pick up a patient). That's when Klinger, unbeknownst to Margaret and Col. Potter, finally manages to put the PA system back together, and the entire camp ends up hearing Margaret and Potter talk about her butt rash, which makes them howl with laughter, even after Margaret realizes what's going on and destroys the PA system again.

    Video Games 
  • The infamous forced laughter scene from Final Fantasy X is in the spirit of this since Yuna is trying to teach Tidus how to do this and failing miserably. The awfulness makes them laugh at themselves.
  • In Yakuza, during a dramatic face-off with Kiryu at the batting cages, Majima's villainous monologue is interrupted when the pitching machine beans him in the head with a ball. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Majima laughs it off, with the rest of his henchmen joining in. But then he notices one of his men isn't laughing and flies into a violent rage.

    Web Comics 

    Web Video