‘Why Do People Laugh?’

Cindy Gendrich is one of those people who can’t stop herself from laughing, sometimes too loudly and at inappropriate times.

“I adore it when people tell funny stories at funerals, for instance, since it seems to me to be a way of celebrating the dead person’s life,” she says. “I laugh at inappropriate things at times, and I’m pretty interested in why that makes some people incredibly uncomfortable, and what is it about me and people like me who are looking for humor as sort of a release.”

A professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, Gendrich has received a $24,800 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her proposal, “Why do people laugh?”, to study the complexities of humor and to develop a first-year seminar.

Gendrich has been teaching acting and theater classes at Wake Forest for 13 years. She grew up in Chicago and earned a bachelor of fine arts from Illinois Wesleyan University and a doctorate in theatre from the University of Missouri. She also worked as a professional actress in Chicago.

The idea of teaching a class on humor stems from her doctoral dissertation on comedy and 19th century actresses, but her interest is also personal. She was treated for Hodgkins disease in her late teens, and she found that something as simple as telling a bad joke helped her cope with her illness.

“I’d do little things like answer the phone saying, ‘Batcave, Robin speaking.’ Laughing put other people at ease and allowed me to find a release.”

The grant Gendrich received is from the Enduring Questions funding program through the NEH, which is an independent federal agency that funds research and education. The Enduring Questions program is aimed at creating programs that address some of the age-old questions of humanity, such as what comprises beauty or what is happiness.

She will use the money from the NEH to spend the summer and part of the fall doing research and compiling resources for the seminar. The seminar will delve into the psychology of laughter and why it’s good for the body, as well as exploring the social and cultural aspects of humor.

“It’s going to force them (first-year students) to begin their college careers thinking about the ways things intersect, how this seemingly small topic has little tentacles that reach into everything,” she says.

The subject matter will be broad, and could include everything from Greek plays to South Park, she says. It will also address cultural differences that make some jokes funny in one place, while being offensive in others.

“A first-year seminar is a funny place to put this, but in some ways it’s the right way to teach them that they’re not in search of the right answer but in search of the process. It should get them thinking about their life as a chance to engage with these big, enduring questions.”

Categories: Humanities, Research, Student