Recently, I read a book on the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Among other things, it mentions how Miguel de Unamuno was once horrified to hear one of Franco's supporters at a rally shout "¡Viva la muerte!" When I read that, I cracked up, for reasons that aren't terribly hard to see if you speak a little Spanish.
This incident reminded me of an earlier time, when I was thinking about the worries entertained in some quarters about Christian theocracy coming to the US. The argument occurred to me that this has become an impossibility, because a religious theocracy would feel the need to try to forcibly supress homosexuality, and with all the gay people that have come out of the closet in the last couple decades, they could never get away with it. After all, you can't just make millions of people disappear. Then I thought to myself, "Wait a minute, yes you can." And for lack of anything better to do, I laughed at myself.
The thing is, in both cases, they were bad laughs. I don't think I'm the first person to use this phrase, but I can't find anyone using it this way with a quick Google search, so I'll claim credit for coining it for now.* What I mean by "bad laugh" is when the thing you are laughing at is in actuality horrifying, and you can recognize this fact. It seems to me, and I seem to remember hearing someone else say, that bad laughs are a way of protecting ourselves from coming to grips with just how horrifying the thing is. While I can vaguely understand the horrifying nature of the idea of millions of US citizens being murdered by their own government, or of someone enthusiastically embracing the slogan "¡Viva la muerte!" with all his heart, I can't say I've really felt the horror deeply, nor do I care to.
This raises an interesting question, though: a number of comedians have commented on how happiness isn't very funny, there will be no laughter in heaven, etc. Does this mean all laughs are bad laughs?
*Just as I typed the last paragraph, I realized I had heard the phrase in a Roger Ebert book. But on re-reading the passage, I'm not quite sure he used the phrase in the way I had thought. So perhaps this is a coinage of sorts.