Hahahaha, That’s Not Funny at All

PUBLISHED: January 12, 2018

I have a friend who replies to my texts with her own humorless Ha Code.

A single "ha" conveys zero joviality. It's basically a put-down. I write: "You really gobbled up that second dessert," and she replies, "ha."

A double ha—"haha"—makes it seem as if she's at least mildly amused, but she's not. I write: "There are three Starbucks within seven blocks of my office, and they're all busy all the time." She replies, "haha," but she means,"So what?"

When she gets to triples and quads—"Hahahaha"—we're into heavy sarcasm. I write, "Do you think Trump assumes Black Friday is a holiday celebrated by African Americans?" She hits me with a string of ha's reminiscent of the late Jackie Gleason's mocking response to lame jokes: "Har-har-hardy-har-har!"

"Haha" and its keyboard counterparts are harmless tools but shouldn't be mistaken as substitutes for actual laughter. Ha Code is as empty of humor as "LOL"—which is the last thing you would say or write if, by chance, you actually found yourself laughing out loud.

And what about ":)"? That's a sign of laughter, or at least a smile, right? Not really. It functions as a plea for sympathetic understanding of what might be an overly harsh communiqué. It's most often used by the sender, not the recipient.

Pre-digital, my sister used to say the meanest things to me, preceded by the phrase, "No offense, but . . ." Now, she just puts her thoughts in an email with :) at the end.

Genuine laughter can't really be written out, just as you can't spell the sound of a sneeze, which is why writers settle for "ah-choo." You could try "ah, ha," but that's an announcement of discovery, best delivered emphatically: "Ah, ha!"

There's a sly dramatic laugh usually written, "heh, heh, heh," but it fell from favor long before texting was invented.

When I told a friend of my concern about our dependence on symbols masquerading as laughter, he asked, "Then, what should one write to convey sincere amusement via text?"

Ah, ha! That depends on whether you're actually laughing or merely acknowledging the sender's attempt at humor. The latter is polite; the former is cathartic, and there is no appropriate symbol for it.

Is our current lifestyle slowly sapping our sense of humor? Or at least our likelihood of having a hearty, endorphin-releasing belly laugh? I picture sad souls typing "hahaha" or "LOL" while sitting alone in office cubicles, or in dreary dorm rooms, or surrounded by solemn strangers on the subway.

Life comes with its own laugh track. All you have to do is tap into it rather than type into it.

Laughter is contagious, which is why smart promoters hire a few good laughers to sit in the audience to get things rolling. It's why TV producers use laugh tracks—"sweetening," as it's known—signaling viewers to stop texting long enough to laugh.

I don't have research to back me up, but I'm convinced that the millions of people now streaming movies at home are laughing a lot less than folks in theaters.

I used to think the only people incapable of laughing out loud were TV network executives. Many times I'd sit in a room with them as they screened what I believed to be my funniest material, and they would not so much as grin. I took it personally until I came to understand that it's a quirk of the profession.

The best you'll get from a TV exec when the lights come up is a vacant expression, an almost-imperceptible elevating of one eyebrow, and the words, delivered in a monotone, "That's funny. That's really funny."

Are we all becoming TV execs? :(

(c) Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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