By Maggie Hennefeld.

 Imagine being so hilarious that your jokes, impressions, or other repartee literally caused someone to laugh themselves to death.1

—“Does Your Stand-Up Act Need Death by Laughter Insurance?,” Trusted Choice, insurance web advertisement, August 10, 2019

Imagine being so wild and free that your laughter literally killed you. The funniest comedian’s worst nightmare betrays humor’s ultimate utopian wager: to die laughing—to take flight from the world in the throes of unbearable pleasure and outrageous ecstasy. “Though extremely rare, even laughter can be a killer,” warns Trusted Choice.2 Death-by-laughter insurance dates back to the early 1900s (in their telling), when “a group of giggly (yet timid) cinemagoers” hired the firm Lloyd’s of London “to issue a policy that would cover them in the event they actually died laughing. Now that’s pretty funny.”3 What film could provoke such dangerous mirth? Was it Tickled to Death (1909) in which a woman brings her dead husband back to life by tickling his feet with a hat feather? Or perhaps That Fatal Sneeze (1907), an unorthodox comedy about nasal catastrophe? Although preposterous, death-by-laughter insurance would have been a perfectly sensible precaution at the time.

From 1870 to 1920, hundreds of women reportedly died from laughing too hard. Bertha Pruett was “Killed By A Joke” in 1893 when a young man (and “noted wit”) made a risible remark at a dinner party that “threw Miss Pruett into a violent fit of laughter” that “suddenly changed to a cry of pain and she fell to the floor . . . Dead.”4 The unnamed jokester was not a professional comedian, unlike the thespians whose riotous performance on opening night at the theater caused Mrs. Charles S. Stuber (age thirty-three) to die of acute indigestion incited by excessive laughter.5 Mrs. Polly Ann Jackson “had not laughed so hard in months as at the story told her which caused her death” in Kentucky in 1906.6

Figure 0.1 “Does Your Stand-Up Act Need Death by Laughter Insurance? ( Just in case your comedy really kills),” Trusted Choice web advertisement for insurance, August 10, 2019.

Movie exhibitors gleefully exploited fatal anxieties about risible mortis in their devilish gambits, offering to insure all patrons against “loss of life” due to “unrestrained laughter.”7 For example, The Ontario Equitable Life and Accident Insurance Company issued a policy to “every man, woman, and child” attending Lord Chumley in Canada (1925)—advertised as “THE JOLLIEST BANG-UP COMEDY IN YEARS!”—with a “proviso that death [must] occur during the performance.”8 (Viewers who laughed themselves to death after the last shot would be sadly out of luck.) The stunt made a killing and reaped an “immediate profit” as people flocked to test their enjoyment against the postmortem promise of $1,000 cold hard cash. “Life insurance for death by laughter is another exploitation stunt which has caught on,” opined The Exhibitors Trade Review in 1923 in a recurring section titled “Exploitorials.”9

Liability hazards engulf the comedy industry today, but the target has shifted from laughing spectator to edgy practitioner. Comedians face litigious backlash for everything from plagiarism to gender bans to mother-in-law jokes, exem­plified by the 2009 “MOTHER-IN-LAWSUIT” against Sunda Croonquist whose outraged in-laws sued her for “making too many mother-in-law jokes” in her stand-up act.10 In contrast, Charlize Theron absolved Sacha Baron Cohen in 2019 after she “was hospitalized for five days” from “laughing too hard while watching ‘Borat.’”11 (She had a herniated disk but Borat was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”12)

There is something truly utopian about the spirit of death-by-laughter insur­ance, which prizes the unbearable pleasures of laughter over the injurious cruelty of comedy. How extraordinary? After all, one can buy insurance for nearly any absurdity—Loch Ness monster attacks; alien abduction; poltergeist invasion; the bad luck of getting “cold feet” before nuptials (“cold feet coverage”); or the risk of devaluing a lucrative body part, such as Marlene Dietrich’s smoky voice, Gene Simmons’s long tongue, America Ferrera’s teeth, Heidi Klum’s legs, Tom Jones’s chest hair, and the taste buds of various sommeliers and food critics.13 More than a crude capitalist gimmick (which, of course, it is also), death by laughter insurance takes pleasure as a contagious, euphoric wager—a burst of jouissance—rather than a selfish possession or self-isolated feeling fueled by bitter resentment and culture war hostility.

I am not a professional comedian, but I felt enticed by this unwieldy indem­nity. Naturally, I called Trusted Choice, who referred me to several brokers in my area (Minneapolis, Minnesota), all of whom declined to offer me a price quote for death by laughter insurance. Perhaps they assumed it was a prank call; when I explained that it was for research purposes, they said they had more important things to do with their time than speculate about “atypical policies” that would not increase company profits and they had never heard of such a thing anyway. When I tried again—this time posing as a “comedy entrepreneur,” they further insulted me by raising doubts about my company’s projected gross revenue and unlimited liability cap. A service representative at Trusted Choice named Isabelle B. laughed out loud as I read from the ad: “for those equipped with the skills to induce sidesplitting guffaws, death-by-laughter insurance might actually be a viable option.”14 She then wished me “prosperity” with my research project. (Thank you, Isabelle!) Death by laughter insurance is simply too beautiful for this reality.


So few reports of laughter-related deaths actually exist that the very thought of taking out an insurance policy for it is, in and of itself, a bit comical . . . Regardless of death by laughter’s credibility, there’s coverage for it.15

It is unsurprising that a $5.36 trillion industry would want to cast a wide net by pandering to common dangers and outrageous hazards alike.16 Laughter insur­ance is the logical conclusion of a capitalist economy driven by the desire for unending enjoyment and the exploitation of apocalyptic despair. “Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business,” observed Neil Postman in 1985. “The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”17 In his best-selling book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman pathologizes the popular addiction to television that reduces our public discourse to “dangerous nonsense.”18 Unlike fatal laughter, enjoyment of mass culture is not physically lethal: “death by amusement” serves as a metaphor for the collective tolls of per­vasive commoditization. Several decades later, as dark corporate money fuels the “reality-TV-to-electoral-politics pipeline”19 and QAnon evangelists orchestrate online scavenger hunt games for the “truth-to-come”20 (that the deep state is con­trolled by a Satanic cabal of cannibalistic, child sex traffickers), the metaphor of “amusing ourselves to death” has become all too literal. It encompasses the slow-burn catastrophe of environmental collapse, neofascist resurgence, permanent war, ordinary violence, and obscene inequality. Addiction to enjoyment is ever to blame when knowledge proves futile in the face of belief, as the comforts of passive pleasure supersede the vital politics of social change.

But comedy and amusement are not the same thing, and their conflation threatens to defang humor’s sharp bite in the name of subverting a relentless “imperative to enjoy.”21 Laughter grows hollow when everything is supposed to be funny. “Feminist killjoys” and “humorless” rabble-rousers thus wage battle royale against a droning chorus of laugh tracks, canned laughs, “rolling on the floor laughing” emojis, and other epiphenomena of late capitalism’s “medicinal bath” of “wrong laughter,” to invoke those notorious fun-crashers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.22 What can critical comedy do in the face of so much meaningless pleasure? Humor has always held a special power to disrupt con­sumer culture’s free fall into thoughtless conformity, whereby corporate rule and social alienation pave the way to class warfare, toxic resentment, and emboldened white supremacist misogyny. From anti-Nazi satires like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) to Ziwe Fumudoh’s anti-racist parody “Stop Being Poor” (2021) and Nuotama Bodomo’s Afro-Surrealist musical Everybody Dies! (2016), radical comedy jams the wheels of laughter’s effortless adherence to passive enjoyment.

Wild laughter gives voice to unspoken taboos. It liberates dangerous desires, risky impulses, and inconvenient thoughts, unleashing an extremity of feeling that spreads through your whole body and sparks new sensations of community and solidarity. But comical laughter has lost its disobedient edge, hog-tied by the “cruel optimism” through which we compulsively “amuse ourselves to death.”23 As Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai incisively put it, “Both the world and comedy change when there’s a demand for permanent carnival.”24 In other words, comedy no longer offers a holdout or exception to the icy embrace of “permanent carni­val,” as public discourse is pervaded by a ghoulish sideshow of empty hot takes, cynical-satirical memes, and ludicrous conspiracy theories. Ever hungry to eat its own tail, comedy itself has been tasked with filling the void, which it can achieve only by upping the ante on its righteous cri de coeur. Even escapist humor is now irresistibly politicized, often as a substitute for the impotence of sober, earnest, or merely uninteresting forms of protest and debate.

In critical humor studies, recent books have taken up this intense politici­zation of all comedy, ranging from hopeful collections on the importance of “Stand-Up Comedians as Public Intellectuals” to clarion calls exposing the actual violence of bigoted jokes (see: Raúl Pérez’s The Souls of White Jokes) and deep dives into the ideological abyss of far-right humor (read, if you dare, That’s Not Funny!: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them).25 Comedic allegiance has become a letter of faith, causing the why of laughter to eclipse the conta­gions of humor, as male “edge-lords” lament that their genius is being censored by so-called cancel culture and feminist comics routinely receive death threats for being in any way funny, outspoken, erotic, or political.26 This is the volatile climate in which we commit the potency of our laughs to the satirical voice of our social in-group or ideological tribe.

Under such conditions, where laughing at the right critical object might feel just as meaningful as (or no less so than) voting, attending a protest, participat­ing in a consumer boycott, or picketing outside the house of a Supreme Court justice, it is very difficult to imagine grappling with laughter on its own terms. What is laughter if not a ratification of humor? And what is humorlessness if not a refusal of the other’s enjoyment?

And yet many laughs defy any possible connection to comedy. But this is precisely the location of their renewed catharsis and disruptive radicality.

Glenda Carpio calls it “laughing fit to kill,” which erupts from “the double bind of distance and nearness” to ungrievable traumas of American slavery.27 In a similar vein, Danielle Fuentes Morgan explores the double-voiced absur­dity of Black media satire as a vortex for “laughing to keep from dying”—from Georgina’s uncanny “No, no, no, no” burst in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) to Maya Angelou’s spoken word poem with the existential refrain: “I almost laugh myself to death. I laugh so hard HA! HA!”28 In the absence of easy release, laugh­ter takes on fraught emotional meaning, heavy with bottomless grief, fiery with insuppressible joy, and layered with the unresolvable anguish of living in a homi­cidally ridiculous world. We strip laughter of its nuanced absurdity, its minori­tarian irony, and its archival afterlife when we only hear its echoes in reference to comedy and humor. To analyze the joke, in other words, is not to resolve the meaning of its laughter.


This book is an experiment to embrace laughter on its own terms. I focus on the tensions between joyous laughter and nervous hysteria as these two sensations collided in the raucous bodies of pleasure-seeking women around the turn of the twentieth century. Prior to that time, to “laugh hysterically” meant to suffer from mixed feelings, such as passion and shame, hope and futility, or excitement and disgust. The stigma was typically reserved for the mirthless pathos of emo­tional women, whose irrational sensations were routinely hystericized as beyond the realm of knowledge, understanding, or representation. Deprived of cathartic outlets, women retreated into their bodies, unleashing torturous symptoms— from somnambulism, amnesia, phantom paralysis, and hallucinations to uncon­trollable barking, yawning, hiccupping, and tongue clacking. As a somatic “conversion disorder,” female hysteria offered a “proto-language” for parlaying unspeakable words into an enigmatic carnival of the flesh, paving the way for a feminist imaginary to come.29

But that firewall between nervous laughter and jubilant comedy collapsed by the end of the nineteenth century. Hysterical laughter was let loose upon the masses! The feverish spread of alluring spectacles (by which we now “amuse our­selves to death”) invested the powers of laughter with the licensed madness of hysteria. With the rise of early cinema and its interlocking attractions (variety shows, burlesque revues, musical extravaganzas), women were widely incited to laugh louder and more convulsively than ever before. As one film trade magazine declared, “You are compelled to laugh, you cannot control yourself, you cannot resist the contagion!”30 No recreational venue, however, was as hysterical as the cinema: “Don’t you know one of the first missions of the motion picture is to GET YOU TO LAUGH? Then help the picture’s mission!”31 As women’s plea­sure became the gold standard for commercial profit, a crisis of deadly enjoyment preyed on the emancipation of their voluble laughter—quite literally.

Between 1870 and 1920, I repeat, hundreds of women reportedly died from laughing too hard. These bizarre obituaries proliferated in American local dailies and national newspapers alike, mourning the unforeseen deaths of women who were “Killed By a Joke,” who “Had Not Laughed So Heartily In Months,” and who “may have been about the first to see anything in Colorado to laugh at.”32 Amid the consecration of feminized fun by consumer capital, flippant obituaries attempted to strip laughter of its vital relation to the social politics of wild joy. Women were ruthlessly mocked for laughing themselves to death over nothing. Any taboo obscenity or unthought dissent had to be read between the lines. For example, in 1907, a woman named Barbara Barr allegedly laughed for eight hours at a terrible pun about dentistry (I disclose the punch line in chapter 2).

Georges Bataille once posed fatal joy as “ecstatic contemplation and lucid knowledge accomplished in a single action that cannot fail to become risk,”33 while Hélène Cixous conjured endless laughter that exudes from “all our mouths . . . we inspire ourselves and we expire without running out of breath, we are every-where!”34 In contrast, Mrs. A. Fox laughed for two hours at an “amusing incident that happened at the circus,” although the gag itself was withheld from print due to concerns about public safety.35 Ernestina Nehring laughed herself to death at her young son’s confusion between eggplants and chicken eggs, and Rosa Walker did the same when her husband accidentally salted the pork meat with granu­lated sugar. Glib hyperbole or spun from whole cloth entirely, these sad reports of women’s risible deaths proceeded from comedic triggers that fell woefully short of their threshold for laughing jouissance.


The idea of death by laughter is not so incredible. It has a documented history that dates back to antiquity. In 464 BC, the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis died from laughing “immoderately at a picture of an old woman that he himself had painted,” according to The Lexicon of Festus.36 “There are nine cases of death from joy in Rabelais’ listing,” notes Mikhail Bakhtin, who admiringly surveys the body count of François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel (1693–1694), a mul­tivolume saga about the satirical exploits of two grotesque giants.37 For Bakhtin, joyful death exemplifies the utopian spirit of the carnivalesque, epitomized by ancient saturnalia and medieval folk festivals where “the people play with terror and laugh at it; the awesome becomes a ‘comic monster.’”38 Death from joy is the ultimate wager of defeating terror with uproarious laughter.

Figure 0.2 Viral tweet by @depthsofwiki about the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, who allegedly died laughing at his donkey eating his figs and drinking his wine.

A parody Twitter account dedicated to sharing weird Wikipedia entries caused a furor over Chrysippus of Soli, the Stoic philosopher who fell into “so exorbi­tant a fit of laughter, that the use of his spleen took his breath away utterly, and he immediately died” on witnessing his donkey eat his figs and drink his wine.39 On May 17, 2022, @depthsofwiki posted an image of Chrysippus with the caption, “just had to be there”: the tweet quickly went viral and garnered over 379,000 likes.40 More recently than 206 BC, a British television fan met his risible demise watching an episode of the sketch comedy show The Goodies (BBC, 1970–1982) in which an Englishman and Scotsman fight a duel armed with black pudding and bagpipes, respectively, and in 1989, a Danish audiologist named Ole Bentzen died laughing at a gag about Friedrich Nietzsche in the satirical jewel-heist film A Fish Called Wanda (1988). When the old world is dying and the new one has yet to be born, no rupture offers greater hope than the absurd leap of faith into fatal joy—giving up the ghost in laughing extremis so the stillborn future can attain a spark of life. Death by laughter makes way for tomorrow.

An Autohistoriographic Aside

Chrysippus and his male cohort of merry cachinnators were well-known to me when I came across my first (of many) “death by laughter” obituaries in 2014. A postdoctoral fellow of “Humour, Play, and Games” at the University of Toronto, I’d been finalizing research for my first book, Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes, which tells the history of early silent cinema from the vantage point of feminist comedy studies. I already felt seized by too many ghosts: Laura Bayley, Little Chrysia, Sarah Duhamel, Lea Giunchi, Mabel Normand, Bertha Regustus, Wanda Treumann, Florence Turner, and an unnamed comic miscre­ant known as Léontine or Betty (we still haven’t found her real name!41), who starred in her own French film series from 1910–1912. As Léontine flooded her house to sail her toy boat indoors and electrocuted the police with a high-volt­age battery, a woman identified as Mrs. Joe Palmer allegedly “Died Laughing at Joke of Husband.” The obituary goes on to clarify that it was a joke told by her husband and not that he was a joke of a husband (although the counter-reading is irresistible) that caused Palmer to laugh so “violently” that she “could not stop” and finally “keel[ed] over dead” in 1911.42


Figure 0.3 Mrs. Joe Palmer “LAUGHS HERSELF TO DEATH OVER JOKE OF HUSBAND,” according to The Columbus Enquirer-Sun (Columbus, Georgia), September 21, 1911, 2. Image courtesy of the World Newspaper Archive.

Death by Laughter: Female Hysteria and Early Cinema follows in the wake of the crisis of enjoyment that bedeviled female laughter amid the spread of cinematic modernity. Women quickly became the prized patrons—coveted, ticket-paying customers—across a vast expanse of fun-making diversions: the pleasure park, variety theater, roof garden, department store, traveling show, but most of all the moving pictures! “By the end of the ᾿20s, one estimate is that over 80 percent of movie audiences were female,” notes Shelley Stamp, whose book Movie-Struck Girls charts a “deep ambivalence about the escalating visibility of women at the cinema” during the silent era.43 I focus on the volubility of women’s raucous exu­berance, further building on crucial feminist scholarship about the gender, racial, and class politics of early film spectatorship by Jennifer Bean, Alison Griffiths, Miriam Hansen, Patrice Petro, Lauren Rabinovitz, Laura Isabel Serna, Vanessa Schwartz, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Zhang Zhen, and many others.

The golden goose of an exalted mass industry and Trojan horse of decorous, morality-bound society, female revelers burst into laughter at the crossroads of contradictory designations of women’s place: domestic angel versus hot-to-trot consumer. Women’s laughter echoed the driving conflicts of industrial capitalist development, which at once enthroned the economic elite and undermined their traditional entitlements to cultural power.

The discourse of “death by laughter” represented the last gasp of a humor­less patriarchal order that fantasized about asphyxiating female joy under the auspices of elegiac mockery. “Are American humorists heartless?” inquired The Springfield Daily Republican. “Just now they are making jokes about the woman who laughed herself to death at a joke.”44 The woman in question was named Anna Sperber, who reportedly dropped dead while “laughing loudly” at a funny story in 1911.45 Or as Margaret Atwood has put it, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”46 Public panic about the lethal dangers of female enjoyment killed two birds with one stone.

Indeed, when I found Palmer’s obituary in 2014, I felt loathe to take on another ghost. I was haunted by hundreds of unjustly forgotten silent film comediennes whose hysterical historicity I’d hoped to cement in a brief epilogue to Specters on women’s laughter at the movies, which now appears as chapter 7 of this book. The year of our lord 1911—as Léontine bulldozed across Nice with a bouquet of helium balloons and a Kentucky woman’s rhapsodic death “scored one for the pessimists”— the film critic Margaret I. MacDonald finally caught the fou rire (“crazy laughter”) in a New York movie theater, which she recounts in Moving Picture News.47 Her seat neighbor’s euphoria in watching a film comedy—about a disgruntled housewife who crashes through the walls while test-piloting a motorized armchair—made MacDonald herself laugh “so hard at her enjoyment of the thing that the tears actually trickled down my face.”48 Lacking uproarious outlets, laughter becomes something other than itself: a compulsive tic, a sickening feeling, a pothole in one’s memory, or a disturbing bodily symptom. It is a thesis of this book that the alter­native to dissociative hysteria erupted from the unrepressed celebration of women’s jubilant laughter, the surplus value of which drove the whole world mad.

Simply put, laughter over comedy! As we know, laughter at subversive jokes can be irresistibly political. But where does that leave senseless enjoyment with no apparent connection to radical or even perceptible humor? What Madeline Lane-McKinley calls comedy’s “utopian impulse” and “anti-capitalist longing” live on in the laughter that misses the point of the joke entirely, which used to be grounds for commitment to a madhouse.49 In the absence of insurgent humor, let us double down on the runaway pleasure of hysterical laughter. Above all, I pursue an intensity of hilarity that eludes episodic attachment (to manipulative, disappointing, cruel objects) by finding inspiration in the archive for alternative ways to live in the present.

Toward that end, I entertain an extravagant quantity and range of citations. They give texture to the wayward plenitude of the archive. I favor playful, one-off examples over sustained close readings. This approach is key to what I call hysteria-historiography, which is a collective project to wrest film history from its abandoned fragments and sneaky missing links.

The scale of my intervention is necessarily (although unevenly) transnational— we might say, disproportionately intersectional.50 Speaking of whom, I use the “we” voice not as a comprehensive pronoun but as a collective call to any readers/ laughers who feel similarly interpellated by an impulse at hand. The ultimate wager of laughter is to liquidate all historical and identity-based divisions, even if just in a flash. I amplify relevant anecdotes with glorious exclamation marks! They signify the unresolved meaning that this book sublimates into critical writ­ing and collectivizes via Medusan contagion. Why hoard thoughts and feelings for oneself when we can laugh them into power?


  1. Christine Lacagnina, “Does Your Stand-Up Act Need Death by Laughter Insurance?,”, August 10, 2019,
  2. Lacagnina, “Does Your Stand-Up Act?”
  3. Lacagnina, “Does Your Stand-Up Act?”
  4. “Killed By a Joke,” Kalamazoo Gazette, November 16, 1893, 2.
  5. “Off the Wires for and About Women,” Trenton Evening Times, May 29, 1916, 11.
  6. “Laughed Herself to Death,” Daily People (New York, NY), May 12, 1906, 1.
  7. “Theatre Insures Patrons Against Deaths by Laughs,” Exhibitors Herald, August 20, 1927, 47.
  8. “Insurance Policy Big Help to Allan,” Moving Picture World, May 9, 1925, 193. “Lord Chumley,”
    Edmonton Journal, April 17, 1925, 10. Here and in many places throughout the book, the quoted text appears in large capitalized letters in the print advertisement, in this case from the Edmonton Journal.
  9. Tom Kennedy, “Exploitorials,” Exhibitors Trade Review, May 5, 1923, 1139.
  10. The Week Staff, “Sunda Croonquist: A Comic Sued by Her Mother-in-Law,” The Week, January 8, 2015.
  11. Paige Gawley, “Charlize Theron Was Hospitalized for Five Days After Laughing Too Hard While Watching ‘Borat,’ ” ET News, May 2, 2019.
  12. Gawley, “Charlize Theron Was Hospitalized.”
  13. Jason Levine, “10 Crazy Insurance Policies (That Actually Exist!),”, March 26, 2019,
  14. Lacagnina, “Does Your Stand-Up Act?”
  15. Lacagnina, “Does Your Stand-Up Act?”
  16. As of 2022, the estimated global net worth of the insurance industry is $5.356 trillion, which is estimated to reach $6.39 trillion by 2025. See Jennifer Ruddin, “Gross Premiums Written by the Insurance Industry Worldwide (in Trillion U.S. Dollars)”, Statista, May 2, 2023, https://www
  17. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking, 1985), 3–4.
  18. Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 16.
  19. Joanna Weiss, “Reality TV Has Remade Our Politics: But Just for One Party,” Politico, July 17, 2021.
  20. See Renée Pastel and Michael Dalebout, “Truths-to-Come: Investigating Viral Rumors in ‘Q: Into
    the Storm,” NECSUS Journal (Spring 2022).
  21. “The superego imperative to enjoy thus functions as the reversal of Immanuel Kant’s “Du kannst, denn du sollst!” (You can, because you must!)—it relies on a “You must, because you can!” See Slavoj
    Zizek, The Parallax View (MIT Press, 2009), 310.
  22. “Reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power; wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power.” See Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 54.
  23. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
  24. Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, “Comedy Has Issues,” Critical Inquiry 43, no. 2 (2017): 236.
  25. Jared N. Champion and Peter C. Kunze, Taking a Stand: Contemporary US Stand-Up Comedians as Public Intellectuals ( Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2021); Raúl Pérez, The Souls of White Jokes: How Racist Humor Fuels White Supremacy (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022); Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx, That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022).
  26. Rachael Healy, “‘I’ve Had Men Rub Their Genitals Against Me’: Female Comedians on Extreme Sexism in Stand-Up,” Guardian, August 5, 2020.
  27. Glenda Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (Oxford: Oxford
    University Press, 2008), 231.
  28. Maya Angelou, “The Mask.” Watch a recording of her performing “The Mask” in 1987:
  29. Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830–1980 (New York: Pantheon, 1985).
  30. “Comments on Film Subjects. The Police Band,” Moving Picture World, December 19, 1908, 500.
  31. “An Oddity That Is The Mummy,” Moving Picture World, March 4, 1911, 454.
  32. “Killed By a Joke,” Kalamazoo Gazette, November 16, 1893, 2; “Laughed Herself to Death: Louisville Woman’s First Merriment in Months is Fatal,” The Sedan Lance (Sedan, KS), May 18, 1906, 6; “That Denver Woman,” Dallas Morning News, September 16, 1904, 6.
  33. Georges Bataille, “The Practice of Joy in the Face of Death,” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 236.
  34. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, no. 4 (Summer 1976): 878.
  35. “Almost Laughed Herself to Death,” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), January 21, 1912, 13.
  36. The Lexicon of Festus, De verborum significatu (On the Meaning of Words); The Festus Lexicon Project at University College London is working to make this “fragmentary and mutilated text” usable again. See
  37. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2009), 408. Most of his examples draw on citations from antiquity, compiled in fifteenth-century anthologies of death that were of special interest to Rabelais.
  38. Bakhtin, Rabelais, 91.
  39. François Rabelais, Gargantua & Pantagruel (Derby: Moray Press, 1894; Project Gutenberg, 2004), “Chapter 4. XVII.—How Pantagruel came to the islands of Tohu and Bohu; and of the strange death of Wide-nostrils, the swallower of windmills,”
  40. @depthsofwiki, “just had to be there,” Twitter, May 17, 2022, This account is run by Annie Rauwera, writer, comedian and “Wikipedia influencer.”
  41. Maggie Hennefeld, “Looking for Léontine: My Obsession with a Forgotten Screen Queen,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 24, 2019.
  42. “Laughs Herself to Death Over Joke of Husband,” The Columbus Enquirer-Sun (Columbus, GA), September 21, 1911, 2.
  43. Lauren Le Vine, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Women Cutting Through Bullshit for a Century,” Refinery29, December 26, 2019; Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture After the Nickelodeon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8.
  44. “Gleanings and Gossip,” The Springfield Daily Republican, December 23, 1891, 15.
  45. “Laughed Herself to Death. Telling Funny Stories Fatal to a New York Woman,” The Savannah Tribune, December 23, 1911, 1.
  46. Margaret Atwood, “Writing the Male Character,” Hagey Lecture, University of Waterloo, February 9, 1982.
  47. “Editorial Comments,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 22, 1911, 8.
  48. Margaret I. MacDonald, “Impressions Gathered from a Visit to the Fourteenth Street Theater,”
    Moving Picture News, October 14, 1911, 16.
  49. Madeline Lane-McKinley, Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times (Philadelphia: Common Notions Press, 2022), 4.
  50. A brief note on the geographical parameters of this project, which are not strictly bounded by national or linguistic borders. I engage with the materials I have been able to access in the archive and with texts that are animating lively conversations in my field and among my interlocutors. On the question of affective contagion and global solidarity politics (especially in chapter 6), I consider a wide scale of geopolitical contexts. By “disproportionately intersectional,” I mean contradictorily
    driven by the limits of my own subject position and the necessity of solidarity-based universalisms in ways that cannot yet be resolved in language or thought.

Excerpted from Death by Laughter: Female Hysteria and Early Cinema by Maggie Hennefeld. Copyright (c) 2024 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Maggie Hennefeld is associate professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is the author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia, 2018), co-curator of the silent film collection Cinema’s First Nasty Women (2022), and coeditor of Unwatchable (2019) and Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence (2020).

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