Friday, April 23, 2010

What is Comedy?

This will be the first of several installments on comedy. Comedy is the greatest of the art forms, indeed it is far greater than the serious forms like tragedy or melodrama. How can I make what appears to be an invidious comparison? Is it not the case, so goes an automatic and classic retort, that one cannot equate different styles and purposes? Is it not apples and oranges?

To proceed we must face some perennial truths about comedy. Firstly, its association with relaxation and a certain kind of entertainment, with escape from one's troubles, and above all modes and tones of levity rather than brevity, and its being the opposite to the serious all make comedy victim to a kind of superficial regard and a crude treatment in the culture. Yes it is true that Annie Hall won the Oscar in the late 1970s, and one of the greatest film comedies of all times swept the oscars in 1959, Some LIke It Hot. But when one considers the utterly simple minded and sentimental mediocrities that continue to win awards year after year, precisely by virtue of their surface seriousness and relevance - (Schindler's List is a favorite pet peeve of mine), and when one considers that a subject being weighty and treated as such is often sufficient grounds for universal praise when the aesthetic and even ethical qualities of the tragic or melodramatic work in question are often so low, a picture comes into view of an implied disrespect for the art of comedy.

To make matters worse, when people write on comedy, it does little service to the art. Indeed, one of the classic texts on comedy, written by no less of a luminary than Sigmund Freud - Wit and it's Relation to the Unconscious - in its sheer humorless rigor and its pseudo-scientific and proto-structuralist graphs and maps of rudimentary jokes and in its vivisection of comedy from the heart and feeling of comedy helps to perpetuate the error of thinking that it is only by getting away from the initial spirit and feeling of a genre or work, only by turing it into a dry bit of science, free from being seduced by the charms of the jokester and the clown, that only then will we in any sense understand comedy.

But comedy is actually a deeply philosophic set of propositions about the world and our place in it. Actually all the arts are that. But there are philosophies and then there are philosophies. The immediate physical reactions comedy produces are because a part of us instinctively entertains those propositions and those propositions have a large part to deal with life as it is actually lived and felt.

There is an additional benefit of comedy and that is in its contrast to the serious modes.

It is the serious modes, as magnificent and as ennobling as they are, that are often so false about life. The serious mode is the mode of "do or die" or your "money or your life", It is implicitly apocalyptic. (When comedy does deal with a trope of apocalypse it is in order to show how unimportant such an end would be, if only because our stupidity in creating that end is itself laughable. This last example is what makes Dr. Strangelove so successful a comedy).

In its very seriousness, the serious mode ends up all too often feeding and flattering our egos of achievement. And though the serious mode does not make fun of others and entertains a basic dignity about selfhood, it ironically sustains a kind of self importance and cosmic significance about our lives that ends up perpetuating the very problems that seriousness and gravitas hopes to heal.

Comedy tells us to get out of ourselves. The stakes aren't quite as high because, sustained in laughter, we are released from a sense of urgency and the need for closure. Comedy doesn't do closure. Comedy wants a way out.

A definition of comedy: comedy is a paradox: a way of judging ourselves so that we may be nevertheless freed from judgment. It says we are all in this human project together and in our laughter, what is traditionally called "shock of recognition", we can observe life from a certain evenhanded detachment. We know we are foolish and we can entertain our foolishness as something we share. Comedy lets us bear witness but prevents us from being selfish about the position of being witness.

Above all comedy relishes the confusion, the mixups of life. It makes of chaos a pleasure, (The Marx Brothers specialized in this ) and makes that which is absurd into the beautiful. It is no accident that comedy so often traffics in mistaken identity and double entendre - all of these are methods of getting unstuck, and of course, laughing.

The film director Howard Hawks said that whenever he heard of a plot or story his very first impulse, really a compulsion was to try to do the movie first as a comedy and only as a last result as drama. I don't believe Hawks's reason was monetary or practical. Nor was it because he felt he was better at comedy. Rather, he felt there was something in comedy that expressed a philosophy of life somehow more true to life and less burdened by convention and self importance and self aggrandizement.

When Richard Pryor does his routine on having a heart attack, in part induced by his own struggles with substance abuse, what is his genius? Merely the fact that he comments on the whole situation - the craziness of hospitals and doctors, the emotional urgency of bargaining and pleading for life, all of the emotional humility and humiliation of his state. But he suspends the all- -or- nothing, do- or- die part of it. He uses noises and sounds to make a burlesque of the most dire situation any of us could face.

What Pryor asks, in essence, (like the Buddha in his questioning), is, what are we doing here? What is it all about? And isn't this world we are in the damned craziest ride we can have. (As an equally great comic Bill Hicks reminded us: "IT'S JUST A RIDE".) He makes matters of life and death an object of reflection and we laugh and say to ourselves, that was really horrible but that was so interesting. It is precisely this slight remove from reality, this critical spirit that is of the essence of comedy and we laugh at the follies and horrors of Pryor's experience and we realize that something like love can make us laugh and not be suffocated or reduced by an excess of earnestness. Pryor frees us and for a moment we are no longer stuck where we are but can, rather, SEE where we are, not unlike a good physician who can survey and see the whole profile of a patient rather than be stuck in worry and panic about that patient. Indeed, in comedy we laugh at the man or woman who worries excessively because we recognize as was said in The Bible that "all is vanity", and we are all united in the follies of our vanities.

It is also worth considering that the greatest of dramas usually have regular moments of folly, where mutual misunderstanding makes us amused and smiling rather than tense or nervous about the misunderstanding.

There are of course as many kinds of comedy as there are cans of soup in the supermarket. Don RIckles is not Bill Cosby. But I would argue that all comedy shares the philosophic commitment I have attempted to summarize - one of enlightened detachment from excessive and claustrophobic earnestness.

When pundits and critics argue about what subjects are appropriate to make jokes and laugh about it is always a clear sign that were are stuck in some way. That we lack enough perspective. There are times in life when we have to simply be in this life somewhere one object among others, and then there are times when we must be released from this life so that we may laugh at it. "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Freedom is never easy.

More to follow.


  1. Comedy is my own personal favorite form of expression, so I'm probably biased, but I agree with you wholeheartedly, especially about the way comedy is continually debased and overlooked. But I think this may partly because low comedy can be dangerously close to middlebrow or highbrow comedy, thus potentially compromising those who would place themselves within the cultural elite if they should prize it too highly. And even worse, sometimes low comedy can be the best kind of comedy and the source of the greatest subversion, making it still harder to give it awards or to write about it. Then again, you point out one of the main reasons it's difficult to properly honor comedy; that is, that the very act of writing about it seriously can produce a feeling of contrast between the levity of the comedy itself and the heavy-handedness and humorlessness of the writing about it. Yet perhaps this is an indirect victory for comedy, that it has escaped the clutches of the drama and cinema critic, and thus has retained its right to speak for itself. Have you read Bergson's "Le Rire?" (Laughter)

  2. Thanks for taking the time to respond (and READ!) this and other posts. Your comment about low comedy reminds me of an experience where my expression of love for Benny Hill and Three's Company was met with, if not any offense or censure, but some kind of incomprehension, almost as if I said I enjoyed visiting the dentist. Of course in the case of Three's Company I have a good defense in the fact Lucille Ball chose the show herself as a favorite and did a tribute to it on television.