Nathan Thomas
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december 2005

Comedy  A Sermon of Humanity

A rabbi, a doctor, and an Irishman walk into a bar.
The bartender looks at them and says, "What is this a joke?"
- Anonymous

Comedy makes folks human.  Oh, sure, so do things like opposable thumbs, four-chambered hearts, and male-pattern baldness.  But comedy is a particular human behavior.  There's nothing better than sharing a laugh with someone.  Likewise, there's little that excludes someone as much as being the only person in a group not to get a joke.  People, who have shared a joke, have a link the beginning of the "in" joke.  Comedy, as a concept, contains as many puzzles as answers.  What is comedy?  Is it simply making people laugh?  Is there comedy that's not funny?  Does that question even make sense?

It's been said that dissecting comedy is much like dissecting a frog you can do it, but it tends to die in the process.  Nevertheless, we benefit from asking tough questions.  And sometimes-tough questions aim not to neatly answer the questions, precisely rather to provide a means of thinking through those questions.  We don't know of cultures that don't laugh.  But it's also a challenge to say with precision what laughter is and what causes it.   

One way to look at a behavior is to define the main purpose of the behavior.  It appears that the main purpose of comedy is to amuse and delight.  Comedy might accomplish other goals, but the main purpose is to provide humans with amusement and delight.  People may seek out comedy for no other purpose than to be amused. Thus, it may be said as a self-evident truth that comedy is successful if the audience is amused.

An early distinction can be made at this point.  Notice the terms 'amuse' and 'delight.'  The term 'laughter' is not noted here.  Although comedy often seems connected to that which is funny or inspires laughter, comedy need not inspire laughter or be funny to be successful.  It must either give delight or amuse.  Amusement and delight take many different forms in human behavior.  There may be delight in the feeling of righteous anger inspired by satire, for instance.   

Thus we begin with the statement that the main or primary purpose of comedy is to amuse and delight.

The unique devices of comedy, however, allow for a number of secondary purposes.  These purposes come into play because comedy diffuses passion and deeply held emotions or feelings.  Even a vicious or violent act like one of the Three Stooges hitting another or Wile E. Coyote getting blown up can result in the diffusion of a deeply held feeling. Therefore often comedy about taboo topics (like comedy about religion or comedy about taboo words, etc) is the object of attack.  Taboo comedy inspires fear and anger because such comedy may lead an audience to not pay reverence or keep intact the deeply held feelings of the individual or society.

The elements of comedy are intrinsically abstract.  Comedy depends on the abstract concepts of balance, imbalance, over- & under-emphasis, and surprise and lack of surprise.  Each concept exists relative to everyday reality and what society perceives as true or real.  The intrinsic abstraction rests in the ability of the audience to recognize the comparisons and contrasts created through these comic elements. Largely this process works unconsciously since everyday life and social structures are an immediate and inherent part of every individual.

As comedy may test the regions of societal taboo and since comedy intrinsically compares and contrasts with everyday life and social reality, comedy may also be used to comment on a society and its belief structures. Curiously, though, it often happens that an audience will perceive the comic event as being real.  "I know someone just like that," someone will say in reference to an obviously unreal comic character.   

Independent of the elements of comedy being used, varying levels of abstraction can be brought into play in constructing comedy.  For present purposes of discussion, consider verbal and physical comedy.

Verbal comedy can be very abstract.  For example, a famous sketch written by John Cleese for Monty Python's Flying Circus is about a man who wants to buy an argument. The content of the sketch is about what an argument is and whether or not the argument is, in fact, an argument. Certainly, the audience isn't expected to consciously think about the logical forms of argument, but that's the content of the sketch.[1]  

Verbal comedy can be somewhat abstract.  For example, when writing for Groucho Marx in the play (and movie) Animal Crackers, George Kauffman uses puns, jokes, and verbal "turn-arounds".  When talking about a foray into Africa, Groucho (as Captain Spaulding) says, "I shot an elephant in my pajamas.  How he got into my pajamas, I don't know."  Then he goes on to say, "We tried pulling out the tusks.  [. . . .] Of course, in Alabama, the Tuscaloosa.  But, uh, that's entirely irrelephant to what I was talking about . . ."[2]

Verbal comedy can be barely abstract.  For example, most so-called 'dirty' jokes rely on language being very tangible.  I won't quote any here . . . . .

Physical comedy can also range from the very abstract to the very 'earthy.'  Consider the almost ballet-like physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin in contrast to something very earthy like the traditional pie-in-the-face or the comedian dropping his pants.

Comedy seems to have an element of performance regardless if it's written to be read silently like a comic essay, short story, or novel. Perhaps this seems so because of the importance of rhythm and tempo to comedy.  For example, sometimes a comic moment relies upon the moment progressing slowly.   A criminal tells Jack Benny, "Your money or your life".  Jack Benny's slow consideration of the options creates the comedy of the situation.  Conversely, if some jokes are told slowly, comedy will be lost because the audience gets the joke before the comedian utters the words.  Even in written form, rhythm and tempo remain important to comedy.

Finally, it seems that comedy is a process of perception.  What one person perceives as comic may not occur with another observer.  But where two perceive the comic something basic becomes shared.

I don't know, but I'm willing to bet that someone at the first performance of Lysistrata laughed.  I'm betting that people have laughed at performances of that play in the last couple of years.  Everyone who has laughed at Lysistrata today has shared a laugh with someone who has been dust for more than 2000 years.   

When someone laughs at a joke written by Shakespeare or Plautus, we know that people share a common piece of humanity that transcends each individual.  The slight trembling at the base of the spine that bubbles to the surface as the snort, the chuckle, the chortle, the snigger, the sniggle, and even the slight exhalation coupled with the knowing smile joins people in a very basic and profound way.

In dark moments I wonder about the young folks who serve as violent revolutionaries the young men and women who strap themselves with explosives and create havoc and destruction like the folks who blew-up the hotel in Jordan.  Do they have a sense of humor?  As boys, did they make fart jokes?  Did they laugh at some satiric comment made about a teacher and were punished?  As adults, did they never see something that made them chuckle?  Or had they lost that small, crucial piece of their humanity?

And I can't think of a joke about that . . . . . .



[1] Chapman, Graham, and John Cleese.  "Argument Clinic." The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus Volume 2. NewYork: Pantheon, 1989. 86-89.

[2] Kauffman, George, and Morrie Ryskind.  Animal Crackers. New York: Samuel French, 1929, 1984. 46.

 

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©2005 Nathan Thomas
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his
living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College.

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

 

 

 

december 2005

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