Why Comedy Matters – Free Ebook

[laughter] [more laughter] We think comedy is just about a relaxing laugh, but the job of a comic is, in fact, deeply serious and important to the mental well being and flourishing of a society. In the olden days, they were called “jesters,” officially licensed and salaried comics, whose explicit job it was to make jokes for the king as a way of drawing them back to the things that really mattered, and saving them from errors of pomposity. This suggests that comedy might be a requirement– a bit like having your teeth checked, or doing the accounts– not some optional extra when you feel like watching a bit of TV. There are a host of things that comedy helps us with. For a start, it’s a medicine against despair. A lot of humor picks up on the darkest things in our lives– death, anxiety, failure– but rather than reconciling us to them, it helps us to feel cockily defiant and strong about them. Consider Velazquez’s rendition of the dying Christ. Then turn to Monty Python’s comedic take on the same situation. –Crucifixion, mm? Good. Out of the door, lying on the left, one cross each. A comic attitude doesn’t deny misery, but it has a very different relationship with it. –Ah man, I shot Marvin in the face. Comedy can be infused with a mood of defiance. One’s gonna laugh at rather than buckle in front of the miseries of existence. In Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” the closing song brazenly states the worst of our existence. The mood is mocking; there is a refusal to be gloomy. In 1940, when Britain was in a very precarious military situation, a song mocking the Nazi leaders became wildly popular. The enemy’s power was all too terrifyingly apparent; the point was simply to keep them cheerful, and defiant was centrally important to the task of just keeping them going. By mocking dangerous things, humor can embolden us; it paints what’s potentially very frightening as helpfully ridiculous. Comedy is also a great remedy for a sense of humiliation. Life is filled with things which deeply threaten our dignity. We’re never far from being reduced to complete mockery. In the children’s television series, “Peppa Pig,” a father, Daddy Pig, is always doing things that could be seen as absurd, humiliating, or embarrassing. In the opening sequence, he makes a loud, rather obnoxious grunt. He’s overweight; he can come across as lazy. It would be extremely easy to make a very negative assessment of his character. That’s the kind of thing we tend to do for ourselves and other people: we regularly rehearse the case for the prosecution. In cartoons, though, this very flawed creature is presented as somehow both flawed and extremely lovable. His wife and children are deeply attached to him. They do see him as a bit of an idiot; it’s just that they love him as he is. In their eyes, he is a lovable fool. That’s what a lot of comedy helps us with: it turns people, ourselves included– people who could just be seen as idiots in normal life– into those far more valuable characters: lovable fools. If we happen to walk down a road and saw a man called Basil Fawlty bashing his car with a branch of a tree, we’d feel he was just some awful, furious bloke venting his anger in a crazed, destructive way. We’d judge him a thoroughly unpleasant fool. Fortunately, for Basil Fawlty, he’s not in real life, but in a comedy by John Cleese and therefore, he isn’t just an idiot. He’s that classic comedic character: a lovable fool. His vices are introduced alongside some deeply ingratiating qualities. The show teaches us to really like someone whom in real life, we might have cursed. It’s a remarkable achievement on the part of the comedy team, akin to what Jesus did when he got us to think lovably about criminals and low-lives. Comedy produces benevolent stereotypes. If someone says, “You’re a bit of a Woody Allen,” it’s a benign alternative to saying, “You’re a deeply annoying over intellectual worrier.” –You-u-u’re like New York Jewish, left-wing liberal intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University uh, socialist summer camps and uh-h the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right? Woody Allen’s taught us to look more kindly on the foibles of people we’d otherwise risk calling neurotic wimps. It’s the reverse of bad stereotyping, in which we make a problem worse by emphasizing how deeply awful certain people are. Comic characters always hold on to our sympathy. –ACHOO! To say that a work colleague is a bit of a David Brent isn’t merely to point out that they’re tactless and insecure– it’s also to re-frame those failings. Because we come to feel tender towards David Brent as well as laughing at him, we see his vulnerability, not just his idiocy. We get good at recognizing that it’s his anxiety about not being like or respected that leads him to do all those deeply embarrassing things. Larry David is always getting angry and abusive. He’s incredibly combative and rude. He gets into huge arguments all the time. And yet, he’s sort of charming. –What’s not to like? So, once again, with the help of comedy, we’re re-framing an otherwise tempting but wholly negative stereotype: grumpy old man. The comic move is to guide us to a benevolent conception of people, and hence, parts of ourselves. Comedy also does a great job at reducing power imbalances. It’s hugely reassuring to see the powerful laughing at themselves. Finding oneself comical is a token of maturity; it means being able to see one’s faults without being too defensive about it. Humor often provides a mechanism where by the powerless, or at least, the less powerful, can give constructive but pointed feedback to the powerful. Monty Python was particularly focused on this task. “The Philosophers’ Football Match” mocks the great figures of intellectual history. It’s funny because we’ve been intimidated so deeply in the past by intellectual bullies, we made us feel small with our reading of Wittgenstein or Schopenhauer. And now they’re shown as being completely rubbish at football, and yet seriously involved in the game. Comedy isn’t just a bit of fun. The comic perspective is a central need of a society. It enables us to cope much better with our own follies and disappointments, our troubles around work and love, and our difficulties enduring ourselves. Comedy is waiting to be re-framed as a central tool in a better society.

Leave a Reply