PBS is running a great six-episode series on the past 100 years of American comedy called MAKE ‘EM LAUGH. I did these two mind maps on the fly during the first two episodes on slapstick and groundbreakers.
“Comedy is a distortion of what is happening, and there will always be something happening.”
After the exhausting mess of Schulz and Peanuts, I wanted a book that moved quick and didn’t bullshit. Steve Martin’s stand-up memoir, Born Standing Up, did the trick. Great writing, very subtle and smart jokes. Has anybody read his fiction?
I can’t believe that I’ve never come across this essay before:
Two and a half thousand years ago, at the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life (we sicken, we die). But comedy was the gods’ view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it. The big, drunk, flawed, horny Greek gods watched us for entertainment, like a dirty, funny, violent, repetitive cartoon. And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.
Many of the finest novels—and certainly the novels I love most—are in the Greek comic tradition, rather than the tragic: Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire, and on through to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and the late Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.
Yet western culture since the middle ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. We think of tragedy as major, and comedy as minor. Brilliant comedies never win the best film Oscar. The Booker prize leans toward the tragic. In 1984, Martin Amis reinvented Rabelais in his comic masterpiece Money. The best English novel of the 1980s, it didn’t even make the shortlist. Anita Brookner won that year, for Hotel du Lac, written, as the Observer put it, “with a beautiful grave formality.”
The fault is in the culture. But it is also internalised in the writers, who self-limit and self-censor. If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode. When Amis addressed the Holocaust in his minor novel Time’s Arrow (1991), he switched off the jokes, and the energy, and was rewarded with his only Booker shortlisting.
But why this pressure, from within and without? There are two good reasons. The first is the west’s unexamined cultural cringe before the Greeks. For most of the last 500 years, Homer and Sophocles have been held to be the supreme exponents of their arts. (Even Homer’s constant repetition of stock phrases like “rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea” are praised, rather than recognised as tiresome clichés.)
The second reason is that our classical inheritance is lop-sided. We have a rich range of tragedies—Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides (18 by Euripides alone). Of the comic writers, only Aristophanes survived. In an age of kings, time is a filter that works against comedy. Plays that say, “Boy, it’s a tough job, leading a nation” tend to survive; plays that say, “Our leaders are dumb arseholes, just like us” tend not to.
More importantly, Aristotle’s work on tragedy survived; his work on comedy did not. We have the classical rules for the one but not the other, and this has biased the development of all western literature. We’ve been off-centre ever since.
It gets better. Read it.
“For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny…Nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories. Because, of course, great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication -theorists sometimes call “exformation,” which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve. It’s not for nothing that Kafka spoke of literature as “a hatchet with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us.” Nor is it an accident that the technical achievement of great short stories is often called “compression” — for both the pressure and the release are already inside the reader. What Kafka seems able to do better than just about anyone else is to orchestrate the pressure’s increase in such a way that it becomes intolerable at the precise instant it is released.”
– David Foster Wallace, “Laughing With Kafka,” HARPER’S July 1998
If comedy is an escape from anything, it is an escape from illusions. The comic, by using the Voice of Reason, reminds us of our True Reality, and in that moment of recognition, we laugh, and the “reality of the daily grind” is shown for what it really is—unreal…a joke. True comedy turns circles into spirals. What before seemed a tiresome, frightening, or frustrating wall, the comic deftly and fearlessly steps through, proving the absurdity of it all. The audience is relieved to know they’re not alone in thinking, “This bullshit we see and hear all day makes no sense. Surely I’m not the only one who thinks so. And surely there must be an answer…” Good comedy helps people know they’re not alone. Great comedy provides an answer.”
I’ve been splitting my reading between Chris Ware’s new one, and the Novels and Other Writings of Nathaniel West, starting with the short novel Miss Lonelyhearts. The connection? In his “Some Notes on Miss L.,” West says Miss Lonelyhearts started as “A novel in the form of a comic strip.”
The chapters to be squares in which many things happen through one action. The speeches contained in the conventional balloons. I abandoned this idea, but retained some of the comic strip technique: Each chapter instead of going forward in time, also goes backward, forward, up and down in space like a picture. Violent images are used to illustrate commonplace events. Violent acts are left almost bald.
In “Some Notes on Violence,” West hints at the relationship between violence and comedy:
In America violence is idiomatic. Read our newspapers. To make the front page a murderer has to use his imagination, he also has to use a particularly hideous instrument. Take this morning’s paper: FATHER CUTS SON’S THROAT IN BASEBALL ARGUMENT. It appears on an inside page. To make the first page, he should have killed three sons with a baseball bat instead of a knife. Only liberality and symmetry could have made this daily occurence interesting.
Not to mention, the number of 3 is funny. The “liberality” and “symmetry” of violence reminds me of Henri Bergson’s essay, “On Laughter,” in which he analyzes two clowns on stage beating the hell out of each other with baseball bats. If one clown just comes out and clobbers the other, that’s not so funny, that’s cold and violent. We feel for the clobbered clown. However, if the two clowns chase each other around the stage, trading blow for blow without death, there is a symmetry and repetition to the routine, and the clowns become an item of comedy. As Bergson says, “we laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing.”
All three books, at least, worth a read.