The serious busi­ness of comedy

When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools”

William Shakespeare

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

Those were supposedly the death bed words of a famous actor. He was speaking as a performer, of course, about such things as timing and delivery, but he also meant that comedy is hard work.

All the ingredi­ents that go into a serious drama: conflict, tension, misun­der­stand­ings, thwarted desires; are present in comedy but even more so. Comedy char­ac­ters are often deadly serious in pursuing their goals and expend real energy in achieving them.

Comedy is serious – deadly serious. Never, never try to be funny! The actors must be serious. Only the situ­ation must be absurd”.

Mel Brooks, Playboy, 1974

The differ­ence between what makes us laugh or cry is one of misalign­ment or a simple ‘moving of the goal-posts’. In a comedy, the stakes will still be high but they are either inap­pro­priate or the char­ac­ters them­selves respond in an inap­pro­priate way towards them.

It is this mismatch – in terms of dramatic tension – that gives comedy its cath­artic quality.

The two masks

Comedy is when you expect some­thing to break, but it only bends.” W.C. Fields

Farce is only tragedy speeded up …” S.J. Perelman

As Oscar Wilde once said: “There’s nothing quite so hilarious as unre­lenting tragedy”. Meaning that unleavened tragedy has a neur­as­thenic effect on our emotions, it is ulti­mately dead­ening. To appre­ciate the true sorrow of the human condi­tion, you need to also have some perspective on the ulti­mate futility and absurdity of our exist­ence. Great writers like Chekov and Shakespeare knew this and it lies at the heart of their best work.

The tradi­tional theatre icon­o­graphy of two masks with smiling and frowning faces hides a secret. Consider this old joke about two Jewish mothers:

FIRST MOTHER: “I’m very worried about David, my youngest. The school psycho­lo­gist says he might have an Oedipus complex.”
SECOND MOTHER: “Oedipus Schmoedipus – just as long as he’s a good boy and loves his mother.”

This easily the shame and disgrace that would cause a man to blind himself are purged from the story. In this version, the comedy version, all Oedipus needs is some coun­selling. Comedy judges us but it also forgives us – because we all have human failings.

The comic hero may be an inno­cent or a fool but he can equally be some­body who has come to terms with the essen­tial absurdity of his plight. Comedy offers us the consol­a­tion that, in the end, nothing is really that serious – providing we can still see the funny side of it.


The Dialectic of Comedy

In the previous section, comedy was described as a kind of colli­sion between two logical trains of thought. But it can also be seen as a way of putting forward two opposite, some­times contra­dictory ideas, at the same time. A Marxist is familiar with the concept of ‘dialectic‘, the weighing of thesis and counter-thesis.

Unlike philo­sophy or politics, however, comedy does not call for a resol­u­tion of these oppos­ites; it is at its most productive when these elements remain unre­solved when there is a dynamic flux taking place.


What to read next

David Clough © 2011

A comedy writer discusses his craft

Graham Linehan in conver­sa­tion with Charlie Brooker

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