Our Responsibility to Write Comedy

As a writer of fiction, I cannot help but wonder why so many books delve into painful experiences and expose personal, ethnic, gender and other struggles and torments. Struggle may well be universal, and the good struggle might be ennobling or inspiring, but I know of no scientific evidence that any book except a book of humour is good for us. Comedy’s tonic benefits are part of the healing science developed by Hunter “Patch” Adams. Another doctor , , “Laughter may have developed for its cathartic effects and adaptive value. As an evolutionary device, laughter may have served to thwart aggression, spread information, and preserve social unity” (Dr. D.W. Black. JAMA, Vol. 252 No. 21). High praise, indeed, though I dare say that sometimes laughter produces aggression, prevents communication and divides a community. But let us focus on the view that comedy is constructive and healthy, and that no other genre has comparable benefits. From these premises it follows that every writer should swear an absolute and eternal oath to write comedy, and if they cannot write good comedy, let them please desist from brewing other kinds of works!

But what is “good comedy”? In my experience, some comedies may be inferior to certain horrors insofar as they achieve greater horribleness. Sarcastic, mocking comedies and harsh parodies are common enough on playgrounds. While we are all justified in laughing at our tormentors on occasion, this rarely solves anything, and becomes a form of vampirism, especially when the comedians target people who do not oppress them. Unfortunately, this means that ideally laughter is directed at oneself.

There are two kinds of comedy that direct laughter at oneself. The first kind is the accidental kind in which we, or our characters, soothe our egos by laughing at ourselves when bad things happen. This can be a pleasant kind of comedy, but it is always tainted by the necessity of misfortune. The ideal kind of comedy is the intentional or planned type of self-mockery that needs no one’s misfortune.

The history of comedy contains one of the most overlooked proofs of linear, cultural progress. While completing my undergraduate studies I read a rare anthropological study on the use of clowns in indigenous North American societies, and I sadly realized that those early examples of humor were hardly funny by modern standards. There were examples involving actual feces, acts of sadism, theft and mockeries of tribal authority. Even more revealing of comedy’s underdevelopment was the absence of comedy among many indigenous peoples. While they are often known to be easy-going and cheerful people, comedy was rare, and healthy self-mockery possibly non-existent.

Things changed with Greek culture (and doubtlessly elsewhere too). The tribal clown became the relatively harmless court jester and became the secluded writer of comical plays and texts. Lucian and Aristophanes wrote satirical comedies that aimed to expose accidental comedians, or fools: politicians, healers, philosophers, prostitutes and so on. Aristophanes was the gentler, perhaps more civilized of the two, but even his characters exhibit little or no self-mockery.

With Plato, or Socrates, comedy turns into Socratic irony, a form of satire whose humor is so subtle and thin as to be largely devoid of a target. For example, Socrates’ “I know nothing,” while commonly understood as an expression of his extreme scepticism, may be the first literary expression of self-mockery.

Comedy continued in the Christian era, and in early Christianity comedies were often an accepted part of Christianity (consider the Boy Bishop ceremony). But comedy was gradually suppressed, perhaps especially through the dour Germanic influence and the cruel spirit of the Inquisition. Whatever the causes were, comedy and satire continued to refine themselves in such safe havens as the novel.

Today, most notably in nations with much leisure, all forms of high and low comedy are common. In slapstick comedies, actors make fools of themselves through acts of planned violence, so they rarely touch truly sensitive ideas, do not violate common political, moral or religious ideas, and thus leave the ego largely untouched. Recent comedies like Seinfeld and The Simpsons rely less on slapstick than on satirical treatments of culturally sensitive ideas, ideas that are synonymous with many egos. While this type of satire isn’t new, what is new is the fact that nearly all their characters display a degree of foolishness that turns the satire inwards and defanging it, making the satirical element less offensive and often completely neutralizing the satire. This neutralizing quality might be most developed in Arrested Development, but even here the satirical element is unmistakable to anyone with an eye for satire.

That pure, healthy comedy which needs no external object of ridicule and which freely uses all personal biological and psychological knowledge for the production of laughter – this may yet be a nascent phenomenon.

Well over a year ago I began writing what was intended to be a comedy for young adults, and being a critic of cultures I consciously suppressed the temptation to satirize our imperfect world, a world full of misfortune and accidents. With some effort, I created comical characters and situations that were free of satirical reference. Things went along at a decent pace as I largely avoided the twin dangers of satire and frivolity.

Unfortunately, there were key moments in the plot when comedy eluded me. The trouble was that my traditional plot structure required conflicts, and conflicts tend to be serious and tragic things, and unless your villains are literally clowns there is no easy way to create a comical conflict scene. Either I had to dispense with the traditional, conflict driven plot, and write a shaggy dog story like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, or I had to provide all my characters, especially the “villains,” with intentional, ego-negating foolishness.

My inability to generate comedy occurred, among other places, when a gang of girls had an altercation with the country’s elderly president. In the one of its earliest versions, the girls resorted to professional wrestling moves to “defeat” the president. Unfortunately, though the method of violence was ridiculous, it was still violent, and since the president maintained a serious and confrontational air throughout the episode, the comedy was very weak. To lighten the entire episode I made the president a likeable, self-mocking character, and had him voluntarily cooperate in producing his defeat (ridiculous, right?) by non-violent means (since clearly violence cannot be part of high comedy).

Alas, this solution produced another problem, for how do you maintain a semblance of conflict when all characters involved are likeable and light-hearted fools who are actually above conflict and above winning battles? Additionally, since this solution needs characters endowed with a kind of intelligence that is not part of our common experience, such characters are very difficult to imagine and develop.

Since the struggle to create the best possible comedy may well be the struggle to imagine and create a better world, I recommend it to all writers of books and to all men and women who dare to write the future.


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