Comedy as a genre and as an aspect of our daily lives is something that does not get its due regards. If you look at movie award programs, for example, usually comedies don’t bring home the big awards. Similarly, books with an emphasis on humor don’t win Noble Prizes or Pulitzers (take Catch-22 for example). The generally espoused idea seems to be that comedy is not an art worthy of much admiration because it is not serious, and by saying it’s not serious, somehow this deprives comedies as things thought of as having messages, morals, humanistic value, or truth.
All throughout history people have held this view. Aristotle in his work on theater titled Poetics, ranked the three types of drama (tragedy, tragicomedy, and comedy) in the following order: tragedy, tragicomedy, and comedy, saying that tragedy was the finest because it contained catharsis, while comedy was lowest because it had little to redeem itself. Friedrich Nietzsche similarly dismissed comedy in his critique of the arts The Birth of Tragedy, basically saying that tragedy, by containing darkness, by its Dionysian association, contained truth, while comedy, by being light, by its Appolinian association, contained optimism which he found ultimately shallow. Albert Camus later agreed with Nietszche and essentially said that he wasn’t the least bit interested in comedy as an art form.
In literature it seems we have a horrendous amount of tragedies for every comedy. In classic literature for example, what can we truly call comedy? Tristram Shandy, Gargantua and Pantegruel, Tom Jones, Northanger Abbey, The Bostonians and a handful of others. In classic literature, what can we call tragedies? Everything else.
Sometimes we have hybrids: tragedies disguised as comedy, and comedies in tragic disguise. Ethan Frome has the makings of a tragedy, but there’s definitely something funny about it, and the last line is among the funniest things I’ve come across.
Probably the clearest way to discuss the merits of comedy would have to be through film, primarily because most people have watched way more movies than they have read books (there’s nothing wrong with this).
Look at one type of comedy that no one ever seems to discuss when they talk of the beauty and power of film: slapstick. In the thirties, slapstick comedies were at their peak, and so much great stuff came out well into the forties, but you don’t see to many film buffs watching them or blogging about them, nor do you hear people in academic circles discussing The Three Stooges or Laurel & Hardy or The Marx Brothers. Chaplin does get a lot of coverage, but usually not for his early off-the-wall comedies, instead he seems to be most respected for his mixtures of comedy and seriousness.
Look at The Great Dictator. This is one of the few films by a slapstick star that I see widely discussed and included in movie lists and hear brought up at parties. People regard this as a beautiful and daring and brillaint film because of how it eschews Nazism. But let me ask you this, doesn’t the form of comedy in general eschew Nazism?
Nazism as an ideal had as its ultimate opposite the form of comedy. Nazism was about exclusivity, about dominance, about rules, and most importantly, it was about control. Now what is laughter if not a relinquishing of control? This can be seen quite literally in the body itself: how often do people laugh so hard that they spit out what they’re drinking, have milk come dribbling out there nose, keel over, flatulate, or get uncontrollable hiccups?
In laughing, there is acceptance. If you’re able to laugh at foibles, you’re unable to punish them. Laughter is the mark of a good society.
To go back to classic films: sure, seeing Chaplin as a buffoonish Hitler spinning the globe around like a beach ball is a jab at Nazis, but wouldn’t the Marx Brothers, a group of Jewish emigrants, clowning around onscreen also be the antithesis of the Nazi agenda? The Marx Brothers’ art is one of pure comedy. They see no need to include moral seriousness in their films because we are at our most humane when we are able to laugh.
Today it’s unlikely that film classes will have you watch Horse Feathers or Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy or Three Stooges shorts, relegating them to a subgroup of cinema that is somehow frivolous, puerile, and not worth real consideration. Instead, dramas are always lifted up, put on pedestals, paraded about, and suddenly everyone is told they have to watch Titanic, have to watch American Beauty, and have to watch Million Dollar Baby.
If you ask me, often lauded dramas are sillier than comedies, and contain less substantial truths than comedies that are barely watched anymore. Take, for example, American Beauty, a movie that was hugely popular when it came out on video and it seemed everyone and his unlce watched it and praised it and told their friends to watch it. The unfortunate thing about that film is that it does contain, at its core, great truth, but then this truth is wrapped in layers and layers of Hollywood kitsch. The story of Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning as people in a shambling marriage is, I think, very true, and represents something that is real, and that probably existed right in the audience that watched the film. The story of his disavowal of adult life and her retaliation through adultery also contains some truth… But then this is all surrounded by fairy tale imaginings that can hardly be considered true. The neighbor that videotapes shopping bags, the father who gets with his dream girl then has pangs of conscience, the scene where Chris Cooper sees what appears to be a sexual act that is actually something completely innocuous–isn’t this all comedy? Isn’t this all sillier than most comedies? Why then gush about American Beauty and not speak of O Brother Where Art Thou, one of the few films in the past two decades that has channeled the energy of slapstick? Entertainment Weekly gave O Brother Where Art Thou a solid F. Even I’ll only go so low as to give a film an F+.
Now look back at a film that, upon first analysis, seems like the screwiest film ever: Some Like it Hot. Some people would look at Billy Wilder’s film and say “It’s funny, sure, but there’s no point to it…” That’s the sort of thing I’d say about, oh I don’t know, Gone With The Wind or All the President’s Men and some of the “oh-so-important” films, but not about Some Like it Hot.
For one, the film is the ultimate anti-nazi film (it was made long after the war ended, but it still thumbed its nose at everything the Nazis stood for). Billy Wilder was himself a Jewish filmmaker who had to emigrate to America to save his own life. Tragically, his parents he never saw again, and were likely killed. Does he go to America and make dark, depressing films? No, the first several films he made were hilarious comedies. Eventually he would take on Nazism directly with his great film Stalag-17*, but he struck a more powerful blow indirectly with Some Like it Hot. The Nazis, when it comes down to it, were a prudent, censorious bunch whose own repression led to huge violent outbursts (and when I say Nazis, I mostly mean the men who called the shots, not the poor boys who were forced into it). They did not laugh. They did not accept lewd sexual conduct. They did not like effeminate behavior. Now Some Like it Hot is all about lewdness, laughter, sex, and the freedom to live and enjoy life. In the characters of the mobsters (the film’s villains) you see a strain of Nazism. The heroes played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis (and I do consider them and their characters heroes in every sense of the word), to elude the bad guys, have to dress in drag, cavort with a bunch of girls, and Lemmon has to go so far as to pretend to be in love with an old man. Then, the film ends with one of the greatest lines in all of cinema: “Nobody’s perfect.” Now there’s a perfect Anti-Nazi sentiment.
Also the film gave the world Marilyn Monroe in one of her most memorable roles. I like Delmore Schwartz‘s line about how, after her, there are no more blue noses.
Why then is it when we speak of important, thought provoking, deep, moral, and humanistic films it’s always turgid films like Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, or silly films like Gone With The Wind, American Beauty, Titanic, Avatar, Crash, Babel, but never Duck Soup, Some Like It Hot, My Man Godfrey, The Jerk, Time Bandits or Toy Story? If it were up to me, I’d much rather discuss the philosophy of Schultz’s Peanuts than discuss Rand’s Objectivism. I’d rather watch You Can’t Take it With You for its Christian values than ever sit through The Passion of the Christ.
Does something have to be depressing to be true? Or can we learn to live better while enjoying our lives?
Also, for more of my thoughts along a similar line, make sure to check out
If you’re into old films, check out my recent long post about my favorite actress from the golden age, and be sure to vote for who your favorite actress is from the 1930s to 1960.
Also, I’m working on a short story experiment at the moment and need people to help me out. Do me a favor and check it out by clicking here.
*Also, I think Wilder’s film Double Indemnity is in some ways a reflection on WWII and how seemingly normal men can be seduced into evil acts.
—-Please read my new novel titled A Rapturous Occasion. It’s a comedy of errors set around the holiday season. It’s available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon.