There’s Nothing Funny about Comedy

I can’t recall a comedy ever winning an Academy Award.  Maybe one did, but I don’t remember it.  There’s a common understanding that comedy is lowbrow.  Not serious stuff.  And, indeed, calling comedy serious is a paradox.  The whole point of comedy is not to take anything seriously.

I used to be publicly funny.  I made jokes in school, made jokes in my professional life, made jokes in my social life–made jokes all the time, everywhere.  And it didn’t serve me well.  I think that people may have thought me unprofessional.  And maybe I was.  I was passed over for professional positions I wanted.  And I now believe that it was my attitude that was responsible for it.

In ancient Greece, where drama originated in the west, there were two masks which captured the essence of drama.  One mask was for tragedy and one mask was for comedy.  One of Aristotle’s works is on theater, called Poetics.  It lays out the principles of tragedy.  But there’s no comedy in it.  Scholars conjecture that the Poetics was meant to cover both aspects of theater: tragedy and comedy.  But the part on comedy was lost.  They even speculate about what Aristotle said in his missing work on comedy.  And Plato himself has Socrates forcing Aristophanes and Agathon to admit that tragedy and comedy both come from the same causes, and that the same author could write both comedy and tragedy.  He does this at a party where everyone else has passed out drunk.  Perhaps this is why Blake writes, “Excessive sorrow laughs.  Excessive joy weeps.”  Robert De Niro has successfully played tragedy and comedy.

In school I took a course in Comedy and the Christian Imagination.  That’s where I learned that there’s nothing funny about comedy.  It is a serious classical category.  Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso is called the Divine Comedy, and there aren’t many funny parts in it.  Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies, and his comedies had funny parts in them.  In fact, even in his darkest tragedy, Hamlet, there a really funny part in a graveyard.  Some people think that I am a serious guy.  My mother doesn’t understand how, after all my many years in graduate school, I can laugh at Super Troopers or Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  I genuinely enjoy stupid comedies.  I want to make the claim for comedy in our lives.  I could produce some serious arguments as to how comedy functions, and what the prupose of comedy is.  But that isn’t the point of this post.  I merely want to say that there’s a place for funny in our lives.  And even serious people can laugh, should laugh, at movies like Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

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Fame

Fame and success are not always meted out in a person’s lifetime.  Some great artist were relatively obscure in their own lives, and did not know that they would be important later, after their demise.  All they knew was that their work didn’t catch on.  And they were unknown–and that, for their whole lives.  They didn’t make it.

William Blake was known to some of the Romantic poets, but achieved no real fame.  Shelley wrote these verses about his own life,

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,

Nor peace within nor calm around,

Nor that content surpassing wealth

The sage in meditation found,

And walked with inward glory crowned—

Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.

Others I see whom these surround—

Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;

To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had fame and money, but failed to find critical acceptance as an artist.  His greatest novel, The Great Gatsby, didn’t sell much and went out of print in a few years.  Fitzgerald died thinking himself a failure.

Now we study Blake, Shelley, and Fitzgerald in literature classes, and all these writers are considered great.  Every high school student in the United States reads The Great Gatsby.

Hemingway and T.S. Eliot had fame all through their lives, and the respect of the artistic community.  Hemingway also had wealth.  Intellectual fashion is now debating whether they are still as great as they used to be, but I suspect the laurel wreath will not be taken away in the end.

But Shelley and Fitzgerald had respect among the community of artists in their day.  Coleridge and Wordsworth knew and respected Shelley.  And Hemingway was Fitzgerald’s close friend.  Even in Hemingway’s scathing stories about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway praises Fitzgerald as a great artist.

Fame may not be the best measure of a person’s worth.  Respect from one’s peers, self-respect, believing in oneself, and the joy of creation alone are not fame, but are abiding satisfactions in lieu of fame.  While an artist wants recognition, it is satisfying to enjoy one’s own creations privately, while perhaps also enjoying favorable reception from a few who matter.