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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Three Billboards Outside Hamlet

What is it with Hollywood and dark stories?  So I’ll add Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to my list.  That list is highly acclaimed movies that are gratuitously dark.  On the list are Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, and even though it isn’t highly acclaimed, Avengers: Infinity War.  What I found so uninteresting about Three Billboards is that it is a study of hate and revenge.  The movie showed us different ways and reasons and expressions of hate and different ways to take revenge.  For two hours.  Then, in the concluding 15 minutes, there was forgiveness and humanity as Mildred and Jason decide not to murder a rapist.  While I was watching, I asked myself, “Do I want to watch two hours of hate and revenge?  To what purpose?”  No.  I don’t.  I’m beginning to think I’ll have to take a vacation from Hollywood, as I did with pop music during the disco period.

Do we like to watch human darkness?  Do we want to pay money to watch hate and revenge?  For two hours?  Is life dark in its essence?  My life isn’t.  And the life of my friends isn’t.  And neither I nor my friends are living in existential bad faith.  We’re just living our lives.  Authentically.  There may be some philosophical currents that claim life is dark.  The Borg in Star Trek were created because viewers wanted a darker story.  Why?  What’s so great about darkness?  I think that people who crave dark stories are living in bad faith because I’m guessing that their lives aren’t all that dark, either.

Then I thought about really great art.  Many of Shakespeare’s plays are tragic.  They dramatize the lust for power, prejudice, the lust for revenge, hatred, anger, death, and other themes that are hard to watch.  And Sophocles not only wrote about murder, he wrote about incest.

Yet I enjoy Shakespeare.  And the darkness in it doesn’t put me off.  I think that the difference with Shakespeare is that there is nobility in it, too.  Of course I need not even mention the beauty of the language–the perfect marriage of sound and sense.  Shakespeare tears one’s heart open.  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri just bored me with the incessant rage and petty revenge.  It wasn’t even all that true to life, as people, generally, don’t burn down police stations.

Plato had a real problem with well-done evil.  The Greek word kala means good and beautiful.  So it was a real question how you could have a beautiful ugliness.  Shakespeare isn’t wholly ugly in its beauty, with the noble impulses motivating his characters.  There is no nobility in Three Billboards, Manchester by the Sea, or Moonlight.  There is only base and unlovely humanity.

The Bee Gees are considered a great band by some.  And Boogie-oogie-oogie, the disco song, won a Grammy.  But when I had to live through the disco period, I turned exclusively to Classical Music until better pop music came back.  Looks like I’m going to have to do that with Hollywood, now.  Hope it won’t take too long.