Saturday, January 07, 2012

On the Seriousness of Comedy

But Seriously, Folks: 
Why Comedy is No Laughing Matter
"G.K. Chesterton once rebutted a critic who 'thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because [he] thinks that funny is the opposite of serious.  Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.'" (from the introduction to the lecture)

Yesterday I had another enjoyable and edifying noon hour attending the monthly lecture in the First Friday Lecture Series presented by the University of Chicago.  The first speaker of the new year was Michaelangelo Allocca,  Instructor and Chair of the Basic Program of Liberal Education, presenting the topic "But Seriously, Folks: Why Comedy is No Laughing Matter." 
Beginning with a quote from G. K. Chesterton on the distinction between what is "serious" and what is "not funny" the talk presented by Mr. Allocca was wide-ranging in its defense of the seriousness of comedy and the comic in literature of both serious and not so serious sorts.  After an anecdote from the Dalai Lama in support of Chesterton's claims the talk provided examples from the Bible to demonstrate the existence of humor in what is generally thought of as a serious work.  What followed were both philosophical and literary citations that further demonstrated the importance, if not seriousness, of comedy.  While readers' perceptions may lead to misinterpretations it was clear from the lecture, and from my own reading, that Plato's Socrates often turned to humor in his dialogues, while literary examples abound in both comic texts like Fielding's History of Tom Jones and tomes generally thought to be more serious like Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights.  Certainly the use of humor is essential in Shakespeare  to provide comic relief in tragedies from Macbeth to Hamlet.  
The psychological aspects of humor were also explored as noted above that there are often differences in the viewer or reader's perception of what is funny.  Maybe they just do not get it?  And sometimes the joke is on the narrator - with the resulting anxiety an aspect of the humorous moment.  The result is we may be left with the conclusion that "some day this will be funny", or not?  In my own experience my first reading of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (as a requirement of high school English) left me with the conclusion that it was a dull and serious novel.  Years later as an adult rereading the same novel I found that, while it was still serious, it was no longer dull but had taken on a humorous sheen as it was filled with comic moments.  In the passing years it had "become funny".  One other personal note: two of my favorite authors, both noted for the seriousness of their writing, concluded their careers as novelists with supreme comic novels - namely Thomas Mann's The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man and William Faulkner's The Reivers.  Perhaps this too underlines the importance of comedy in literature.
When defining comedy one may turn to the classical authors, for example Moliere who claimed that the comic was based in incongruity.  Certainly it has this aspect and perhaps some bit of the illogical or the irrational or even the absurd. One may also turn to Aristotle's Poetics which, although it is focused on tragedy, does have some things to say about comedy.  The result of all these considerations of comedy and its seriousness was an entertaining hour of literary and philosophical reflection: Serious, yes;  but filled with laughter.

Here is a final thought from the pen of Henry Fielding:
"hath anyone living attempted to explain what the modern judges of our theatres mean by that word low; by which they have happily succeeded in banishing all humour from the stage, and have made the theatre as dull as a drawing-room!" (Tom Jones, V, 1)

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