COMEDY: AN ESSAY
Edward E. Rochon
Edward E. Rochon on Shakespir
Comedy: An Essay
Copyright © 2016 by Edward E. Rochon
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Some Other Works by the Author
Death Is a Cabaret: A Parody
Drama Free Verse
For the Sexes: The Gate of Hell
Joy of Life in Verse
Misery of Life in Verse
New England Sleeper’s Verse
Show Biz Crap
The Waist Land: A Parody
Table of Contents
Is humor a virtue or a vice, or sometimes one or the other? What is at the heart of the matter of humor? Why do we laugh? I have gleaned three basic theories from the past, and noted that many philosophers and theologians deem humor as essentially a character flaw. Is it a character flaw, or sometimes yes, sometimes no?
This matter has been on my mind for the last several years, particularly with respect to my writings. Some of my works dabble there without any definite commitment. So I thought I would look into it here. Basically, I see an underlying theme in all three theories. One theory is the relief, or escape valve theory. It is a way of letting off steam produced by anger, frustration, threats or any other neural source of excitement. This is at the core of it, and I explain why the other two theories are basically that theory in disguise.
I also lay out some rules of comedy gleaned from observations over the years. My knowledge is of a general nature, while comedy requires a skill set usually acquired over the years, and often situation specific to a particular milieu and time(s). I suppose this question is important, though apparently one of the more frivolous human traits.
Chapter 1: Basic Theories
: We laugh at people who are inferior to us in some ways. Clowns invariably tend to act foolishly, move about clumsily from time to time. Outside of entertainment, we have the retard to laugh at, the oaf, the poorly clad, the unfashionable in any number of senses from clothing, to speech affectations, dialect, manners, ethics, beliefs, and so on. Comedians have a number of ways of using these traits in professional settings, and life is full of opportunities for this. While we all recognize this in life, including its sadistic and morally reprehensible aspect, we will explain how this fits in with the relief or escape valve theory, the core of humor in my view.
: This is a means for releasing nervous tension from any source. A good way to think of this is in terms of the fight or flight instinct, and its resolution in a middle ground response. Suppose we think the house is under assault by a thief, rapist, murderer. We hear a noise that is out of place. We tense up and ready ourselves for fight or flight. Upon inspection, it is only our pet cat up to a little mischief. The cat is in a bind, and we chuckle as we release the cat from his predicament. The laughter is a relaxation from tension. Our body goes into laughter in a somewhat spasmodic mode, neither hostile nor frightened, by a denouement between the two, the excess of energy released by our laughter. We neither cry nor yell but laugh.
: The word pun, the equivalent visual pun and any situational incongruity is the basis of this theory. We have malapropism, misplaced behavior response, deliberate witticisms, and so on. Puns can be a fairly safe way of humor. Even when the pun is bad, people seem to take some satisfaction at groaning their disapproval to the wit. This brings in the sense of superiority and perhaps of let down requiring the groan as a substitute for a laugh. And the groan itself may lead to laughter, especially when some audience wits get off some decent one liners at the expense of the teller of the pun.
Having laid out the three theories, I will add one more, the heart healthy or health theory. We laugh because it feels good in a healthy way within certain limits.
: Laughter relieves stress and helps in maintaining good health. The sense of superiority makes our ego feel good, staving off depression, inferiority complexes. And of course, a sound body requires a sound mind, and vice versa. Relieving excess tension is good because stress kills. When we laugh together, we create group solidarity. We know that laughter tends to be contagious, hence the laugh track for TV with one or just a few people in front of the TV set. Solidarity relieves social stress, and incongruity is much more innocent more often than not than the arrogant sense of superiority or the stunned fright/flight/fight response.
I would like to point out that we have seminars where people laugh for no reason. You may have noted that laughter can be good for the abdominal muscles. The alternate tensing and relaxing of muscles mandatory for proper laughing maintains our core muscles, even when seated in an audience. We note that people can mechanically smile at home, feel ridiculous, but smile authentically in recognition of the absurdity. We have the Human Resources smile Nazis to deal with. So many employers demand smiling faces. We may resent this enslavement of our facial muscles. And excessive smiling can be painful. And it is phony. Why should we be required to smile, instead of just doing our job? Sure, if the cook yells at the waiter, and he comes out angry and with an attitude, we do not want to be the recipient of it. Is he angry at us? But shouldn’t people simply accept civil behavior? I mean, if you are in a happy mood, smile, otherwise, business as usual. Just make sure any hostility that is not caused by the customer does not come across to the customer, so as not to create misunderstanding. And of course, the customer is always right, though they are quite often in the wrong. But, hey, just be civil. Oh, no, not good enough. Experience shows that smiling brings in customers we suppose. A chorus line that does not smile is not in the right frame of mind.
Anyway, you can allay your outrage of hypocrisy, by dealing with job interview stress with a nervous smile. You will feel ridiculous and end up smiling for real. You see, you are not a hypocrite. You are showing the interviewer that you know how to deal with stress by smiling, even if it takes a second or two to be genuine. You really are smiling because you want to, sort of. And laughter after anger by the number (just laugh for nothing) allows you to let the sun go down on your ire. We must get a good night’s sleep. Don’t let the a-holes rob you of your sleep as well as your daytime peace of mind. This includes getting pissed off at the news, talk show commentary, shoddy goods that do not work properly, and all this in the privacy of your own home. Remember, stress kills.
In the next chapter, I explain why all three theories segue into the relief theory that segues into the heart healthy theory.
Chapter 2: The Segue
Why do people feel the need to be superior to, feel superior to other human beings? Well, it justifies better treatment: better jobs, more money, more social clout. “We have merit,” the superior wannabes say. Now, we live in an economic world of scarce resources, a rat race world whether on Wall Street or the Secretariat of some Communist Party. When we lack what we need, or what we feel what we need, or what we are told by society what we need, this creates anxiety. We are missing out, going under socially, and maybe figuratively. Manpower cuts will carry us to the guillotine before our superiors. Certainly, this is a stress producing scenario. So superiority is a form of stress relief hidden behind vanity and apparent cruelty. Needless to say, both vanity and cruelty may very well be mixed in with the angst.
What about incongruity? Funny stories are at the theater, night club, private parties. What are these about? Relaxation and entertainment! Why do we have these? To relieve stress, blow off steam. If a joke is told in a serious milieu, our focus is on learning something relevant. Our faculties are up to the task of learning. We must learn or be a failure. This is stress. It is hard to concentrate sometimes or always during long seminars. A joke relieves the stress, if well timed and apt. If we go to a show, we want to laugh, pay to laugh, almost demand to laugh. If the comic flops, he is stressed out; the audience is angry and stressed out, cheated. If they get their money’s worth by dissing the comic, well, he and the house owe it to them. We will not be cheated out of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Laughter. Now, a good audience likes to be helpful, especially if they like their comedian. They tense up for the punch line and release with spasms of guffaws at the proper time. Hey, they came for this. They like this, paid for this. And laughter is contagious. Everyone knows this. So if we all laugh, we get our money’s worth no matter how stale, unoriginal or shoddy the jokes. We see that incongruity is tied in with the escape valve theory that is a health matter.
In addition, we have target audience appeal. We have political comics, and virtually all comics opine on the day’s news from time to time, some more than others. The show host plays on the anxiety of the nation, and his audience, both out on the airwaves and seated in front of him. Politics and war and peace and economics that are grist for politics all produce stress. We want solidarity with our comrades. If we ridicule the opposition, we might increase in number. More power to us.
Dick Cavett has suggested political campaigns hire professional comic writers and comedians. Mark Twain felt that all falls before the ridicule of comedy. Well, many a smart ass fell to an angry fist, sword swipe or gunshot wound. This ends the joke for many. Only the angry target of ridicule might be laughing. At any rate, it ain’t necessarily true. Dick Cavett studied judo. He almost killed a boy in his youth according to his literary testimony. Those North Korean dictators are sure jokes of a sort, but jokes backed by karate indoctrinated young men and armed with machine guns. Be careful where you land a joke, Dick. It may be your last, and he who laughs last, or at any rate, is still standing at the end of the show laughs last or wins. Sometimes the audience knocks you dead, entertainer. Jokes do not carry the day unless you can protect yourself from irate or vicious recipients of jokes. Some may find your joke slanderous, criminal and worthy of death. They may be right according to the case. And sometimes jokes backfire in a democracy. Sure they are funny, but these clowns will not get into the White House. Retire them to Second City. A decent man under ridicule seems more admirable from time to time, even without responding in kind with mockery.
Madison Avenue has produced some funny commercials in their day, but these do not always sell the product to the extent desired. Sometimes, obnoxious commercials catch the target audience’s attention and produce more effective results. You are selling goods not jokes. At least, I have read this is so. Virtually every advertisement raises the TV volume. If we wanted a higher volume, we would have set it higher. In some cases, the change in volume can be distressing, especially when you fell asleep at night, watching the TV in lieu of insomniac reveries. NOTE: Watching TV is a bad idea for insomniacs. You should probably avoid it, no matter how bored you are at looking into the dark or night light. By the way, night lights are not great either. Memorize the room layout, finding your way to the bathroom in the dark. This will give you an edge if burglars enter the house too. You would be better off assembling and disassembling your handgun in the dark than watching TV while under the curse of insomnia. Another edge over the burglar should your gun jam in the dark, I might add. Hoo-rah!
Getting back to the subject, the shadow of pain, cupidity and folly hover over and about comedy. Slapstick imitates pain (sometimes turning into pain for real.) Pundits humiliate victims, a type of pain. We make fun of moral flaws and misdeeds. We poke fun at fools. But pain, cupidity and folly are the bane of humanity. Much suffering comes about from these three tricksters. This is why moralists and utopian makers have disowned comedy as a social grace. It is quite true that comedy can be an incitement to violence, fuel oil on the water rather than olive oil to calm things down. The Greeks and Romans burned olive oil too. And we have the proponents of humor as conducive to a better life, a spice of life. Is it possible the truth lies somewhere in the middle? I will come back to that in the next chapter after giving my theory on how comedy works in a professional and amateur setting.
Chapter 3: Nothing’s Funny
One of the easiest places to get a laugh is the pulpit. You do have your joking clerics. Some find services trying, falling asleep with the tedium. They go out of a sense of duty or fear of hell fire. No one expects much from such a venue. This makes the lowering of expectations tactic work well here. If the minister is thinking of going showbiz, trying out his Vegas act would go better with a very liberal denomination, better Reformed Judaism than Orthodox. Gore Vidal noted that there are very few jokes in the Bible. He thought Job’s bitter sarcasm of some little note. But life is not funny; it is not a game. That is why severe adherents of propriety from Plato to the puritans frowned on it. It is as much a potential incitement to violence as a way of circumventing it. Sex and car crashes are stock in trade in showbiz. Virgins, celibates, cautious men, abhorers of riotous living, devoted adherents of moral and intellectual purification find comedy polluting to the social graces. These apply to amateur pundits in offices, singles bars, picnics and ball parks. Shills for gambling, prostitution on the side, late night carousing are not off target.
I might note something about the famed Jewish comedian. As Vidal pointed out, the framework of Jewish life in past times was not overwhelmed with the virtues of comedy. After the diaspora, you might have rabbis making a few puns, a bit of humor amid the tears and Bible commentary. The European Jew rather than the Sephardi seem to have the funny bones. Most American Jews are European in recent origin, but the comment seems apt to me. The English have their Shakespeare comedies, Sheridan, Gilbert and Sullivan. The French have their Molière, the imported Ionesco. The funniest classic European play that I have read is The Broken Jug by Heinrich von Kleist, an opinion to be sure. I prefer it to the coarse Aristophanes the Greek, too. The Germans have a strong and coarse funny bone. Yiddish is German in origin, and spoken throughout Eastern Europe in past times. Germany was a center from which the Jews emigrated. Is the dichotomy between the puritanical biblical world and the German influence creating a great comic difference in potential between two merging, clashing cultures? And a funny kitsch is a sop to potentially hostile gentiles? Certainly, the travails of the Jews should dull any notions that life is funny. This is a lead in to my rules for comedy and how to justify it morally, if justification is possible.
The three rules of comedy are (drum roll please ):
One: Target your audience
Two: Get the audience in the mood to laugh
Three: Nothing is funny, so do not try to be funny
Hey, but what about timing? Timing is a lot of crap that comedians hide behind to conceal their skills. If the joke works, it is good timing. If it does not, it is bad timing. Dick Cavett, mentioned above, was also a magician, as was Johnny Carson, fellow Nebraskan. Magicians hide their skills, and get pissed off when other magicians reveal them. We are talking big time unemployment rate here. David Brenner some decades ago, said that there were only about 200 stand-up comedians in America that actually made a living out of it. You have writers and actors that do comedies as well. Then you have untold thousands trying their luck at comedy clubs. Tina Fey says that talent is not contagious. She is wrong. Showbiz types hide their secrets. Like a male SNL comic is going to help out some bimbo comic or wannabe to compete with him on the show! Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. George Harrison used to ask Paul and John about how to improve his songs, songs that might push theirs off the album. Not much help there. Lou Ferrigno would get more help from Arnold Schwarzenegger in body building. Work builds talent and helpful hints in the bedroom or elsewhere can be invaluable. I do not need to know anything about comedy to know that. But, dah, let us not get ridiculous about it. If the audience is still laughing at the last joke, sure, give them time to actually hear the next one.
On the other hand, my rules do require some timing in the more general sense. If you are working cold and unsure of your audience, you should feel out the sense of what the audience is and where it is coming from. Quite often, someone like the late George Carlin knows what kind of people to expect. He might also anticipate hecklers and had his bag of tricks for them. It takes time to learn your trade and target audience. Secondly, there is the time to loosen up the audience. If a bad traffic jam delayed entry into the city, dinners were rushed, reservations canceled, greasy spoons substituted, anxious stomachs spewing out smelly farts from the attendant dyspepsia of eating quickly and in frustration, you try and listen to the radio rush hour reports before 8:08 pm comes or whenever. Sniffing the audience might give a clue too. Comedians can work much later, giving upset stomachs time to settle down. If three thousand people just went up in smoke after a terrorist attack, that should be considered as a laughter inhibitor.
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A brief preface explains my motive for writing and a brief summary of essay content. Chapter 1 describes the three basic theories along with a fourth. One: Superiority Theory. We laugh to feel superior, laugh at others. Two: Relief. We have pent up energy that needs to be released, whether from anger, fear or other motives. Three: Incongruity. Puns and things that are out of context from premise to conclusion or nonsense. Four: Health Theory. This incorporates all three. We want relief to stay healthy, relieve stress, etc. I speak of mandatory smiling in public service jobs or entertainment and a few other tidbits. Chapter 2 explains why a superiority theory is based on stress. If we are not superior to others, we get less status, money, sex. We are more likely to be fired than not, etc. This builds up stress that must be released. The relief theory is underlying this. Incongruity also relieves stress. For example, at a long seminar it can be hard to focus. If the speaker cracks a joke, this relieves tension from concentration and allows the body to recover by relaxation. If we go to the seminar, we expect something valuable. To lose that thing of value due to failure to learn is stressful. How about the stress on kids in school to pass tests, employees in company sponsored training, Marine Boot Camp. A little absurdity can bring relief. Chapter 3 discusses the three rules of comedy: 1) Target your audience. 2) Get the audience in the mood to laugh. 3) Nothing is funny, so do not try to be funny. I detail these points, mention Jewish comedians, Dick Cavett and a few other things.