Monday, May 6, 2013

What Makes Us Laugh -- Part One: Comedy, in Sickness and in Health

In our average day-to-day literary, stage, and film lives the term comedy gets thrown around a lot by Hollywood, authors, readers, actors, critics, and audiences. But what does it really mean? Is its indifferent usage truly suggest a broad category? Or are there many subcategories contained with in? Are they truly subcategories, or are they themselves different? Can they be separated, and if so, what's the history behind their development? And most importantly, where can we see examples in our day to day literary lives?

Happy or Sad, choose one.
To begin with, we have to explore the roots of the system our society has come up with for separating our entertainment. From small children, we're told simplistically that "comedies are funny" and "tragedies are sad"--I think I remember that explanation specifically from an old Walt Disney animated short from the 1940s or 1950s. But is that truly the root of the dichotomy? Let's start first with Comedy, as that seems to be the progenitor from which all "funny" drama seems to derive--one would think.

Comedy, as it is popularly understood, is the genre that makes us laugh, and then has a bunch of "sub-genres" contained within it--or so we think--depending upon the type of humour that makes us laugh. The word humour should give us pause, because it's an important one for the time when our modern version of Comedy was being formulated in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical periods. Why do I say it's important? Because the modern association of the word with "something or someone who is funny" isn't the first thing listed if you bother to look it up in the dictionary. In Merriam-Webster it isn't listed until the third definition, and our sense that it's associated with comedy doesn't come in until "part c" of that definition. What comes before it? Well, the short and simple answer is that both definitions prior to that have to deal with the medieval (and ancient) belief in the "four humours".

The weird symbols are Zodiac Signs.
The four humours being four bodily fluids (or humours) associated with the more recognizable four elements (Fire, Earth, Air, & Water). The four humours themselves were Blood (Air), Yellow Bile (Fire), Black Bile (Earth), and Phlegm (Water). To further shorten the explanation, a person had to try and keep these four humours in balance with one another in order to remain healthy. An excess of one bile or another would, in this world view, cause a person to become sick and act in a manner that was contrary to their true nature. If you had an excess of blood you were of a Sanguine nature (impulsive, charismatic, optimistic, shameless, lazy, and boisterous). If you had an excess of yellow bile you were of a Choleric nature (aggressive, passionate, tyrannical, energetic, bossy, and strategical). If you had an excess of black bile you were of a Melancholic nature (considerate, cautious, thoughtful, perfectionist, sensitive, and depressive). And if you had an excess of phlegm you were of a Phlegmatic nature (friendly, consistent, affectionate, diplomatic, shy, fearful of change, and passive-aggressive).

Now how did this word humour get associated with comedy? Well, truly, old-fashioned comedy I'd propose is about these four extremes coming together and driving each other batshit crazy until they balance each other out at the end of the story. Typically one type of humour has "gotten out of control" to the point where the opposite kind of character has to come in and subdue and heal the sick person. Essentially I'd argue that comedy is in its modern origins about the sick becoming healthy and the story surrounding that process is "funny" to us because the people are so extreme that we find them to be "ludicrous or absolutely incongruous". In modern comedy notice how it always plays to the extremities in its characters, plots, and paces. Up until the Age of Enlightenment (hell even during it), Western Civilization had this common acceptance of four humours that had to be treated medically in order for "balance" to be achieved. Health is associated with balance and sickness is associated with extremity (you can still see that connotation today in politics when politicians label their opponents as extremists). And sickness is something we've found inherently funny. Yes, when we are laughing in comedy we are usually laughing at sick people.

Hint: Rom Coms will be reviewed.
Before anyone goes into a long rant about how horrible it is to be laughing at sick people, I ask you do you really think much has changed since then? Do we find a person with OCD who has to methodically have everything on their desk at right angles with one another sad or funny? Well, judging by our modern tropes and types, I'd say more typically we find it absolutely hilarious. Why else would the strong independent business-woman type with OCD marry the lazy dependant rebel-without-a-cause man type with Peter Pan syndrome? Both are seen as "sick-men of society" who have within themselves the capabilities of balancing each other out into "normal healthy human beings" when paired together in a romantic comedy. So this notion of sickness and health dominating comedy is not something we've disregarded--we simply have forgotten its origin. Its legacy though clearly remains with us.

All right, now that we know generally that we laugh at sick people who are destined to become healthy again by the end of the story, how is that employed in a comedy?

Menander in his stone glory.
The comedic formulae we are most familiar with derives first and foremost from the ancient Greek playwright Menander. He wrote a bunch of plays in the style which academics have labelled "New Comedy". The reason he is considered one of the most influential comic writers comes from the fact that Roman playwrights copied his works, Renaissance playwrights copied the Roman playwrights, and since the Renaissance we've been using the Renaissance playwrights as the basis for the rest of comedy. Menander isn't considered the "Father of Comedy"--Aristophanes is--but we'll talk about that guy in a later post. However, Menander was arguably more influential in what became standard comedic tropes and the basic formula for what we consider comedy today, and as such, let's look at the basics within New Comedy.

Each door says something about their owner, don't they?
In New Comedy you have on the stage "three doorways" as your basic background--out of which characters will enter and exit for the majority of the performance. Each doorway represents one place. For example in Dyskolos (aka The Grouch), the three doors are two houses with the shrine to the minor god Pan in the middle. What you make the three doors doesn't matter so much (they can be three houses on a street next to each other for example) but that's the set. Generally one person is dominating the neighbourhood and imposing his will onto the surrounding area like a little dictator--only his will is irrational since he's sick by being an extreme personality. Typically you find in comedy some sort of irrational law that has been forced onto the society of the play by this character. The society of the play can be an entire nation or a family and its surrounding neighbours, but somehow, some sick man (or woman) has forced himself to become the irrational leader of this land, and is enforcing his will on others. The next important element is typically a young character who has recently come into the neighbourhood or is returning after having taken his leave from the area for some time. This "new" element, inspires hope amongst the community and eventually will be the "new leader" of the community, as well as the element that will subdue and heal the sick man who imposes his will on others. This division of characters is called by literary critic Northrop Frye the difference between Alazons and Eirons.

Oh I just can't wait to be king!
Alazon is the term for our "sick man" humour. Typically these characters are imposters of sorts--what you see is not who they truly are. Typically alazons suffer from delusions of grandeur, thinking they're greater than they are. Having an overinflated sense of ego like the Miles Gloriosos (aka the braggart) or is an overinflated heavy father figure which is called the Senex Iratus (aka the angry father), the point is, how they're acting is misguided and they are guilty of the crime of having too much presumption and ego, and need knocking down a peg or too.

There's more to me than first appears.
Eiron is the term for our healing youthful character. Typically these characters don disguises to make themselves to appear lesser than they actually are to counteract the alazons and undo their presumption. Your typical diamond in the rough kind of characters. And usually through this act of disguising only to reveal themselves truly this prompts within the audience the feeling of "ascension" that a character has risen from a lower status to a higher. Sometimes it might even be a smaller side character who's unknown parentage is revealed to be the long lost Duke of some Duchy. In which case the person's low status was a disguise which hid away their noble blood. From this sense of ascension we get the Cinderella archetype that persists throughout comedies, and another notable variant would be the slave who rises after having broken free their chains.

Cinderella, a staple archetype of most comedies about hidden worth being greater than obvious worth.

Hard to believe it's the same guy, huh?
From this one can guess that a big theme of comedy is the theme of identity. Characters are constantly shifting their identities, hiding their true identities, or thinking their identities are greater than they are, etc. This is so frequently touched on in comedy, that one might say that the "clothes make the man". The final act is the removal of these masks and the revelation of the people as they truly are. Similarly, to extend our allegory to comedy as a parable of sickness, this correlates to how a person's sickness is not their "natural state" of being, and the goal is to remove this imposing condition of sickness and bring back the healthy person that they truly are. As such, look to comedies to tell what a society considers to be "fake", "posturing", and "sick" about our society. They'll make us laugh for a while at these things and while doing so prescribe what it believes to be the cure to these sicknesses. Typically it'll be a marriage of opposites so that the two will "balance" each other out until health is restored. In a Comedy there'll be healing because ultimately it has a positive outlook on life, people, and communities. Sure, we might get sick from time to time, but we can heal and move forward.

I wonder how many pictures were discarded to get this particular one?
Ultimately comedy has, you could say, a very "hippie" kind of outlook on life. And by that I mean that comedies are communal in nature, concern themselves solely with "life on Earth", and celebrate all aspects of our humanity. Comedies concern themselves with life of the simple average everyday people that make up a community, and how each is vital to preserving life within it. Typically you'll find beyond the main hero in our story a flurry of other colourful characters who will all be partnered up. The reason every character is partnered up with someone is because that is the way to ensure life in the community--through marriage, which will generate children, which will go on to continue the community once our characters are dead and gone. This is one of many reasons most comedies end in a marriage or the promise of marriage--because what other ceremony in life better celebrates the idea of "continuation of life on earth" than a wedding? What ceremony better celebrates the  youth having grown up and joining a community than a wedding? And what other way can the community celebrate the newly initiated than through the communal group dancing that is all too common at weddings? As for being celebratory of our humanity, comedy is completely accepting of all aspects of being human. Isn't it great that we have faults, that we have a body that grows tired, needs to eat, sleep, and drink? Comedy is aware of the body and isn't afraid to employ it for a little body humour as well. It isn't ashamed of the body or think it a prison for a person like tragedy often tends to do. Instead it revels in the fact that we are human because it feels we find strength in being human and accepting our limitations. That's why slapstick is part of comedy, because while someone is on the receiving end of all those punches, throws, kicks, and pies to the face, it is usually people who aren't comfortable in their own bodies--thinking they're grander than they really are--and need a friendly kick in the pants as a reminder that they too are mere mortals. How is all that "hippie"? Well, I mean "hippie" in the idealistic sense of the ones who went out and formed communes (communities) focused around a more rural way of life (earth-focused) and were completely comfortable just being human beings with little pretensions otherwise. I don't mean the radical protest hippies, but instead the quiet ones who lived their ideals, not preached them. You'd find the same kind of lifestyle in a community of farmers, for those uncomfortable with the "hippie" label. Comedy thus is best when it has some connection with the earth, and although it can exist in a city, when it does it's usually a political or cultural capital city from which changes will spread and be felt across the whole of the nation.

Ultimately, comedy is about what society considers to be a healthy life, first and foremost, a celebration of simply being human, and isn't that great?

Some Classical Examples:

As You Like It
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Uncle Vanya

Modern Examples:

Once Upon a Mattress
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Django Unchained (it mixes in a few other genres, but its basic formula is Comedy)
Silver Linings Playbook

And now I'll leave you with a song... Comedy Tonight from (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)


I think I'll make this kind of post a weekly ordeal as this technically took two days to write and post. So expect approximately every Monday a post about genre or the theoretical side of entertainment. In between times I might throw in a small review of a film, book or play I happen to read.

Next Theoretical Post: 5/13/13 - What Makes Us Cry -- Part One: Tragedy, with Fear and Pity
Next Serial Post: 5/20/13 - What Makes Us Laugh -- Part Two: Romantic Comedies, when Opposites Attract