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Comedy And Catharsis

Now that the hangover from two weeks of political orgy in the States is starting to wear off, it seems a good time to ruminate on the topic of comedy.  Certainly, there was comedy aplenty at the conventions and the two candidates emerging from them provide endless grist for the mill.

Our purpose here, though, having said all we want to say about politics for now, is to explore comedy itself.  What is comedy and why is something so profoundly human such a mystery?

The word "comedy" comes from ancient Greek (komos) and originally referred to a festival in which young naked men went hog wild, dancing and leaping around a giant phallus.  I don't know about you, but if most of us saw something like this today, we'd call the local insane asylum to offer remedial treatment.  Nevertheless, we'd most likely be laughing our fool heads off as we made the call.  Thus, the origin of comedy.

Aristotle spent a large part of his book Poetics pondering the nature of comedy.  According to him, comedy - and tragedy - were a means to achieve κάθαρση, or emotional release.  Releasing the emotions balanced the humors, such as blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm.  Not enough of something?  You need tragedy.  Too much of another?  You need comedy.  An overabundance of all?  You need satyr (satire was not a form of comedy back then).  The physician Hippocrates even prescribed the theater for certain ailments.

Aristotle's Second Book of Poetics is lost to history, at least for now, but there are quotes that suggest he recommended laughing at people with deformities.  This was echoed by Francis Bacon, though we don't know if the reasoning is the same:
"Deformed persons’ take revenge on Nature for their impairments, by being void of ‘Natural Affection."
This view was known as physiognomy, the assertion that one's physical appearance is an expression of one's inner character.  Thus, by laughing at deformed people (who were obviously at war with Nature), we could ridicule and defame them, and thus take away their power.  In fact, ridicule and laughter have always been seen as a means to ward off evil spirits, though not everyone agrees.

In the film The Name of the Rose, there is a curious exchange between William, the protagonist, and Jorge, the antagonist:
Jorge Burgos: Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms, uh, the lineaments of the face and makes men look like monkeys.
William of Baskerville: Monkeys do not laugh. Laughter is particular to men.
Jorge de Burgos: As is sin. Christ never laughed.
William of Baskerville: Can we be so sure?
Jorge de Burgos: There is nothing in the Scriptures to say that he did.
William of Baskerville: And there's nothing in the Scriptures to say that he did not. Why, even the saints have been known to employ comedy, to ridicule the enemies of the Faith. For example, when the pagans plunged St. Maurice into the boiling water, he complained that his bath was too cold. The Sultan put his hand in... scalded himself.
William is clearly a believer in physiognomy, while Jorge is a Stoic, and they represent probably the most fundamental forces at war in Western culture.

In modern times, Robert Heinlein, in his book Stranger in a Strange Land, speculated that comedy is pain + distance, while in his movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen figures it as pain + time.  In both cases, they represent the modern proclivity of reducing everything to a mathematical formula, but the point is taken: comedy is pain.

At some level, everything that makes us laugh involves someone else suffering.  Ultimately, everything you and I have laughed at involves a buffoon (mental), a cripple (physical), or a humiliation (emotional).  You can name anything you choose as an example, and at the root of it is one of these three pains.

The only difference between comedy and tragedy is distance, physical, temporal or emotional.  We are in some way separated from the object of comedy by space, time or empathy.  If someone falls down and we are next to them, we tend to share the pain, but if we see it from a distance, it can be quite funny.  By the same token, we may be in sympathetic pain at the moment, but years later we laugh as we reminisce on the event. Finally, we may laugh at the event because we don't like that person and seeing them humiliated gives us a sense of pleasure.  Space, time or empathy.

We all speak of the healing power of laughter.  We know that the rush of endorphins leaves us feeling exhausted, but satisfied.  We love to laugh, which is why comedies and comedians are so popular. We rarely, though, step back enough to think about why we laugh and what we are laughing at.  And when we do, it is as puzzling as anything in the human psyche.

In a way, Political Correctness is the triumph of the Jorges/Stoics of the world.  Any object of comedy has become off-limits to the PC crowd. There is no denying that idiocy or retardation or deformities are very ancient objects of comedy, but like Jorge, we are forbidden to screw the lineaments of our faces in order to receive catharsis from them - to balance our humors, as Hippocrates might say.

For many years, I had a cat that loved to sleep on top of the VCR on the bookshelf.  One day, while I sat on the couch reading, she rolled over and fell to the floor flat on her back.  I started laughing uncontrollably, and that cat ran across the room and leaped at my chest with claws bared, then ran off into the other room to sulk.

No one likes to be laughed at, that is a given, unless you are getting paid for it.  And many of the PC crowd think they are doing the idiots, cripples and clowns of the world a favor by forbidding the rest of us from laughing at them.  But laughter is a defense mechanism.  It is our minds reacting to the saying, "There but for the grace of God go I."  It is as automatic as raising your hand to block someone throwing a punch at your face.  It is as uncontrollable as blinking or breathing.  Laughter is a release of tension.  Without it, we would all be far worse off.

Imagine a world without laughter.  It seems rather dull and unlivable to me.  Yes, the objects of laughter feel hurt, but the fact of the matter is that everyone laughs at some point, and the object of laughter now will be laughing later, and the cause will be one of the three we all laugh at.

Comedians are people who professionally hurt themselves for our laughter.  The best comedians turn the pain on themselves so we can achieve catharsis through laughter.  It is a uniquely human occupation, and a strange one.  But it is absolutely necessary.  Without balancing our humors, we will sooner or later have quite real pain ourselves.  We need that release and without it we die.

As the great British Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean famously said on his deathbed, "Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard."

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