Comedy is no laughing matter

Definitions are tricky things. There is so much that is more easily recognised than defined. For instance, we all know that a “tragedy” is a play (or a film or a novel or an opera or whatever) where everyone – or, at least, the main character – dies at the end; but even so, we recognise Oedipus the King as a tragedy even though Oedipus remains at the end very much alive. Fair enough – the mood at the end isn’t exactly upbeat – but then, what about The Oresteia? Not only does no-one die at the end, the whole thing culminates with a triumphant hymn of joy! Such inconvenient disregard for the rules of tragedy has led theoreticians to come up with all sorts of alternative definitions. The intricacies of these definitions need not concern us now, but they can – as far as I’ve read – be boiled down to “Tragedy focuses on the darker aspects of the human experience”. That really is sufficiently broad-brush to cover everything we recognise as tragic.

But what about comedy? We’re on safer ground here, surely? Comedy is whatever makes us laugh. (Or, if we want to include such stuff as Absolutely Fabulous, it is whatever is at least intended to make us laugh, even if it doesn’t.) But there are objections here as well. There are many works that are undeniably tragic in nature, but which do nonetheless contain incidental humour. So we may modify our definition with the adjective “primarily”: a comedy is a work the intention of which is primarily to make one laugh. No problem with that one, one might think. But a few weeks ago, I found myself at the Royal Albert Hall, at the Proms, listening to the Welsh National Opera perform Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Throughout the four and a half hours or so of the music (six hours including the intervals), I don’t think I laughed once. I don’t even think I smiled, or chuckled. I knew all the jokes already, and, to be entirely honest, they weren’t that funny the first time round either. There are more laughs in any two minutes picked out at random from an episode of Fawlty Towers. And yet, I recognised the world presented in that opera as essentially comic. And what’s more, I found it elating. Walking back from the Royal Albert Hall to the South Kensington tube station, I seemed to be in another world.

So what was it in that work I responded to? What was it I recognised as being comic, even though it didn’t make me laugh? And it’s not just Die Meistersinger: I fail to laugh at other much loved comic operas – Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, say; or Shakespeare’s comedies – As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or even much loved episodes of Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers: I have seen all of these so often I know all the jokes backwards, and the element of surprise that is so essential to raise a laugh is no longer there. And yet, for all that, I enjoy entering into these worlds which, despite the lack of laughs, I recognise as comic. Some of them even leave me feeling elated.

I suppose if the term “tragedy” can be defined as works that focus primarily on the darker elements of the human experience, then, conversely, “comedy” can be reserved for those works that do the opposite, i.e. as works that focus primarily on all those elements that enhance life, that make it worth living – all those things that tell us there is more, much more, to life than merely the death that ends it. Before Wagner composed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he had composed Tristan und Isolde (a concert performance of which this September, incidentally, I have tickets for), and there, the two protagonists, having given up on all that this world has to offer, long only for death. That I can recognise as tragic. But comedy tells us something very different. In Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs too renounces, and the renunciation is not easy: but the renunciation does not lead to a longing for death. Sachs even refers to the story of Tristan & Isolde (Wagner allows the orchestra to play a strain from his earlier work at this point), but tells us he does not want to end like King Marke: that tragic world is referred to, and is rejected. There is more to long for than merely death.

Viewed in this light, it is surprising how rare true comedy is in the modern world. Much that is ostensibly comedy has these days a dark edge: sometimes the darkness becomes dominant. There’s satire, there’s black humour: indeed, some even tell us that comedy is necessarily dark, and that comic works that do not address this darkness are not worth the candle. I have personally felt very uncomfortable with this. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate darkness in comedy: I can respond to the desperation at the heart of Steptoe and Son, the savagery of the satire in Till Death Us Do Part. But is this true comedy? Are not such dark drama and such vicious satire really aspects of the tragic?

The pilot episode of Steptoe and Son had ended in one of the most powerful and affecting of all tragic scenes: the son, Harold, desperate to get away from his father, had, quite insanely, attempted to draw the cart on his own (and yes, I’d guess the reference to Mother Courage here is entirely deliberate); and, unable, naturally, to do this, he had broken down in tears. And his father, bringing him back home and telling him sympathetically that he’ll make him “a nice cup of tea” somehow accentuates the tragedy: it rubs in the terrible truth that for Harold, there can be no escape, that he is doomed for ever to “nice cups of tea” with his father, whom he loves and hates at the same time. How many serious, tragic dramas have achieved scenes of such tragic intensity, I wonder? Yes, there are belly-laughs in Steptoe and Son, but belly-laughs alone do not a comedy make: the heart of Steptoe and Son remains a dark one.

For true comedy, one has to go to the likes of Sgt Bilko, Dad’s Army, The Morecambe and Wise Show. We have to go to the idyllic fictional world of P. G. Wodehouse (that Eden from which we are all exiled, as Evelyn Waugh once said), to the charm of Pickwick Papers. Or to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, or to Verdi’s Falstaff. Not that these worlds are entirely untroubled, of course: Wodehouse’s world, admittedly, is of sunny, cloudless skies, where the worst danger to be faced is that of Bertie being hitched up to Madeleine Bassett; but Pickwick Papers is darkened by those extraordinary chapters of the debtors’ prison; Hans Sachs does not find it easy to acknowledge his advancing years, and to renounce that one hope of happiness he had cherished; and even Falstaff, at one point, threatens to descend into those dark regions of Otello, as Ford is overcome by an insane jealousy. We know of course that there is no real danger of the darkness overwhelming the light: the very fact that these works are all set out as comedies reassures us. The presence of the darkness can be and often is acknowledged. But that darkness is, in one way or another, overcome: unlike in Tristan & Isolde, there is more to look forward to here than merely death.

But works such as this – works that affirm – seem to me these days to be increasingly rare. It is almost as if writers can no longer believe in affirmation. Or that they consider it trivial, or self-deluding. Have we, I wonder, lost the ability to affirm in the face of it all? I’d guess we haven’t lost the ability to respond to it, to judge from my response (and not merely my response) to Die Meistersinger; or to judge by the continuing popularity of Wodehouse, or the re-runs of Dad’s Army. But possibly we no longer believe in it strongly enough to create it.

“There are dark shadows on the earth,” writes Dickens towards the end of Pickwick Papers, “but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light.” But, he continues “we … have no such powers”. Dickens’ eyesight, admittedly, did change later in his literary career: it became more bat-like, more owl-like. But I for one remain grateful that before this change in his eyesight, he gave us Pickwick Papers. And one can be equally grateful that Verdi, after a career of composing tragic operas, signed off with that miraculous work of true comedy, Falstaff; or that Wagner, in between composing operas about lovers longing for death or about the end of the world gave us Die Meistersinger. The comic vision is one that enhances our lives, and to lose it would be tragic.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on August 29, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    To find the likes of Steptoe and Son funny, I think you need to have been at the bottom of the heap at sometime yourself. Did you try watching it when you were out of work? It has been my experience that this kind of thing has been funnier at such times.


  2. Posted by alan on August 29, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Also I think that there is plenty of affirmation in Hollywood movies – the redemption ending was at one time so common I began to wonder if it was government policy. Gone are the days of ‘The Last Detail’ or ‘Easy Rider’.


  3. Posted by Caro on September 4, 2010 at 5:25 am

    I watched Easy Rider on television recently, and had forgotten somehow the absolute shock of that ending; I did feel it would be unlikely for a Hollywood movie to end like that now. It seemed much worst to me than Bonnie and Clyde’s ending, though whether that was just because I remember the ending to B and C whereas the Easy Rider one had been forgotten.

    I would think the Simpsons always had affirmation at its heart, affirmation of the value of life and the family and marriage. But I don’t watch it much, so can’t be sure.

    Cheers, Caro.


  4. I don’t know that I have been quite at the “bottom of the heap”. As with anyone else, there have been timesd when I’ve been down, but fortunately, I have never quite been at the bottom. But nonetheless, I find “Steptoe & Son” immensely funny. I do, however, question whether, despite the laughs, it can truly be termed comedy: it seems to me really a variation on a tragic theme.

    And yes, Hollywood these days (which, as you know, I tend to avoid) is very much “feelgood”. But the affirmation seems to me all too easy, too facile: they leave me unconvinced and dissatisfied. I am happy to be corrected, but I do get the impression that these days, comedies that have any kind artistic merit tend to be dark: true affirmation (and I don’t mean the standard Hollywood feelgood movies) seems quite rare.

    Caro – “The Simpsons” series is a bit of a point of contention between Alan and myselfP: despite Alan’s enthusiasm, I have never found it particularly funny. But then again, humour is a very subjective thing. I laugh at Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers, but Buster Keaton & Jacques Tati leave me cold. God knows why.

    As far as maiinstream cinema is concerned, I do feel that the 70s was a sort of golden era. There were so many films of great sophistication that were actually aimed for a popular market. But then, sadly, Spielberg came along, and we had the phenomenal success of the Star Wars films, and mainstream cinema became, as far as I can see, juvenilised. (Is that a proper word? Well – it is now!)


  5. Posted by Chris on September 5, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    Doesn’t great comedy need a dark centre at its kernel to produce a pearl? The Canterbury Tales are cruel, crude and deeply funny. I’d argue that there is plenty of bathos and darkness in an episide of Dad’s army too.

    I’m just back from Edinburgh and one of the popular comedy mainstays of the Fringe is Stand-up. There is real craft in great stand-up comedy – think of Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks. Despite the rage, there is a an affirmation at the heart of their performances – a call to arms, fight back against the madness of the world.

    If one working definition of Art is the idiotic reaction “Call that art? I could do that” followed switfly by conclusive proof that one can’t, then I would definine good stand up as an comedic art form. Dave Allen is a comedian I know you rate, would you consider him in the same context as Wodehouse? If not, who not?

    Incidentally, do you have a spare ticket for Tristan und Isolde?


    • Hello Chris, good to see you here. First of all, I’m sorry to say I don’t have spare tickets for “Tristan und Isolde”, but if you turn up at the Royal Festival Hall on the evening, I’m sure there will be a few returns.

      But I don’t know that I’d agree that comedy *needs* a dark centre. Something like “Dad’s Army” is, indeed, set in very dark times indeed, but the darkness is kept well in the background: we know there are air raid attacks, but there are never casualties – we never see people having their homes wrecked, etc. It can be said as well that if Capt Mainwaring had been German, he’d have been a keen Nazi: this may well be true, but this is not really what the series is about. The darkness may be there, but it’s at the periphery rather than at the centre.

      Comedy *can* have a dark centre, but unless it’s celebratory, it seems to me closer to the tragic than to the comic. This is not to denigrate something such as “Steptoe and Son”, which is about as fine as television gets: it’s just that I am not sure I’d rank it as a comedy, despite it being very funny. It’s ethos does seem to me closer to that of tragedy.

      I don’t want to get tied up in matters of mere definition and taxonomy, but there does seem to me a very stark difference – a difference in type rather than merely degree – between, say, the novels of PG Wodehouse or the Morecambe & Wise Show on the one hand, and the likes of “Steptoe and Son” and “Catch 22” on the other. The difference is so stark, that I really don’t know that it’s adequate to cover them all with the single term “comedy”. But be that as it may, what I think I disagree with is the assertion that comedy *has* to have a dark centre. I’d argue that many of the greatest comedies demonstrably don’t.

      I do take your point about the tremendous skill and artistry required to be a good stand-up comedian. However, “fighting back against the madness of the world”, as you put it, tends to lead towards the defiant rather than towards the celebratory.

      I hope you had a good time in Edinburgh. The Festival is a strange place: one could have Franz Liszt resurrected to life performing Beethoven sonatas; one could have James Joyce and Marcel Proust turning up at the Book Festival; one could have Shakespeare’s own troupe of players performing “Hamlet”; – and everyone would still be going on about the lesbian comedy-juggling act…


  6. Posted by Caro on September 9, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    Chris did say “great” comedy, Himadri. Can you have great comedy that is merely funny? Perhaps. You have mentioned Wodehouse. And how dark is dark? Does Fawlty Towers have a dark centre?

    But it is about Catch-22 that I have most concerns about. I have heard it described often as hilarious. It wasn’t hilarious to me; it was hardly funny. I found it harsh, and tragic, and moving, and excessive, and ultimately terribly sad. And brilliant. I don’t think I would call it a comedy.

    Cheers, Caro.


  7. Posted by alan on October 18, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    I was recently made aware of the bizarre variations in comic taste when someone introduced me to a short black and white comic film (18 minutes or so), dating from 1963 that has apparently become something of a tradition on German television, where is reputed to have been repeated every new year’s eve since 1972.
    What makes this odd is that apart from the first 3 minutes of German introduction, the rest of the film is in English, and stars ‘Freddie Frinton’, a British comedian of the 50’s and early 60’s who I had never heard of, and ‘May Warden’ of the same vintage, who respectively played a butler and an old lady with imaginary dinner guests. The film is called ‘Dinner for One’.
    I’ve watched it and don’t find it at all funny. My son thinks it is funny, but then again he also likes Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, which I don’t get either. Given your tastes, you would probably think ‘Dinner for One’ was hilarious.


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