Comedy and Tragedy


Nyat Nyat and Boo Hoo. Let us name those iconic twins. He is groaning, she is giggling–flip sides of the same clam. If comedy’s mutable, tragedy’s irrefutable. One forecasts fickle fates. The other portends bitter ends–an artificial beginning vs. an artificial end. It’s not just about the gag, but which way it jabs. Tragedy’s not about death, but the agony of defeat. Storytellers manipulate comedy and tragedy to perform an ongoing autopsy on culture. We talk about comedy and tragedy as different things, but “truth” is the subject, a singular reality that we pry apart for clues.

If I am late on this post, it is because of the philosophical essay “Laughter: On the Meaning of the Comic,” by Henri Bergson. Until I read Bergson’s essay, I was content with a lame explanation that comedy achieves itself through surprise. Now that seems very broad and obvious, not to mention imprecise. Bergson defines comedy as a perceived encroachment of anything inhuman or mechanical imposed on the human.  This sounded not very funny to me when I first heard it, but what I think the philosopher means to say is comedy plays against our common sense.

According to the essayist, any mechanization of man’s words, thoughts, behaviors or appearance is humorous to us. To give some straightforward examples, consider how stuttering, repetition, nervous ticks, outlandish looks, rigidly staged rituals or excessively flamboyant flexibility all become instant capital for the comic. It is Bergson’s keenest notion that laughter is a form of social correction. We laugh to expose and straighten-out the out of step.

Preoccupation is another thing we laugh at. Automatic Man provides endless amusement.  All we need is to see some day-dreamer stub his toe and we go bug eyed, become something of a machine ourselves, a bellows, gasping and snorting, far funnier to look at than the fool himself.  He’s jumping up and down holding his foot. We’re doubled-over shitting bricks.

It is remarkable how laughter is so instantly conspiratorial and connection building. A good laugh flourishes like rhubarb, communes with infectious ease, leaves behind a pleasing after breeze. We owe much to comedy for delivering us from tragedy.

At the same time, good jokes can be funny as well as tragic.  I’ll give it a try.
Compared to losing my Mother, my left macula was nothing. It did not love me unconditionally.

Do you ever have to beat back a grin when a friend confides some personal pain they’re in? Bergson says we are not evil. It’s nothing personal. We trip back into a psychic stronghold to preserve ourselves from harm. If we feel like laughing at another’s bad luck, maybe it is so we can forget our own for an instant.

So, the impulse to laugh is a part of our survival brain. Our ancestors cried for a few hundred millennia before they ever uttered actual words, and they laughed too, for much longer, to express what the spoken word has recently been trying. In fact, language is the direct descendant of laughing and crying.

Laughter urges everyone to remain optimistic about the outcome. It is our nature to hold out for a happy ending. If there was a verbal analog to the bodily spasms and convulsions of laughter, it might sound something like, “there then, let that teach’em a lesson.”

If laughter is corrective then tears are instructive. Depressing movies serve up misfortunes considerably harder than our own to digest and dark dramas puts us in touch with all the common character defects. Whether issuing from the real world or the movie reel, common misery confirms our fellowship in the human race.  Tears shed by us, under the influence of movies, are no less genuine for having been provoked by fantasy. Sad endings are, no doubt, as popular as they are as a direct result.

Most of us have sought out hundreds of movies and continue to keep watching more, comparing different examples to remind ourselves that what is immensely sad is often profoundly life affirming. Perhaps this has to do with an artificial ending. Since reality is open ended, everything could still turn out for the better in our lives. No matter how bad our misfortunes may appear now, surely the credits will roll soon and the lights will come up.

If we pry further, with Bergson’s help, we may discover that tension and release are the fundamental energies that constitute comedy. Odd or not, it would seem the same with tragedy. Aren’t we talking about catharsis here? Would it follow that there is a little bit of tragedy in comedy and vice-versa? We applaud the movie maker who pilots us back and forth, from one shore to the other, in a single story. With close-ups, long shots, speed changes, mechanical effects and juxtaposition, comedy and tragedy help us embrace life’s most perplexing ambiguities.

Federico Fellini who directed some of the funniest, saddest and most perplexing movies of all time, once wrote, “nothing is sadder than laughter, nothing more beautiful, more magnificent, more uplifting and enriching than the terror of deep despair.  I believe that every man, as long as he lives, is a prisoner of this terrible fear within which all prosperity is condemned to founder but which preserves, even in its deepest abyss, that hopeful freedom which makes it possible for him to smile in seemingly hopeless situations.”

In a particularly choice scene from his movie “Fellini’s Roma,”a blustery working class Italian chows down in the piazza with family and friends. He whistles and teases his pouting wife to come downstairs and join the party. One look at him tells me he’s probably given her a good reason to be pissed off. When she arrives beside him at the table he greets her by holding a plump, ripe olive up to her lips. She opens her mouth to receive it. At the last minute he replaces the olive with his thumb.

Fellini’s deceptively simple bit of staging illustrates how comedy and tragedy are integrally entwined. We can’t stop ourselves before we have to burst out laughing. At the same time we hate him, like she does, for his petty, idiotic power play, for taking advantage of her good nature and for god knows what else. “You silly stupid shit,” he says. “You’re the stupid shit,” she replies. “You’re both stupid shits,” says the little sister. Everyone laughs. It may be more funny to us, or more tragic, depending on the mood we’re in that day and how we perceive the consequences.

While we laugh, or shed tears, our native intelligence identifies the consequences which comprise an opportunity for reform. With one single outburst, mad or merry, we identify the perceived errant individual’s failings and avoid them ourselves. “He is so full of himself, I can hardly wait until he gets what’s coming to him.” “Is she really going to stay with him? “She’ll make herself miserable.”

We thank and congratulate Maestro Fellini for this masterstroke of comedy. If only we had more storytellers like him. He had the commitment to make certain we emerge from his fantasies smarter and more sensitized to reality.
Merry Christmas everyone. Happy New Year and thank you for your business!