This is serious. Comedy is serious. When studying acting in New York City back in 1985, it was made abundantly and gravely clear that performing in a comedy required impeccable timing and earnest devotion to the craft of tomfoolery. During a staging of Joe Orton's farcical masterpiece "What the Butler Saw," four months preparation of verbal and physical hijinks included being introduced to various permutations of the absurd. Whilst challenged to master the frustratingly elusive technique of throwing away lines, it finally resulted in one moment of an agonizingly extended pause to toss off ever so nonchalantly a morsel of the text that brought down the house. And for a brief but elongated portion of time, I was adorned with the experience of representing a comic hero.
To hear the resounding avalanche of laughter that was a spontaneous response to concerted intentional labor was more than a payoff or a wage. It was like lying in bed at the age of 10 and basking in the afterglow of having won the 5th Grade Math Award and gazing at the golden figure stretched atop the fabricated stand. And like the 1960's TV show band the Monkees, aiming to please the audience and give them what they want is fabricated to rhyme in time with no philosophy and replicate the medicinal effects of amusement. When comedy is reduced and mass-produced like a commodity, it alienates from itself into developmentally arrested humor that is usually critiqued as "so stupid it's funny." It was only when the Monkees poked fun at themselves and the context in which they were manufactured in their only feature film "Head" in 1968 that they were able to self-consciously take up residence within their human condition. Having completed their psychedelic detour, their darker, grittier, and more critical surrealism provided sharper feedback on their decade imbalanced by Vietnam. Joining the ranks in the muddy trenches with other comrades in pointed comedy, they attempted to throw back the grenades of war, racism, advertising and authoritarian politics.
Sometimes the comic hits the target. And the target retaliates by becoming bigger and more abusively committed to the cause of its administrative policy. Or more often than not, the explosiveness of sarcasm and satire has a timing of its own to detonate the awareness of society and takes the humorist with it. As Nathanael West wrote in his 1933 novel "Miss Lonelyhearts": "He felt as though his heart were a bomb, a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion, wrecking the world without rocking it." The masses can be controlled by the programs that amuse them or they can take their humor and wield it like a weapon to confront the powers that be. We can laugh till we have tears in our eyes. We can laugh till it hurts. Comedy can make us forget our pain; it can also be an unexpected and nasty roundhouse that blindsides us with a raw and afflictive reminder of the illogical senselessness of life.
In his 1900 treatise on comedy and the comic entitled "Laughter," the French philosopher Henri Bergson explains that the reason why the comic's suffering at the hands of physical mishaps and japing is funny is that the comedian is presented as an object. Some distance is created to provide a safe buffer for us to laugh. Contemporary scenarios of hilarity do just the opposite today and play up the excessiveness of violence where the people engaging in accidental as well as self-inflicted harm generate laughter forced from our bodies that resonate and wince with their pain. Comics change over the decades from objects to cartoons to jackasses appearing on shows eponymously titled "Jackass." Go figure.
Humor both minimizes and magnifies to either deactivate or expand the ammunition to fight back against the nadir of our existence and those who would prefer to see us demoralized. Laughter lifts us up after we fall to not only rub our soreness, but also rub it in the faces of others who could do with a dose of laughter to lighten up and see themselves and their world in a more fair and just light.
"So many tangles in life are ultimately hopeless that we have no appropriate sword other than laughter." -- Gordon W. Allport