Arts & DesignEssays

Why Comedy Matters

When moral or political decisions are at stake, we often make use of catch-phrases drawn from a repertoire of available drama and literature. For we understand that both our actions and how they are perceived depend on how we frame them. Comedy, of all genres, appears to be the one we covertly use all the time without, meanwhile, fully appreciating its ability to portray and explore the intensity and integrity of our interactions with others. When Caesar began the civil war in Rome, he proclaimed: “The die has been cast.” According to Suetonius, he said it in his native Latin ( alea iacta est). But Plutarch reports that he used Greek (anerrhiphtō kybos), thus quoting a now lost comedy by Menander, the originator of the so-called New Comedy. In a letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul also turns to Menander, quoting the comedy Thaïs: “Bad communications corrupt good characters.”

Today, we might expect someone trying to persuade others to die for a cause or to change moral behavior to find a fitting quote in a tragedy or an epic. And yet, while generally suspicious of each other, church and state unite in their choice of comedy. Why? Because Menander’s comedies are exemplary. Commonly known in his day, they became the source of anonymous everyday wisdom. Pausanias, the author of the ancient guide to Greece, confirms that the Athenians of the second century CE venerated Menander, even while they had entirely forgotten Aristophanes. As Shakespeare is often considered the creator of modern English vernacular, so Menander, for his part, was the originator of everyday Greek, the lingua franca of the late ancient globalized world, which in many ways is very similar to ours. But why should we care about ancient comedy, which no one seems to remember nowadays? Very few ancient literary genres have survived and New Comedy is one of them. To a great extent, modernity has to reinvent itself against antiquity which then becomes its radical other, especially in art, drama and philosophy. However, New Comedy is too much of the same and thus is unnoticeably familiar. As such, it appears unexotic and unerotic.

Although Menander’s complete comedy was discovered only in the mid-twentieth century, New Comedy was kept secretly alive in the comedies of its Roman followers, Plautus and Terence. Through the direct knowledge of Terence, it passed on to Molière and Shakespeare, who read and performed Terence’s plays. Today, it still thrives in modern comedy, including that of Woody Allen. Comedy’s tenacity comes from its public and political importance. Usually, comedy is associated with joke and laughter. The joke is subversive — it rips apart the seemingly solid fabric of a commonly accepted narrative. Even the US President jokes yearly at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Cracking jokes and laughing belong to our everyday life and happen outside comedy.

Comedy, however, is defined by its characters and make-up, which resonate with what happens in our everyday life. Relatively simple in its outline, comedy is complex in the course of its development. Tragedy starts well and ends badly, in an undeserved but vaguely anticipated disaster. Comedy, on the contrary, begins badly, with a complication, yet ends well, in a resolution of the conflict. This resolution often includes a seemingly bawdy and exuberant celebration of love and life. The end of tragedy is final: it ends in death. In contrast, the end of comedy is always provisional. Solving one problem will lead to another that in turn needs to be resolved. Like life, comedy continues in unending renovation and change. In order to get the action out of an impasse, classical tragedy often calls for the sudden appearance of a deus ex machina. Comedy, in contrast, is capable of resolving its complication through its own means by creating order out of chaos. Its progression is often messy, sometimes funny, and invariably subversive.

But how does comedy do it? By careful thinking put into staged action. The comic logic that leads to a good ending is convoluted, cerebral, and public, originally appearing on stage as an imitation and perhaps parody of philosophical and political debates in Athens. As everyone participates in democratic politics, so everyone is involved and takes part in the comic action. In this sense, comedy lacks a single center. Moreover, it is radically democratic, because in comedy one can dare to do the seemingly impossible, to question, change and subvert the current suspect and corrupt social and political practices. A convoluted comedic plot may appear to be on the verge of imploding — but it always rebounds and achieves its good ending. In his Politics, Aristotle explains that politics is the interaction among the citizens for the sake of the common good. If this is the case, then public thinking and acting with others for the sake of the achievable common good is both descriptively comic and prescriptively political, aiming at a good end of history. In comedy, one does not need a monolithic identity, either of a hero or the modern philosophical subject. Comic identity is often ambiguous, inconclusive, and disjointed. In fact, the best comic playwrights have a split identity: they belong simultaneously to a dominating imperial culture and to an oppressed culture. For example, Terence was Roman and Carthaginian, Gogol Russian and Ukrainian; likewise, Tom Stoppard is English and Czech and Woody Allen American and Jewish.

Characters in a comedy are not isolated; their thoughts and actions are public and concern others rather than just themselves — the action of a comedy can only be resolved through collective action. The stage for comedy is the family and the circle of friends, which points in the direction of the possibility of suspension and even obliteration of the state. Even when it seems that the action has become too convoluted to be resolved, one can always start again, because comedy never carries with it the finality of death, but rather brings about the renewal of life. Unlike the tragic figure who stands apart from us — the king, hero, or celebrity — the comic character, as Aristotle explains in his Poetics, is exactly like you and me. While tragedy predominantly features privileged male heroes and is analyzed by male philosophers, comedy is much more inclusive in its characters and thinkers. The best philosophical works on comedy in the last decade were almost exclusively written by women (Agnes Heller and Alenka Zupancic, to name only two).

Since the comic character is a regular person, the one next to you, the character can be anyone — of any gender, race, ethnicity, and social standing. In fact, the comic hero is often oppressed and of a socially lower position. She may be a servant (or, in antiquity, a slave), a woman, or a person of ambiguous gender. As the thinker on stage, the hero is capable of motivating others to act in a way that is ultimately liberating and beneficial to everyone. The end of the comedy is quite ordinary and accessible to everyone: it is good life, love, and the enjoyment of ordinary and simple things. By resolving the current conflict through subtle and often funny and unpredictable thinking in public, comedy achieves freedom and fortune for its characters. In the end, the slave is freed, those separated and in love can be together, parents reconcile with their children, and money finds its way into the right hands. Yet the comic liberation and good life are never a given but rather a task to be achieved again and again in interaction with others. And if comedy is capable of bringing social and political justice to all, then everyone should strive to become a comedian.

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Dmitri Nikulin

  • Peggy Banks

    Excellent essay. I’ve always found it rather remarkable how quiet philosophy is about humour, and more broadly, “fun”. In aesthetics we talk of “pleasure” and in moral philosophy we talk of “happiness”, neither of which quite capture what “fun” is all about. Too often “the good life” ends up sounding like a world in which there is no laughter at all. I completely agree about the liberatory potential of comedy, of clowns and fools, who often gain their power simply through the flaunting of convention and expectation.

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