Mini-Essay on Comedy
The purpose of comedy is to take something bad and make it good. More specifically, it is to take the status quo and change it for the better. This is what I gather from literary theorist Herman Northrop Frye, one of the greatest influences on my philosophical views toward comedy. In his Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Frye refers to comedy as the “Mythos of Spring”, whose change in the status quo is represented by new ideas replacing old ideas, a new society replacing the old society, the younger generation replacing the older generation, spring replacing winter, fertility replacing infertility, consummation replacing sexual frustration, etc. In short, Frye presents comedy as a life-affirming statement of progression and renewal.
Describing the plot of classical comedies, Frye writes:
“At the beginning of the play the obstructing characters are in charge of the play’s society, and the audience recognizes that they are usurpers. At the end of the play the device in the plot that brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystallize around the hero, and the moment when this crystallization occurs is the point of resolution in the action, the comic discovery, anagnorisis or cognitio.”
Although this description is specific to the plot of a classical comedy, the basic mechanism of all comedy can gleaned from this passage. The hero/heroine hooking up is inessential; for our purposes, any example of the human spirit overcoming obstacles imposed by the status quo will do. Put into these terms, the function of comedy in an ancient Greek play is the same as it is in any good joke told today: preconceived ideas are foiled and met with upheaval by a device, resulting in an anagnorisis or moment of discovery in which the possibility of a new reality becomes realized.
If you represent change, you are a comedian. If you represent the status quo, you are an anti-comedian, a hack. Change is a struggle. Change is often met with resistance and frustration. Change is not an easy sell. People often prefer the easy route and would rather claim their stake in change that has already been accomplished, thus obviating any actual struggle. I would call this pandering to the liberal crowd. A more brutish version of this aversion to change can be seen pandering to the audience that wants to be congratulated on its ignorance, prejudice, and selfishness. This is demagoguery, lynch mob mentality, Carlos Mencia, etc. In both cases, however, the comedian fails to stand for change, either by openly assuming the audience’s views or more subtly conforming to the audience’s projections.
Frye writes, “the [comic] hero’s society is a Saturnalia, a reversal of social standards which recalls a golden age in the past.” I like to think of comedy that Saturnalia, a place where love overcomes hate, the weak overcome the strong, appeal overcomes the rule, the nerds overcome the jocks, and so on. If you believe in and remain true to these values without compromising them for someone else’s approval—if you resist the temptation to yield to the path of least resistance—if you do all this, then you succeed as a comedian, no matter who gets the most laughs. I don’t claim to embody this ideal, but I do try to bear it in mind. The purpose of comedy is not to be clever, to be witty, to be right, or to be funny. Those things are rewards that follow from serving comedy’s purpose.