Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In Defense of Laughter, pt. 2

Don’t panic! Laugh!

In the last entry, I talked about how Western culture associates laughter with pleasure, and hence with sin. So for centuries, the West has expressed some unease with laughter. But there is more to the picture than that.

From an artistic perspective, our culture’s suspicion towards laughter results in a similarly negative assessment of an entire genre, comedy. Notice how infrequently comedies win the “Best Picture” Oscar. Many people accept the idea that comedy is not the vehicle for expressing truths about the human condition; that’s the function of drama. But in reality, comedies can be expressive of deeper truths. By writing this, I don’t mean “comedy-but-with-a-message” movies, where the violins swell while Robin Williams tears up and intones platitudes. No, I mean that really funny comedies, like The Hangover, themselves express a deeper truth.

How is this possible?

To evoke laughter, comedy depends on the build-up of tension, which is released by a surprise. This explains why comedies cannot be rewatched with the same level of amusement—for the surprise to work, it needs to be, well, a surprise. If you know what’s going to happen, it’s not funny. For the same reason, a Cliff’s Notes version of a comedy isn’t the same as the comedy itself; a comedy just can’t be summarized. The point of a comedy, in short, is the moment-to-moment experience of it.

In this way, comedies reflect the way we experience life. We human beings think we can plan out our lives. But in the moment-to-moment experience, sometimes the unexpected happens. Comedies mirror those unexpected turns and twists of life.

Many of the world’s religions actually codify these vagaries of life. Nature religions personify aspects of existence with gods and goddesses. Storms, earthquakes, but also love and eroticism are forces that people need to cope with. Trickster gods are part of the pantheon. They personify life’s surprises that confound human beings and their plans. There is a wisdom here that monotheistic religions cannot express; a single, all-knowing, all-good and all-powerful deity simply would not place obstacles in front of people for sheer amusement. But there are times in life when it sure feels that way.

In ancient Greece, the trickster god was Pan, who amused himself by stymieing people as they went through their lives. Unable to comprehend the god’s humor, the people became increasingly frantic. The Greeks labeled that frenzy as “panic.”

So the deep truth of comedy is this: the next time that the unexpected causes you to revise your plans suddenly, don’t yell or cry or toss a houseplant out the window. Laugh. You’re in the midst of a panic. And you might just see that the joke is really on you.

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