Sunday, September 19, 2010

In Defense of Laughter, pt. 3

The Hangover is probably the most moral film in a decade. Seriously.

From classical times through the High Renaissance, comedies were more scabrous than any R-rated film out there. Niccolò Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli!) wrote several comedies in addition to his political treatises. In Mandragola (The Mandrake Root) Machiavelli told the story about a man who yearns to have sex with a woman, Lucrezia. The problem is that she’s highly moral. He succeeds because her husband is a nitwit who wants to have heirs. He convinces the husband that Lucrezia’s “sterility” can be cured if she drinks a draft of the mandrake root. But, he tells the husband, there’s a catch—the first man she sleeps with after taking the draft will be fatally poisoned. Now, if only they could find some man to do the job…

Although it was written in 1518, Mandragola is probably too lurid even for today’s R-rated comedies. And yet, it is a moral work.

Machiavelli was a highly educated man, and he based his comedies on the classical works of Juvenal, Horace, and Thucidides. He also assimilated their justification of comedies. The classical writers posited that comedies were a moral art. How is that possible?

They developed the notion of “the smart reader” (or: watcher) of comedies. Basically, they assumed that their watchers were smarter than any of the characters they put on stage. The watchers would thus recognize the characters’ idiocy, small-mindedness, and vice. Being smart, the watchers would reject the characters’ behaviors. In other words, the playwrights did not need to put a “mouthpiece” on stage commenting on the characters’ immorality. The smart watchers would just know not to behave in a similar manner.

And, freed from having to tell their watchers what to think, the classical and Renaissance writers could push their stories to the very limits. The results were stories that still elicit howls of laughter centuries—even millennia—after they were written.

So as you wheeze with laughter while the characters of The Hangover try to reconstruct their wild night, remember that the film is good for your soul. After all, you wouldn’t want to find Mike Tyson’s tiger in your hotel bathroom too, would you?

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