Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Having a Conversation around Comedy

Comedy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My comments yesterday were far-ranging and came to no particular conclusion about the most useful definitions of comedy and/or explanations for laughter. Here are some ideas I am going to apply to my comedy-watching as I watch our shows in preparation for reading your retrospective reviews.

Memo to self: You laugh at something.  Stop and ask yourself why you were laughing.  Ask yourself how you would feel if someone heard you laughing at this thing you are laughing at and asked for an explanation.  Even before you attempted an explanation, would you feel embarrassed acknowledging what it was at which you laughed? That laughter was spontaneous. It came unbidden. Where did it come from? Would you be pleased to have an opportunity to explain your laughter?

 My assumption is that laughter can be seen as encouragement.  It is a way of saying, “That’s right. I agree. Carry on.” Ask yourself what specific action you are affirming with your laughter:

* That we are all members of a community of one kind or another from which others must be sometimes excluded so the community can maintain its values?

* That there’s a community from which someone must be excluded unless they learn to conform to the values of that community? That the person being laughed should gain self-knowledge and behave better?  And that’s a lesson out here in the real world for anyone who hears our laughter? That sometimes we must be cruel to be kind? And remember. In a fictional setting, what harm can there be in being cruel to those who deserve it even in the most extreme form since no physical damage ensues? In other words, it’s all make-believe. What harm does a little ridicule do?

* That sometimes it’s good for all of us to play like children in wild and exaggerated word and action in defiance of social norms, and that sometimes all of us out here in the real world should be free and independent of social norms? That even if we are so oppressed by social norms we can never again play like children, laughter helps us endure those norms. (Wait. Unless our laughter is condemnation of childish behavior??? That would be sour, not joyful, laughter. Is our laughter joyful?)

* That human life is a futile, empty endeavor, and laughter sometimes equals acceptance of our imperfections? That the highest intellectual value is a cold-eyed, clear-eyed unsentimental view of life, a view that is invigorating rather than depressing.  We are able to face the void without blinking. This is sour, bitter laughter - but also brave.

Twenty-four hours later:  Having spent 90 minutes last night watching sitcoms - Parks and Rec and a very long Office - I concede that my initial formulation needs some tweaking. What I said seemed to imply that our laughter expresses approval of someone onscreen, of one of those involved in the joke, of one of the sitcom characters. That is clearly not the case. Laughter may express approval of the script, of the script writer (which is an interesting idea since I gather so many sitcom scripts are written, or at least massaged, by a group - hey! laughter supports a creative community). But you may be laughing hardest when everyone onscreen is playing the fool.

And let me be honest about the challenges of this exercise. Once I started "tagging" my laughs and coming back to them, I found it hard - so complicated and overthought it did not seem worthwhile - to tease out why I laughed. My wife said she thought our laughter quite often was expressing "unease." That doesn't sound like much fun. Maybe it's the context that matters most. It's a sitcom. At the end all will be well. Our laughter will not suddenly become evidence against us. So this thread continues to be a work in progress.

Generally speaking, the episodes we watched last night support some of our in-class comments about comedy and how it establishes and reinforces social norms. Parks and Rec ended with Leslie Knope explicit praising her community of friends who had overcome her absence to put together a gala to raise money to build a park that would benefit an even larger community. The Office didn't fit quite so well because, as it winds up its final season, it is creating as many conflicts as possible - Jim and Pam's marriage getting all tense and soapy - but I'm sure it's doing this so all these tensions can be resolved to everyone's final comfort. So we are  back to talking about community, in this case the work family. Pretty clearly this final season is suggesting the value of the work family by tearing apart the Dunder Mifflin work family. I assume comfort will be restored by placing all the principals in new work families.

Will any character be left in isolation and thus chastened? Will we laugh at the expelled individual? I do not think this will happen. This isn't Seinfeld, whose last episode was a piece of crap. You don't celebrate your characters' self interest for that many episodes and then suddenly punish them. It's clever but it isn't coherent. I always thought the last episode of Seinfeld was a thumb in the eye of its fans. But even that finale was better than the end of the Sopran

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