Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cultivating the Comedic Palate

I was going to post this reflection yesterday, but did not want to impede the heroism of German Catholic Nazi fighters (correct me if I’m wrong, Aaron, but wasn’t Bavaria—heart of beer-swilling German Catholicism and Caritas in Veritate—one of the few regions in Germany that did not support Hitler during his election?).

One of the great loves in my life is Comedy. I love comedy both personally (as either performer or audience member) and professionally (Aristophanes, Chaucer, and Shakespeare are three of my favorite authors to teach). Comedy is like a fine bourbon; most anybody who drinks a draught will appreciate its quality. It takes a connoisseur, however, to isolate the particular qualities and flavors and explain exactly why the bourbon is a fine one. The comedic connoisseur will have to sample a wide range of comedy, and along the way gain some appreciation for even the more broad and mundane varieties, just as a bourbon taster may grow fond of Old Fitzgerald while recognizing its profound inferiority to an 18-year-old Elijah Craig.

The comedic connoisseur will also be able to express, however inadequately, the specific qualities in a given comedic work that produce its kathartic effect (Aristotle’s book on Comedy, the second book of The Poetics, has been tragically lost, a loss mourned by Eco in The Name of the Rose). Though I could go on for volumes on this topic, let me suggest three of the many qualities that are routinely found in comedy, and a brief clip from the highly underrated mid-1990’s cartoon The Critic that illustrates what I find to be a harmonious blend of the three.

1. Mockery of Vice and Ugliness. Comedy from Terrance to Chaucer to Rabelais to Shakespeare to Swift to Gilbert and Sullivan to the Simpsons has delighted in taking vice and ugliness as its subjects. Our ability to laugh at the wicked and ugly demonstrates comedy’s social function, as well as the source of its cruelty. (This quality of comedy, by the way, is why Satan is almost always a comedic character in Medieval drama; see C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama.)

2. Parodic Love. Comedy often functions by parody—presenting exaggerated forms of earnest works and characters. In order to parody something well, however, the parodist generally needs some kind of knowledge of and affection for the subject parodied. The worst parodies are those in which the parodist despises the subject (consider how often the political satire of “Mallard Filmore” or “Doonsbury” drifts into the insipid); the best ones, like Christopher Guest movies, preserve affection for that at which fun is poked. In order for Chaucer to have parodied metrical romance in his Rhyme of Sir Thopas, he had to have understood works like Guy of Warwick backwards and forwards; in order for Joyce to have parodied the literary styles of Malory, melodrama, and the Catechism in Ulysses, he had to have intimate knowledge of, and some affection for, their stylistic limitations.

3. Audience Participation. When the audience is respected enough to put the pieces together on their own, the best comedy is born. I think that this is why great comedic works (like the Simpsons, seasons 3-6 or Shakespeare’s As You Like It) often throw in jokes that they know will fly over the heads of the majority of the audience (there are plenty of jokes that all will get); they know that those audience members who do get the obscure jokes will laugh all the harder for the surprise.

So, with these qualities in mind, here is Jay Sherman (voiced by Jon Lovitz), The Critic, showing his audience a clip from Disney’s The Cockroach King. The mockery of Howard Stern (a man worthy to be mocked) and the close parody of The Lion King’s cinematography should be clear. If you recognize the words used in the “African” chant, however, this clip will be all the funnier (and I know that The Guild Review’s Editor-in-Chief Aaron can enlighten us all on this matter).

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