Comedy

--New Comedy figures. Greece 3rd C. BCE.

Comedy

  • The word “comedy” comes from the Greek word Komos, or merrymaking, always part of the the Dionysian ritual.
  • Comedies were popular during the Greece’s Golden Age of drama (5th Century BCE).
  • These “old comedies” relied largely on witty language and characters; their point was to satirize something in society.
  • Aristophanes, of course, is the well-known master of Old Comedy in ancient Greece: Lysistrata, Birds, Frogs, Peace, Clouds, Wasps. All poke fun at war, peace, politicians, people and society.
  • But Aristophanes is also credited with pioneering a transition period, Middle Comedy, between Old and New.

Comedy

  • The playwright Menander (342-291 BCE) is credited with creating New Comedy, which is based on the bizarre situations incited by human love.
  • This particular form of comedy relies more on situational plot, stock characters, and visual humor, rather than on wit and complex ideas.
  • The goal of new comedy was to amuse, not to instruct. In these, as many comedies, all difficulties ended in marriage. (Of course, often, this is where difficulties actually begin!)

Comedy

  • Stock characters in New Comedy include: eager young lovers, coquettes, indignant fathers, jealous husbands, pompous asses, gullible victims, tricky servants, go-betweens, greedy con-men, and the like.
  • These two basic forms of comedy moved through the ages, adapting to tastes and moral restraints, which – as today – comedy always strives to circumvent through limber use of pun, double-entendre, and mock.
  • Bawdy comedy was alive and well in the supposedly pious middle ages, in the form of fabliaux and mimes and farcical plays.

High and Low Comedy

  • Comedy is often separated into two classes: High and Low, which correlate in theory to Old and New Comedy:
  • High Comedy: Words, wit and sophisticated characters and ideas are used to reveal ridiculous or destructive traits of human nature. Character and internal conflict march the mostly dynamic plots forward.
  • Low Comedy: Unruly plot, farce, bawdy jokes, sight gags, slapstick and stock characters reveal absurd aspects of human life. Often the purpose is sheer stupid fun as we laugh ourselves silly at ourselves. The plot is random and full of situational gags.

Commedia dell’Arte

  • Commedia dell’arte (professional comedy, an ironic name) derived from Roman farce and emerged in force in Italy in the mid-16th century, and flowered through the ages, taking Low Comedy to its most outrageous extremes. (Its opposite was the commedia erudita.)
  • The performances were largely improvisational, and relied on physical humor, using props such as pies, water buckets, beds, ladders, and the double paddle, called a “slap stick,” and sight gags.

Commedia dell’Arte

  • Often the plot, full of ridiculous situations, was interrupted by iazzi, (l’azioni: actions) or comic business, jokes, and witty byplay performed (Harlequin or Arlecchino) or other of the zanni. (Pedrolino or Pierrot) These “plots” are completely episodic in nature, and mostly repetitively absurd.
  • Typical scenarios included lecherous old men, fools, young lovers, comic servants (zanni) braggarts, prudes, cuckolds and pundits.

Commedia dell’Arte

  • The actors playing these stock characters generally wore masks (except for the humble and sympathetic Pierrot) and the performances were rife with the obnoxious and obscene, full of vulgar visual jokes and farce.
  • Medieval romance reflects these flat, stock characters, in their simplicity, and also in the seeming lack of depth of the love itself.

Romantic Comedy

  • Romantic comedy emerges from the middle ages as a parody of romance literature of the middle ages; the word “Romantic” is a derivative of “romance.”
  • Romantic comedies in the Renaissance, conversely, derive from New Comedy, and blend in elements of medieval romances.
  • Conventions include: Stock characters from Old Comedy: blocking agents (those preventing the lovers from marrying) choric figures (detached figure who comments on the ridiculous situations) go-betweens (who try to defy the blocking agent) and all difficulties end in marriage.*

Romantic Comedy

  • Romantic comedies follow a dynamic plot sequence, common to high comedy, although problems or complications, are often created whimsically and solved abruptly.
  • Note: This is the inverse pattern of tragedy: at the climax of rising action in a comedy, it seems as if all is lost to the lovers; in tragedy, it seems briefly as if the hero will reach his or her goal.
  • Characters in Renaissance comedy, as in New Comedy, tend to be well-developed, and erudite: In Shakespeare, notably, the character of Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, and Alceste in Molière’s, The Misanthrope.

Romantic Comedy

  • Many of Shakespeare comedies contain elements of medieval romance. Tokens of medieval romance are evident in the presence of a “green world” where magic solves the problems of the lovers. (As You Like It; Midsummer Night’s Dream) In medieval romances, the quest often involves encounters with magical or mystical places and beings.
  • Some of Shakespeare’s plays in themselves are called romances, rather than comedies, due to the healing nature of the green world: The Tempest; The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It, Cymbeline, and Pericles. In these plays, the theme of love and its foibles is secondary to redemption and forgiveness.
  • Shakespeare’s romance plays use magic, the supernatural, and the idea of a journey to an unknown and mystical place where wounds are healed or the spiritual answer to a profound question is discovered.

Romantic Comedy

  • The connections to fertility ritual is also a subtext in medieval romance.
  • The wedding festival is victory of spring over winter, renewal of humanity, and of the earth.
  • Generally, Renaissance romantic comedies, for their sophistication, are placed in the High Comedy category, especially those of Shakespeare. The characters who are mocked, are generally, static, and these resemble Low Comedy figures.

Harlequin, by Piccasso

Metaphysical Poets

  • One could include in the high comedy category, some of the metaphysical poems of the 17th century, which revolve around wit, or intellectual poetic conceit to make a point, often humorous in its nature due to the long stretch from literal to figurative in the central metaphor.

Comedy of Manners

  • Comedy of Manners is a term that is generally applied to Restoration* Comedy and Neoclassical Comedy – both forms existing in the post-Renaissance world of England and France. (Molière, William Congreve, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Sheridan, William Wycherley).
  • These plays include elements of Romantic comedy and satire. They tend to mock the relations and intrigues of people in the upper classes, rely largely on words and wit, and are often sophisticated and refined.

18th Century Satire

  • Satires Mock: human institutions, including religions, politics and political systems, social or other classes, philosophy or ideas, social practices or codes of behavior, groups of any sort, individuals of any sort – in fact, the entire human race!
  • How important is it for us to be able to excoriate ourselves? Satire can be considered as a genre, as an important element of a work, or as a motif within a work. Satire is didactic literature used to make an ideological point.

18th Century Satire

  • Satire points out a problem, but offers no solution! (Remember, therefore, to keep it out of your intimate life!) Debates in satires mock the very attitudes and viewpoint they profess, by revealing faulty logic to the extreme. The 18th century’s new openness, brought on by Enlightenment thought, made this century ripe for satires.

18th Century Satire

  • This type of satire is ripe in England, mostly during the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire, notably, envied the English for their liberty to express dismay and astonishment of the foibles of political, religious, and world institutions, in satire.
  • Satirical notables include: Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Laurence Stern, and of course, the radical Frenchman, Voltaire.

Elements of Satire

  • Satire works like caricature: it highlights faults until they’re completely absurd, so no one can miss them.
  • Sarcastic Language:
  • irony, understatement, and hyperbole*
  • sardonic (cynically mocking) language (Eliot’s The Hollow Men)
  • cruel, biting jokes
  • use of ridicule (sarcasm) and invectives
  • malapropisms and other variations on diction
  • Tonal variations all pointing to general outlandishness: Satires can move from the ridiculous to the absurd to the surreal to the grotesque – and go into very dark realms. They are not always “funny” in a way that is lightly humorous.

Elements of Satire

  • Faulty Logic to Mock Faulty Logic
  • The Absurd
  • Ridiculous Coincidences or Crazy Contradictions Juxtaposed
  • Caricatures, especially eccentrics and pedants
  • An “Innocent” Observer or Narrator
  • Capricious Journeys of a Rogue Character (picaresque novels)
  • Other Miscellaneous plot forms in generally episodic narration: These are called Menippean satires, for example, Alice in Wonderland
  • Humor or Dark Humor (A Clockwork Orange)
  • Use of Farce: Slapstick humor, physical and situational humor, high sexual content
  • Use of Burlesque: Parody or Travesty

Elements of Satire

  • 1. Parody is a work that mixes high form and low content, such as Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, which uses high diction and lofty epic poetry with the rather low subject of a girl’s hair, cut as a prank. (Where would you file, Blazing Saddles? Or Woody Allen’s Bananas?)
  • 2. Travesty is a work that mixes low form with high content: The film Cabaret, for example, uses travesty in the “MC scenes” made famous by Joel Grey in the film, where Weimar Republic dance-hall acts depict malignant racism about to erupt into the Holocaust. Also, the film Airplane could be considered travesty. What about Borat?

Absurdist Literature and Theater of the Absurd

  • The Absurdist movement is a reaction to stuffy, formal and moralistic Victorian literature. It is part of the Modern and Existential movements of the 20th century.
  • Absurdist fiction centers on the behavior of absurd characters, situations or subjects. While a great deal of Absurdist fiction is humorous, the point is the study of human behavior under circumstances that are highly unusual, but nonetheless, created by humankind.

Absurdist Literature and Theater of the Absurd

  • For example, this might include nuclear disaster, craving a deity for salvation, misery imposed on each other for petty or lustful reasons, and human strife caused by humans in general.
  • Absurdist fiction does not judge characters or their actions: the task is left to the readers.
  • It is mostly episodic in structure, and there is usually no explicit moral.

*The notion that Shakespeare originally intended Romeo and Juliet to be a Romantic comedy gains momentum in this light; however the tragic story was an old one, and the parallels are extremely simplistic ones. You didn’t need a Shakespeare to turn the formula on its head….Just a Friar Lawrence.

Comedy

  • Comedy has the power to take fear and nobility out of the object opposed, and in doing so, functionally diffuses tension.
  • This allows humans to critically view what might be unbearable, or merely uncomfortable, and find solutions, comfort, or solace in situations that could otherwise be unfathomably heinous or merely humiliating.**
  • Opposing forces and culturally different enemies can find common ground in laughter.
  • And mostly, comedy gives us the uncanny ability to humbly see fault within ourselves, and to change accordingly, without need for defensive repercussions.

Definitions

  • Situational Comedy: The more convoluted the set up for the pay off scene, the funnier it is. Situational comedy uses elements of suspense and situational irony.
  • Realistic Comedy: This modern term describes comedies that have tender or even tragic moments.
  • Bowdlerize: In 1815, the Reverend Thomas Bowdler tidied up Shakespeare. In his Family Shakespeare, he omitted whatever he thought was unfit to be read by a gentleman in the company of ladies. (Expurgation of the indecent)
  • Malapropism: From the play, The Rivals, by Richard Sheridan, after a character, Mrs. Malaprop, who consistently uses words inappropriately, in a misfired effort to sound sophisticated: “If I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”
  • Digressive Comedy: In the mode of Seinfeld, or The Simpsons

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