Sunday, 5 June 2011


I said that I was going to make this particular entry simple and I'm going to keep my word. I can write no more than a few words on this.

Classical comedy is the finest and most sophisticated type of humour. The Greeks invented it, as far as I can tell, and this for obvious reasons. Classical comedy shares an intimate link with tragedy. Much like lyric and epic poetry are the mirror of each other, so comedy and tragedy share the same structure, inverting only the order of the signifiers. You can't discover one without stumbling onto the other.

What is Classical comedy? It is an elaborate form of representation based on complex situations involving quid pro quos of various circumstance. It is also necessarily based on dialogue. A typical, simple example of a comedic situation is the 'boyfriend hero' sketch: a guy takes a girl out and sets up a fake aggression in agreement with a friend, so he can pretend to beat up the make-believe aggressor and look like a hero to the girl. But on the night when they do go out, a prison convict escapes and stumbles upon them in the street. The boyfriend, thinking this is his friend, starts acting all tough and even looks like he will kick the shit out of the convict.

The sketch can go in both directions from here - either the boyfriend beats up the convict, or the other way round. Differently from regular jokes, though, there is no punch-line here. There is not a moment of 'oh, ah,' when you actually laugh, or when you suddenly get it. It's the entire situation which is funny.

Like irony, this is a type of humour easy to recognise, but hard to pin down. I'm not going to write a full article on it now, not because it's simple, but on the contrary, because it's way too big a topic. As a concept, it is not clear enough in my mind. And if I started on this, I'd have to write about tragedy, too, and I can't do that. Besides, I intend to work on this in the future, so there's no loss if I don't lay my thoughts down yet. It's just postponed. (Incidentally, when the moment does come that I decide to write about comedy and tragedy in the same way that I wrote about the lyric and the epic, all these notes I've thrown down on why we laugh are going to prove considerably useful. This thought, needless to add, was one of the main drives I had when I was writing them in the first place).

For now, though, I'm going to leave the question of Classical comedy here. Only for now.


I've attempted to sketch out the core mechanisms of laughter as I understand them. No doubt my results are partial and rough, but I hope I haven't missed out on anything major, at least within the framework that I've projected. Suggestions on questions I've left open, or jokes which cannot be explained according to the principles I described, are all very welcome.

But one thing we must always remember, when thinking about comedy, is that humour is almost always compound humour. It is extremely rare to get a pure Absurd joke, for instance. And while you can get a pure Fail in the Fail compilations on Youtube, and some pure Taboo quips in the type of sex jokes which go around in primary school, even these things are rare. Fail and Taboo are themselves usually integrated into broader sketches which make use of other principles as well. Here's an example:

Your mama's so fat that when I was fucking her, I fell off the bed, rolled three times, and I was still on top of her.

This is a very simple joke. It belongs to the genre of 'You're so X' insults, which is itself elementary in its construction ('You're so ugly that when you throw a boomerang, it won't even come back to you,' 'You're so white that when you pass through a prism, more prisms come out', etc.). But notice how many levels this one joke works on. Let's list them.

a.) It's Fail humour, because it's an insult. An insult excludes an individual from our group, while reinforcing our own bonding (and of course, the joke isn't funny if it's being addressed to you or to someone you care for).

b.) It's Absurd, because how could someone be so fat as to cover bed and floor? Note that what distinguishes this from mere hyperbole is that the language *breaks our expectations*. Saying 'your mama's so fat that she's as big as the whole world' isn't funny, because it's a predictable use of language. Anyone can make an hyperbole of this type. The prior joke, instead, projects a grammar scenario which leads to an outcome we did not expect. It is broken expectations that define the Absurd, even in language.

c.) It's taboo. I mean, obviously. There's fucking involved.

Just about the only type of humour this 'simple' joke doesn't activate is irony. But this is only because irony is already a compound, since it needs a Fail and an Absurd to be activated. For the rest, we've got it all.

And on that anti-climactic note, I'm closing my thoughts on the funnies. Whew! I need a drink!

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