I’ve decided to do a sort of review of what’s going on in my summer class, not least because I think it’ll keep me motivated to actually pay attention but also because I think it might be interesting for y’all to read about. (Maybe?) It’s an English class, after all, which means it’s book related and all about books and so on.
Today was the first day, and it was a short introduction to comedy and humor fiction, which is of course what the class is all about (specifically British humor fiction). My prof said some very interesting things about laughter, such as that it’s an act that is hardwired into us, not something that we learn from other people. Laughter may also have a purpose beyond expressing our enjoyment at something; it may be working more towards inducing positive responses in other people than in ourselves, which makes sense if you think of all the times you’ve laughed nervously in response to a perceived danger, whether physical or social. Tense dinner date? Laughing nervously may actually ease that tension, as laughing fosters a sense of group unity, and a united group works better than one that isn’t.
We spent some time talking about what the difference is between “comedy” and “humor.” For me (and for my prof), “comedy” is a genre of literature and “humor” is what you feel when you read it, if you’re lucky and the stars align; you get the jokes, you enjoy the book, and all is well. And even if you don’t get the jokes in one type of comedy, you might get them in another.
There are many different kinds of comedy, after all! My prof mentioned two: low comedy, which is the slapstick, fart-joke, Adam Sandler/Three Stooges/Charlie Chaplin sort of comedy, and high comedy, which is the witty banter, nobody-touched-each-other-if-they-can-help-it sort of comedy produced by such personages as Fry and Laurie and Oscar Wilde. (I do want to say here that I don’t particularly like the terms “low” and “high,” as it implies that only lower-classed buffoons like low comedy while high comedy is for noblemen and intellectuals, which isn’t true at all.)
But it was really only until the late 19th century that “comedy” because unequivocally associated with “humor,” i.e. it had to be funny. Before that, “comedy” meant basically any story that had the characters fighting against some big evil, with some moral lessons thrown in, and by the end everything was dandy and they all probably all got married. It didn’t actually have to be humorous, it just had to be the opposite of a tragedy (i.e. where everyone dies).
This doesn’t-actually-have-to-be-funny thing is why I have such a hard time with Ye Olde Comedies, but one Olde Comedy style I can get behind is the comedy of manners, which is the sort of thing Shakespeare and Moliere. It’s a form of comic drama, with three or five acts, and it focuses on critiquing/satirizing manners and affectations of a social class. Characters are valued according to their intellectual and linguistic prowess, and maybe an occasional illicit love affair spices things up from all this highbrow-ness. So basically you’ve got people walking around (probably at a party), making fun of each other and themselves, very wittily of course, and probably there’s some hidden moral somewhere about not being a big fat snob. I like that in a comedy, I must say!
Tomorrow’s class: continuing onwards in the history of comedy, and discussion of Three Men in a Boat.