Saturday, June 11, 2005

Paul Lewis’s “Politics of Comedy and the Social Functions of Humor”

In Chapter Two, Lewis begins with Suzanne K. Langers argument that comedy has various degrees of humor (31). Lewis explains that a “critical controversy” exists between “universalists and anti-universalists,” saying that for “some theorists comedy can be defined by its use of humor; that is, comedy is the humorous genre. For other th

Lewis summarizes the main theorists’ views:

  • Walter Sorrell’s 1970 work: “Laughter is a physiological phenomenon, comedy is the product of a creative act of one man’s humorous capacity” (32).
  • Aristotle says in The Poetics that “comedy invites us to laugh at low characters,” or the ones, according to Lewis, who have “small defects and minor vices” (33). However, says Lewis, “we discover which characters are low by learning to laugh at them” (33).
  • “Bergson sees comedy as social reprimand,” in other words as a way to correct the behavior of others.
  • “Northrop Frye sees comedy as a movement from an old social order to a new one.”
  • Wylie Sypher says “comedy always supports some value system” but that “the system can be conservative, reactionary or revolutionary.”
    Scott Cutler Shershow sees the struggle in values “between cynicism and optimism, between how the world is and how it should be.”
  • Harry Levin “has identified an essential comic clash between killjoys and playboys” (33).

Now, let’s try to distinguish specifically between HUMOR and COMEDY, which is a major concern of the anti-universalists.

Lewis says that no matter whose theoretical approach we ascribe to, we still must analyze a joke in terms of its incongruity. One way to
think about it is to take a look at “how humor acquires its rhetorical
force” (34).

Lewis says, “An incongruity analysis suggests that humor embodies values not by virtue of its content alone but as a consequence of what it does with its materials” (34). He’s talking about here what we do with humor’s apparent message and how we might process the unconscious message (this is from Freud’s work, obviously. Freud thought that one reason for taking pleasure in jokes was the “temporary freedom from the ork of repression” (34).

Lewis gives an example of a joke that might illuminate:

Q. Why do mice have such little balls?
A. Because so few of them know how to dance.

So the idea here is that one might laugh, or one might not think it funny for one of any number of reasons. Either it isn’t funny because the sexualized content it approximates is too touchy or it gets too close to the animal rights issues…or whatever. Lewis says “The rhetorical force of humor in comedy derives from the mobilization of such implied value judgments. Freud notes that a joke ‘bribes the hearer with its yield of pleasure into taking sides...without any very close investigation.’” In other words, by telling such a joke, we expect the listener to join us in our beliefs. If the listener does not, we feel thwarted.

It may seem unimportant but the distinction is a social make-or-breaker…figure that if we tell a joke or two to people who don’t laugh, we usually don’t make friends, right? Indeed, the studies back me up. According to Lewis, “Sociological studies have shown that, because it expresses shared values, humor can be a social lubricant and a tool or force in the exercise of power in social groups.” Lewis cites a 1972 study that found that “in intergroup relations humor can serve to foster consensus or to damage or redefine the relationship between the groups, and in intragroup relations humor can serve either to solidify the group, control in-group behavior or foster a hostile disposition toward an out-group” (37).

The study really proves what is, to me, common sense. Groups use humor to demonstrate what is expected—or who is ostracized. Lewis also cites studies that show how these dynamics are demonstrated at work and in prison.

Interestingly, though, Lewis brings up some of Freud’s discussion of how jokes sometimes are used between strangers “to register [...] resentment, without risk of punishment” to provide “a social mechanism, short of violence for the venting of anger” because individuals “who can joke instead of fighting will be less offensive and destructive” (38). So of course, people can joke to thwart the urge to kill (I speak now figuratively, rather than literally, for the most part).

Now, Lewis analyzes “the politics of comedy and social functions of humor” in several literary works in this chapter, but the most interesting of these analyses is called “From Shakespeare to Sitcoms.” He reminds us at the beginning of this part of the chapter that many theorists tell us that humor is not a necessary element of comedy—but then says “we are left to wonder why there is so much humor in comedy” (64).

Lewis works to distinguish further between humor and comedy here by looking at the form of each, discussing Frye’s definition of a “traditional comedy,” in which “a young man” falls in love with “a young woman who is kept from him by various social barriers: her low birth, his minority or shortage of funds, parental opposition, the prior claims of a rival. These are eventually circumvented.” Another obstacle may arise near the end that may seem as though the two may not marry, but indeed they do and the “conclusion is normally accompanied by some change of heart on the part of those who have been obstructing the comic resolution” (Frye qtd. in Lewis 64). Lewis, citing Eyre, argues that humor also “has a definite structure” in that it moves “from the perception to the resolution of an incongruity” (64). We may perceive humor as “a molecule, rather than an attribute” of comedy, “the irreducible but complex substance out of which comedy is made” (65). These ideas are complex. What do they mean?

Lewis tries to explain the idea with a structural analogy, saying that the idea of humor as a molecule of comedy “may help us understand the vital functions of humor within comic structures” (65). Within Frye’s definition of humor, we “see that comedies move from a problem to some easy [...] solution, just as humor glides past incongruities, refusing to pause long enough for meditation or fear” (65). So according to this view, comedy deals with the big picture, whereas humor deals with the small. Hmm.. I didn’t think about it this way before.

Next, Lewis takes up comedy within the form of the situation comedy, discussing David Grote’s 1983 book, The End of Comedy: The Sit-Com and the Comedic Tradition. Grote distinguishes between the kind of comedy in a traditional comedy and a sit-com, saying that the difference is found in “the way they resist change” (Lewis 65). Lewis explains:

“The traditional comic plot focuses on love and marriage; the typical sit-com plot revolves around an unchanging family unit. Traditional comedies feature stock characters like the fool, the scoundrel, and the innocent who implicitly or explicitly attack the social and moral norms; the sit-com avoids these characters and the anarchic world they inhabit. The result, Grote insists, is that in the sit-com we have subverted the radical impulses and energy of comedy, producing a sterile and conservative middle-class dramatic form, one suited to a country that no longer looks to the future with hope and idealism” (65). David Marc says something similar a little later on. If both Davids are right, then maybe the situation comedy is to blame for all those red state votes?

Lewis’s criticism of Grote’s argument is apt: he notes that Grote completely misses the humor in situation comedies. If we ignore the one-liners, the “dynamic humor” in the shows, then we miss their charm completely. Lewis’s example is “the running intergenerational bickering of Norman Lear’s All in the Family, in which the audience surprisingly identifies with the “deliberately ethnocentric, racist, malaproprian anti-hero, Archie” because of the humor (66).

So in lining up the important functions of humor as well as distinguishing between comedy and humor, Lewis writes an important chapter in this one.

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