Upon first looking into everybody…

I’ve just cut my way out of a dense jungle of critical theories about comedy by all the usual suspects from Socrates to Eric Bentley. (I didn’t venture on into the nearby deconstructionist swamp – too much quicksand.) What a relief to see the sky again!

Revisiting these heavy thinkers – after I don’t want to reveal how many years – I finally figured out some reasons why they originally dissatisfied me, why they all act like blind philosophers feeling elephant parts.

For one thing, they’re all fixated on “comedy,” making it the big tent under which they struggle to stash everything related to humor. In fact, comedy is only a subset of humor, a big one to be sure, but just one part of the larger topic. This screws up their taxonomy (you should excuse the expression), sort of like making amphibians a subset of frogs, rather than the other way around.

Then, when they start analyzing comedy they limit themselves even further by focusing almost exclusively on theater. Sure: Henry Fielding and Jane Austen get dutiful nods for comic novels, but otherwise, they start with Aristophanes and plough forward through Becket and Pinter, ignoring everything else from George Carlin to Weird Al Yankovic.

Finally, they spend half the time examining the records (play texts, Comedia scenarios, novels, eye-witness descriptions) half the time criticizing one another’s theories, and all the time mixing up the two different activities.

Now I can’t get away from the records. I need them to puzzle out why the hell Athenians thought Aristophanes was a laugh riot (ever try to read the guy?) and why the hell Shakespeare stuck a comic drunk into the middle of Macbeth. But as for the critics, Sigmund Freud himself admitted that, “the works of a great number of eminent thinkers have failed to produce a wholly satisfactory explanation [of comedy].” So, of course, he went right on to produce one of his own. It was not wholly satisfactory.

So as I bumble along in this blog, I’ll try to follow two rules:

1) Figure things out for myself (although decades of reading will doubtless sucker me into purely unconscious plagiarisms).

2) Try to organize the unruly subject of humor at least enough to clarify the relationship of its parts.

To that noble end, our next exciting installment shall be the Naming of Parts.

Say goodnight, Gracie.

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