Okay, here goes: Comedy

Comedy is the subset of humor that addresses the human condition – and typically doesn’t think much of it, because the human condition is so often synonymous with human folly.  The American Heritage Dictionary Fourth Edition, 2000, absolutely nails folly thus:

1. A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight. 2a. An act or instance of foolishness. b. A costly undertaking having an absurd or ruinous outcome.

That definition alone almost wraps up the subject of comedy – but not quite, because not all follies are comic and some are anything but. Recently, a participant in Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion ponzi scheme killed himself in despair. Investing in such a patently dubious enterprise showed a textbook “lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight,” the prime definition of folly; but the suicide was far too grim to be humorous.

“Too grim to be humorous” is like pornography: nobody can define it but everybody thinks he knows it when he sees it. The suicide I mentioned is obviously not funny, but the first half of Blake Edwards’ immortal film S.O.B. involves a man hilariously trying to kill himself and failing. Then he is shot and killed, which is at least comic in its irony. Then his pals steal his corpse and ride around town with it sitting up in the back seat of a convertible. Sidesplitting hijinks ensue. Go figure.

For a bunch of verbal gags from the film, go to


The suitability or unsuitability of content for comedy is largely dependent on context and treatment. But that discussion’s about 20 posts in the future.

Folly: A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight. Let’s see how that applies to the teaser in my previous post.

Laurel and Hardy are trying to move an upright piano across a narrow, swaying suspension footbridge between two mountains. Halfway across they meet a gorilla.

Stan and Ollie are walking avatars of folly: they can be counted on to never, ever, ever employ an ounce, an atom, a scintilla of good sense, understanding, or foresight about anything whatsoever, period. Though their films are also funny because of wonderful gag construction and superb performances, comic folly is the absolute foundation of their humor.

The suspension bridge sequence is exemplary because it packs the three major types of comic folly into a single gag. The comic fool displays a total lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about himself, about the world he lives in, and about the malign operation of fortune.

A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about himself. Laurel and Hardy are trying to move an upright piano…. Stan and Ollie will never understand that they are incompetent to move a piano even three feet across a level floor, on casters. They are too klutzy to accomplish almost anything physical.

A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about the world. …across a narrow, swaying suspension footbridge between two mountains. Nobody could do that, not nobody, not nohow. That piano could not be so moved with Batman pulling and Superman pushing; it’s simply the physics of the situation, that is, the way the world works. (Not being a comic fool, the Man of Steel, would pick up the piano and fly it across. He’s no dummy.) But Stan and Ollie are utterly blind to everything about the world, and especially about physics.

A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about comic fortune. Halfway across they meet a gorilla. A gorilla? In the Swiss alps? Comic fortune is a generic term for Murphy’s Law, or in this example, Murphy’s First Corollary: Even if nothing can possibly go wrong, something will go wrong. Comic fortune is the engine of farce: the wrong person behind the wrong door, the unexpected return of the cuckold husband. The non-comic person knows that stuff happens, even if he can’t predict what. And when it does hit the fan, he’s quick enough to duck. But our boys live in an eternal present: they never anticipate future problems because they never think of the future.

A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about one’s self, the world, and/or comic fortune. This is the absolutely necessary trait of the comic fool. Still, questions remain.

Why does the comic fool show this lack of good sense? Is it greed, naivete, self-deception, inherent character flaw – or all of the above and more? The reasons for comic folly are worth a post of their own.

Is the comic fool condemned forever? Can he learn good sense? Can he shake off his obsession? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes partly – and sometimes it doesn’t really matter. The fate of the comic fool – what happens at the end of the show or afterward – is also worth another post.

In what ways and in what areas does folly operate? Is the fool blind to everything about himself, his world, and fortune, or just to some things that are critical to the story? Delusions about the self, the world, and fortune are worth a separate post each.

And if I manage to wrap up comedy, I’ve still got wit, rebellion, and mystery to go. I’ve got my work cut out for me.


On another note, I’m home from President Obama’s inauguration, where I played the perfect comic fool – hit all three gongs: 1) self: I forgot my claustrophobia and dislike of crowds, but not before I got trapped in a crowd of 2 million. 2) world: I didn’t think of how those 2 mil. would get home again, and had to spend hours walking and waiting for a Metro. 3) Fortune: I didn’t anticipate comic fortune and ended up watching the show on a Jumbotron screen that was mostly obscured by a tree.

There’s another fine mess I’ve got me in.


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