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  • [laughter]

  • [more laughter]

  • We think comedy is just about a relaxing laugh,

  • but the job of a comic is, in fact, deeply serious and important

  • to the mental well being and flourishing of a society.

  • In the olden days, they were called "jesters,"

  • officially licensed and salaried comics,

  • whose explicit job it was to make jokes for the king

  • as a way of drawing them back to the things that really mattered,

  • and saving them from errors of pomposity.

  • This suggests that comedy might be a requirement--

  • a bit like having your teeth checked, or doing the accounts--

  • not some optional extra when you feel like watching a bit of TV.

  • There are a host of things that comedy helps us with.

  • For a start, it's a medicine against despair.

  • A lot of humor picks up on the darkest things in our lives--

  • death, anxiety, failure--

  • but rather than reconciling us to them, it helps us to feel cockily defiant and strong about them.

  • Consider Velazquez's rendition of the dying Christ.

  • Then turn to Monty Python's comedic take on the same situation.

  • --Crucifixion, mm? Good. Out of the door, lying on the left, one cross each.

  • A comic attitude doesn't deny misery, but it has a very different relationship with it.

  • --Ah man, I shot Marvin in the face.

  • Comedy can be infused with a mood of defiance.

  • One's gonna laugh at rather than buckle in front of the miseries of existence.

  • In Monty Python's "The Life of Brian," the closing song brazenly states the worst of our existence.

  • The mood is mocking; there is a refusal to be gloomy.

  • In 1940, when Britain was in a very precarious military situation,

  • a song mocking the Nazi leaders became wildly popular.

  • The enemy's power was all too terrifyingly apparent; the point was simply to keep them cheerful,

  • and defiant was centrally important to the task of just keeping them going.

  • By mocking dangerous things, humor can embolden us;

  • it paints what's potentially very frightening as helpfully ridiculous.

  • Comedy is also a great remedy for a sense of humiliation.

  • Life is filled with things which deeply threaten our dignity.

  • We're never far from being reduced to complete mockery.

  • In the children's television series, "Peppa Pig,"

  • a father, Daddy Pig, is always doing things that could be seen as absurd, humiliating, or embarrassing.

  • In the opening sequence, he makes a loud, rather obnoxious grunt.

  • He's overweight; he can come across as lazy.

  • It would be extremely easy to make a very negative assessment of his character.

  • That's the kind of thing we tend to do for ourselves and other people:

  • we regularly rehearse the case for the prosecution.

  • In cartoons, though, this very flawed creature

  • is presented as somehow both flawed and extremely lovable.

  • His wife and children are deeply attached to him.

  • They do see him as a bit of an idiot; it's just that they love him as he is.

  • In their eyes, he is a lovable fool.

  • That's what a lot of comedy helps us with:

  • it turns people, ourselves included--

  • people who could just be seen as idiots in normal life-- into those far more valuable characters: lovable fools.

  • If we happen to walk down a road and saw a man called Basil Fawlty bashing his car with a branch of a tree,

  • we'd feel he was just some awful, furious bloke venting his anger in a crazed, destructive way.

  • We'd judge him a thoroughly unpleasant fool.

  • Fortunately, for Basil Fawlty, he's not in real life, but in a comedy by John Cleese

  • and therefore, he isn't just an idiot.

  • He's that classic comedic character: a lovable fool.

  • His vices are introduced alongside some deeply ingratiating qualities.

  • The show teaches us to really like someone whom in real life, we might have cursed.

  • It's a remarkable achievement on the part of the comedy team,

  • akin to what Jesus did when he got us to think lovably about criminals and low-lives.

  • Comedy produces benevolent stereotypes.

  • If someone says, "You're a bit of a Woody Allen," it's a benign alternative to saying,

  • "You're a deeply annoying over intellectual worrier."

  • --You-u-u're like New York Jewish, left-wing liberal intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University

  • uh, socialist summer camps and uh-h the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right?

  • Woody Allen's taught us to look more kindly on the foibles of people

  • we'd otherwise risk calling neurotic wimps.

  • It's the reverse of bad stereotyping,

  • in which we make a problem worse by emphasizing how deeply awful certain people are.

  • Comic characters always hold on to our sympathy.

  • --ACHOO!

  • To say that a work colleague is a bit of a David Brent

  • isn't merely to point out that they're tactless and insecure--

  • it's also to re-frame those failings.

  • Because we come to feel tender towards David Brent as well as laughing at him,

  • we see his vulnerability, not just his idiocy.

  • We get good at recognizing that it's his anxiety about not being like or respected

  • that leads him to do all those deeply embarrassing things.

  • Larry David is always getting angry and abusive.

  • He's incredibly combative and rude. He gets into huge arguments all the time.

  • And yet, he's sort of charming.

  • --What's not to like?

  • So, once again, with the help of comedy,

  • we're re-framing an otherwise tempting but wholly negative stereotype: grumpy old man.

  • The comic move is to guide us to a benevolent conception of people, and hence, parts of ourselves.

  • Comedy also does a great job at reducing power imbalances.

  • It's hugely reassuring to see the powerful laughing at themselves.

  • Finding oneself comical is a token of maturity;

  • it means being able to see one's faults without being too defensive about it.

  • Humor often provides a mechanism where by the powerless, or at least, the less powerful,

  • can give constructive but pointed feedback to the powerful.

  • Monty Python was particularly focused on this task.

  • "The Philosophers' Football Match" mocks the great figures of intellectual history.

  • It's funny because we've been intimidated so deeply in the past by intellectual bullies,

  • we made us feel small with our reading of Wittgenstein or Schopenhauer.

  • And now they're shown as being completely rubbish at football, and yet seriously involved in the game.

  • Comedy isn't just a bit of fun.

  • The comic perspective is a central need of a society.

  • It enables us to cope much better with our own follies and disappointments,

  • our troubles around work and love, and our difficulties enduring ourselves.

  • Comedy is waiting to be re-framed as a central tool in a better society.

[laughter]

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B1 UK comedy deeply lovable comic monty intellectual

Why Comedy Matters

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    osmend posted on 2017/09/18
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