KR BlogUncategorized

The Comic Imagination

On Saturday I moderated a panel on “The Comic Imagination” at New York’s Philoctetes Center. Panelists included Lewis Black, Jim Holt, Bruce McCall, and Tami Sagher. I’ll write more about the panel in my next post (after, as the refs say, a review of the tape) — but I wanted to first post a few thoughts on spring and comedy.

In Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Northrop Frye proposes correspondences between the literary genres (or, if you prefer, the archetypal narratives) and the seasons. Romance is assigned to summer, tragedy to fall, satire to winter, and comedy to spring. It all makes wonderful sense: summer is the season of road trips and romance, of dragon- and skirt-chasing. In fall, we watch the leaves drop — or we would, if we hadn’t already gouged out our eyes (after, you know, sleeping with our mother, and worse). The chilly satire of winter serves to clear away the fallen brush (or Bush?), preparing the way for springtime, for comedy. And with comedy comes a spirit of renewal, of hope. It’s the time of roses and tulips.

Here’s a joke from Jim Holt’s Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. (The joke was told to Holt by “an angelic-looking seventh-grader at a Catholic girls’ school” where he once taught.) Q: What’s better than roses on a piano? A: Two lips on an organ.

And here’s Lewis Black on renewal, on hope: “Obama is so full of hope, he’s actually lactating hope. His nipples are bursting from it. I’m sixty. Hope has passed me by.”

(For more of Lewis Black on hope, see his ’08 interview with Larry King.)

Which is all to say something that’s perhaps obvious: the structurally comic — comedy in the generic or narrative sense — doesn’t necessarily line up with what’s funny. We laugh in all seasons — Beckett laughs in the fall, Twain in the winter — and we laugh hardest at the things that most trouble us: sex and death. (Tami Sagher brought sex and death together in a memorable child-molester joke on This American Life a couple of years ago. The joke starts at the 54-minute mark — but really, the whole hour is worth listening to.) Here’s Andrew Hudgins, from his brilliant 2002 essay “Sherbet in a Turkish Bath: Serious Humor and Serious Poems,” published in Green Mountains Review: “Most of us don’t live in a literary genre but in a world that, after long intervals of boredom, suddenly swerves back and forth between the two.” The comic and the tragic collide; laughter (of the difficult sort) results.

But back to spring, and comedy, and bulbs (tulip bulbs; light bulbs). Garden historian Mac Griswold called gardening “the slowest of the performing arts.” That strikes me as an especially sweet line. But is joke-telling, then, the fastest? Here’s another joke from Holt’s book: Q: How many neocons does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: Go fuck yourself.

(If it helps to imagine a black-hatted Dick Cheney muttering that joke as he wheels his way out of the White House and — fingers crossed — history, then, by all means. . . .)

CheneyInWheelchairWith Bush

On Friday night I saw a performance by the improv group The Stepfathers at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. The darkest material got the strongest response — especially a discussion as to whether all members of a Rape and Murder Gang were pulling their weight. (Just raping, or just murdering, was deemed insufficient. The obligation was to rape and murder.) There are legitimate reasons to object to all of this. But it’s difficult (and probably futile) to argue against laughter. And we’re surrounded by difficult laughs, even as the days grow longer and brighter.

In a few hours I’ll take a bus to Lenox, Massachusetts. It’s the third full day of spring. The forecasted temperature upon arrival: 14 degrees. But you get it, you get it.

Polonius says that brevity is the soul of wit. Then he keeps talking.