Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Sunday, August 08, 2004


Those of you who read Eco's The Name of the Rose (or managed to stay awake through the movie version) will recall that the plot hinged around the general belief--still current in the lettered community of academic snobs--that Aristotle wrote a second half to the Poetics in which--having anatomized Tragedy in the first--he did the same for Comedy. But said second half was lost--thank you so much, Julius Caesar, for burning the Library at Alexandria--you deserved the knifing just for that, quite frankly. And so for centuries--millennia--audiences and literary critics have let Comedy become the bastard sibling of Tragedy--without the Official Stamp of Aristotelian Approval, Comedy just never got the same respect as a genre. Ask people which is a better play: "Hamlet" or "The Importance of Being Earnest"? "Oedipus Tyrannus" or "The Man Who Came To Dinner"? "King Lear" or "The Odd Couple"--Well, OK, "King Lear" IS better than "The Odd Couple," but you get my point. Never mind that you're comparing Apples and--hell, not Oranges, but Anti-Apples--but could anything improve "The Importance of Being Earnest" (other than not casting Reese Witherspoon in the movie)? Could anyone argue that Moliere was anything other than the greatest author of 17th century France? (One could, of course, but would that person be taken seriously by me? That's the real question, and the answer is "No.") And yet Comedy remains an afterthought--we squeeze "Huckleberry Finn" in between Hawthorne and Crane in our survey courses, and even then, we read it for its "serious social commentary," not for the fact that Huck is one of the funniest narrative voices in literary history, rivalled only by Fielding's Narrator in "Tom Jones" and Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho." (Spot the irony for bonus points.)

And of course this bias continues to function in the production and reception of today's creative works--Comedies don't win Best Picture (well, "Shakespeare In Love" did, but that was due, I'm convinced, to the fact that Harvey Weinstein of Miramax kidnapped the children of the whole Academy, locking them in cockroach-infested basements all over Malibu until the decrepit members voted for his--let's be honest--"B" to "B+" film.) Sitcoms are dying, both in number and in quality--hell, Emmy voters were recently forced to choose "Will and Grace," as maggot-gagging a conglomeration of "gay people are funny because they're gay!" jokes as ever slithered across a screen, as Best Comedy. When TV Dramas want to boost their ratings, what do they do? Kill someone. When TV Comedies want to boost their ratings, what do they do? Have "a very special episode"--a nauseating half-hour where laughs are forgone for the drooling sentiment of candy-coated versions of serious illness or the aftermath of date rape. In short, pain gets more respect than laughter--stories that end in death are somehow more important than those that end in something a wee bit more cheerful.

And in a way, it's easy to see why. P.J. O'Rourke has explained--and I'd love to be able to cite the article and book, but I'm in a house in the process of moving, and all the books are boxed or in storage, but trust me, it's out there somewhere, in-print, worth buying, and much better written than anything I could hope to produce--that being serious is an easy way to make oneself seem more important--to sneer at those who are cheerful by mentioning the existence of horror and suffering is a perfectly undemanding way of making oneself seem deep and substantial. But it's also a crock. Tragedy is an argument--the argument that, faced with the unknowable forces of the cosmos, humanity must inevitably err against those forces, and pay a devastating--and always excessive--price. (Usually death, though you can sometimes get away with just jabbing your mom's brooches repeatedly into your eyes--phew!) And while Tragedy's argument may be true--let's face it, you piss off the gods, they are going to take umbrage--it's not the only valid reaction to human existence. And that's where Comedy comes in. Comedy argues that some mistakes can be forgiven--some errors can be corrected--indeed, that some screw-ups actually yield better results than what we intended in the first place. And isn't this equally true? Isn't the case for Optimism just as important--just as indispensible--as the case for Pessimism? And often much, much harder to make?

The aphorism--always uttered on the deathbed of the speaker, in response to the question of how he is doing--"Dying is easy--Comedy is hard," has been various attributed to actors Donald Wolfit, Edmund Kean, and to Oscar Wilde--but then, as Dorothy Parker pointed out, Oscar gets the credit for every aphorism of vague origin. Cliche--but true. Comedy is hard. Being funny is really, really hard. Think of stand-up comics--why, back in the '80s, you couldn't throw a Cabbage Patch Kid without hitting one, and probably a second on the rebound. How many of them were actually funny? How many of them approached any level of perception beyond the tiny size of airline packets of peanuts and the different temperments of cats and dogs, L.A. and New York, and--oh, God, the flashblacks, I think of that brick wall at the Improv and I start to twitch--Men and Women? Sigh. I reiterate: Being funny is hard. Consider the number of film comedies released each year and the low, low number that don't inspire horror--Will any of us really recover from "White Chicks"? From "50 First Dates"? From--and it pains me to say this because I worship the Coens--"The Ladykillers"? (No, I didn't see them--with the exception of "The Ladykillers," though Oh How I Wish I could get back that bleak, bleak span of time--but you know, I feel pretty secure in not having done so; sometimes trailers for films are like warning signs at the zoo--"Danger. Enter At Your Own Risk.") But tearjerkers? Easy as pie. Pick Flavor of the Month. Give Flavor of the Month terminal disease--or give said Flavor a saintly child/crotchety parent/quirky free-spirited love interest with terminal disease. Drag out for three acts. Give tearful speech over grave. Wait for the Academy to call announcing Nomination. Folks, we've already had one "Brian's Song"--we don't need 83 more. The perverse assumption of the public and critics is that "Comedy is Easy, Dying is Hard." Which is just...eye-crossingly wrong, factually, artistically--morally, dammit.

So given how hard it is to be funny--given the fact that Comedy is the Answer to Tragedy--that Comedy argues that Life is ultimately worth living--that we can improve ourselves and our lot and that the universe doesn't smack us down at every given opportunity--given the importance, in short, of comedy, isn't it about time we gave it some respect?

Next: An examination of Comedy--of its Two Types, their relative merits, and illustrative examples of each. Please take notes--there will be an exam at the end of the class.


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