Comedy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
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To consider comedy in its many incarnations is to raise diverse but related questions: what, for instance, is humour, and how may it be used (or abused)? When do we laugh, and why? What is it that writers and speakers enjoy - and risk - when they tell a joke, indulge in bathos, talk nonsense, or encourage irony?
This Very Short Introduction explores comedy both as a literary genre, and as a range of non-literary phenomena, experiences and events. Matthew Bevis studies the classics of comic drama, prose fiction and poetry, alongside forms of pantomime, comic opera, silent cinema, popular music, Broadway shows, music-hall, stand-up and circus acts, rom-coms, sketch shows, sit-coms, caricatures, and cartoons.
Taking in scenes from Aristophanes to The Office, from the Roman Saturnalia to Groundhog Day, Bevis also considers comic theory from Aristotle to Freud and beyond, tracing how comic achievements have resisted as well as confirmed theory across the ages.
This book takes comedy seriously without taking it solemnly, and offers an engaging study of the comic spirit which lies at the heart of our shared social and cultural life.
you.’ The joyful desperation here portends both anarchy and ease. There’s nobody, it seems, that we resemble less than ourselves, yet we are never more ourselves than when we are reminded of the fact. If the key outline of comic character could be sketched in one image, perhaps this is what it might look like (see Figure 7). 7. James Thurber, cartoon in The New Yorker (25 February 1939) This is another sprightly take on the way people are drawn to imagining themselves as part of a double
there can be room for manoeuvre in even the most deterministic of environments. The date, too, may contain a similar hope, for February ushers in carnival time across the globe, a time that resists the onward pressure of quotidian clocking. Groundhog Day is the time of comedy: it may feel initially like Fate, but the second day of the second month is really a day for second chances. The film combines two prominent traditions and tropes of comic story-making—let’s call them ‘Machiavellian
necessitated by the play face, has been ritualized into the rhythmic pant of the laugh. Behind the smile, then, may lie a socialized snarl; and behind the laugh, a play fight. But behind both of these facial expressions lie real snarls and real fights. People often claim to be ‘only joking’, but many a true word is spoken in jest. Ridicule and derision are both rooted in laughter (from ridere, to laugh). The comic may loiter with shady intent on the borders of aggression; ‘a joke’, Aristotle
does so because the bookcase seems solid and dependable whilst the family’s world crumbles around it, and because it is dawning on him that the bookcase is on its way out too. For Chekhov, comedy becomes a way of understanding the complexity of a life by refusing to pronounce judgement on it. On the notion that you could divide people up into ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ types, he once wrote to a friend: ‘Are you successful or aren’t you? What about me? What about Napoleon? One would need to
(Machiavelli) 54 progress narratives 56–7 Proposal, The (Chekhov) 102–3 Provine, Robert 78 Pryor, Richard 49 psychoanalytical approach 94–5 pueblo clowns 75 punchlines 49–51 puns 6–7, 10, 17 sexual 22–3 Pushkin, Alexander 100–101 Pygmalion (Shaw) 117–18 R Rabelais, François 14, 23–4 Ramachandran, Vilayanur 77 Rape of the Lock, The (Pope) 80–82 reality 98–9 Reed, Henry 86 repetition 35, 60–62 Republic (Plato) 63, 76 restoration comedy 13, 25–6 resurrection 113 Rhinoceros