Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:
Humor in American Film Comedy
Comedy and humor have also been commonly associated with what are considered the greatest names in literature: in English with Shakespeare, in French with Molière, in Spanish with Cervantes.
Comedy and humor are different things, not misspellings of the same thing.
Prologue: The Comedy-Humor Quandary
Over millennia of literary study, comedy and humor have shared many things. They have, for example, both been despised as fit subjects for and about slaves, servants, serfs, plebeians, peasants, and proletariat. And they have both been recognized as keys to box office success, even as upper classes have routinely sneered at them for so being.
Comedy and humor have also been commonly associated with what are considered the greatest names in literature: in English with Shakespeare, in French with Molière, in Spanish with Cervantes. In folk literature, they are associated particularly in stories of notorious scapegraces like the Norwegian Peer Gynt. And they are associated in literary developments of the scapegrace like Fielding’s incomparable Tom Jones. They are linked in more recent classics like the novels of Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Charles Dickens, like the plays of Chekhov and the experimental pieces roses and noires of Anouilh—classics which seem to gain prestige by the decade.
But most of all, humor and comedy have shared a common misunderstanding that they are in fact the same thing, spelt with different letters. The difference in letters is of course embarrassing So there is a general tendency in criticism to move to discussions of comedy and the comic rather than of comedy and humor, the clash of letters being far less apparent in the former.
As the title of this book is at pains to emphasize, comedy and humor are different things, not misspellings of the same thing. Comedy and the comic are different things, comic indeed being roughly synonymous with humorous. And at the same time, comedy and the comic are inextricably related in artistic practice throughout the ages. The purpose of this book is to delineate more clearly how these two fundamentally different things are nevertheless artistically so symbiotically related that it is easy in conventional speech not to notice the difference between them at all.
Thus, the difference between comedy and humor along with their close artistic association in marvelous and complex works of literature is the tenor of this book, the argument of every page. But the vehicle of that argument is the amazing artistic achievement of American Film Comedy over the last century. For most of that time, we have been living in a literary Golden Age, a new Golden Age of Drama, which in its breadth, vitality, and vibrancy has no reason to apologize in the company of Shakespeare’s High Renaissance in England or of the Sieglo De Oro in Spain, or of the Sun King’s High Baroque in France. And while the Golden Age of American Film does include a great many dramas of high note, and more than a handful of tragedies, it is clearly true that the age has been one dominated by the literary form of comedy. We can think of no more wide-ranging period of literature in which to examine the complicated inter-workings of comedy and humor.
For our purposes, we will be assuming, as Aristotle did, that comedy is at least a genre of drama and thus in that sense like tragedy. Comedy is at least a genre of drama. But as Paul has argued repeatedly elsewhere, it is in fact more than that: it is a genre of literature—of narrative poetry and prose, as well as of drama. And tragedy has proved itself to be similarly a genre capable of moving beyond drama. It is entirely possible that tragedy and comedy are not the only genres that move beyond dramatic representation. V. Ulea in A Concept of Dramatic Genre and the Comedy of a New Type: Chess, Literature, and Film has recently made a compelling case for at least nine such generic types.
For our purposes, we can roughly say that humor is that mysterious thing that makes us laugh. Rough as this definition is, clearly humor is not a dramatic genre nor is it a super-genre crossing over into narrative forms.
In our first two chapters, we will be considering first comedy and then humor in somewhat more detail. And this double consideration will then empower us to consider the inter-working of the two. In that investigation, we will find that humor typically provides the brilliant effects of comedy, the high moments when audiences (at least in the dramatic manifestation of comedy) find that they indeed are a unit, an audience, responding in the same delighted ways and at the same moment in response to what the playwright has created.
These moments of high delight are not at all the same thing as comedic assertion. A good comedy, as we shall see, is a communication, an assertion of something. And the something communicated is not a particular line within the dialogue, humorous or otherwise, anywhere in the course of the comedy. The comedic assertion is an overall communication, a summational assertion that derives from every moment of a well-made piece of art. It is not only possible, in great comedic art it is virtually inevitable, that the high humorous moments will be of profound significance in determining particularly the fine nuances of comedic assertion. And therefore the highly symbiotic relationship between comedy and humor is also inevitable. But the close symbiosis is possible precisely because humor and comedy are entirely different things.