Comedy in a New Mood
by Robin Jaeckle Grawe, ed.
Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle decided it was important to formally define what was then known as comedy. But even as Aristotle lectured, comedy was already being transfigured to “Middle Comedy” and, by Plautus's time, a century and a half later, to “New Comedy.” Most of what we have thought of as comedy for the last 2,000 years has been in the Plautine model, developed, embellished, refined, or just cranked out by greats such as Shakespeare and Moličre as well as by a host of lesser known playwrights and screenwriters and by not a few sleazebags and hacks. Through the years comedy has remained an enormously popular artistic form, so popular, in fact, that other forms of literature and entertainment quite distinct from formal comedy—such as stand-up, spoof, satire, and the like—have adopted the name “comedy.” Comedy’s amazing staying power is compelling enough reason to say that Aristotle was right: it is critically important to define comedy.
In the twentieth century comedy began to experiment in specialized new, more sombre moods, sometimes referred to as “dark comedy,” “blue-black comedy,” “tragicomedy,” “absurdist comedy,” and the like. This dark, philosophic bent cried out for a formal definition of these sombre comedic variants—and thus a newly-crafted definition of comedy itself that would recognize comedy’s new forms. The following volume reflects a decades-long investigation into formal comedy—its forms and variations, and particularly into the more sombre moods of formal comedy.
When Paul Grawe first conceived of Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood (Northwestern University, 1971) in the late 1960’s, “absurdist” theatre and “dark comedy” had riveted critical attention on stage comedy’s ability to deal with the darker side of life, creating a need to redefine both comedy and all its sombre variants. Grawe investigated dramatic literature spanning over 2,000 years to craft a definition of comedy that would cover a broad range of comedic forms and moods, that would include and elucidate comedy’s sombre variants, and that would distinguish them from similar but non-comedic forms, and that would allow comedy to evolve into yet more new forms. Grawe’s insistence that formal comedy asserts a pattern of “survival” or success is strikingly prophetic of later fascination with “survival” in film as well as in reality TV. And his concept of the “virtual future” of comedy, formulated decades before the explosion of technological virtualities, makes his work startlingly current.
Grawe did not propose to offer THE definition of either comedy or of sombre comedy but rather A definition. His purpose was neither to straight-jacket playwrights and screenwriters or critics nor to judge the quality of dramatic works but rather to elucidate and clarify comedic treasures old and new. And as it was written, the work extended an invitation to other critics to further refine and amend our understanding as writers create new variants on comedic form.
While absurdist theatre per se has largely passed into quaint intellectualism, sombre comedy as a genre has become a successful variant of new live theatre as well as of the film industry, both in America and in Europe. At the same time, Grawe's definitions of formal comedy and sombre comedy set forth in Sombre Comedy back in 1971 have remained incisive and fruitful. The Forward of Part I, “Genre Definition, A Logical Exercise,” remains a beacon of clarity for those who would join in the endeavor to define comedy and its variants.
Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood provided the foundation for Grawe’s later work, Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination (CSTI) (Nelson Hall, 1983), and two and a half decades later, we at ITCHS remain committed to those foundational concepts as much as when they were originally written. Part I of the present volume, “Sombre Comedy,” makes available to the critical world definitive sections of Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood.
In 1990, on the basis of Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, Grawe was invited to make a presentation at the Conference of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS) in Sheffield England. Both Sombre Comedy and CSTI had insisted that comedy must be defined by its dramatic form, not by humor. However, it was clear that there was a relationship between humor and comedy which needed articulation and exploration, particularly in light of the growing scholarly interest in humor. “Box Office Dark Comedy: Rain Man” is the first of three seminal presentations to ISHS comprising Part II which specifically explore the use of humor on the darker, more contemplative edges of comedy.
"Box Office Dark Comedy" brought the critical tradition surrounding legitimate theatre into film criticism, applying the incisive critical tools of Sombre Comedy. In doing so, Grawe recognized that film would ultimately be decisive for new developments in comedy and dark comedy. “Box Office Dark Comedy” distinguished between humor and comedy at the same time that it established humor’s value in highlighting, shading, and interpreting comedic import. It also heralded sombre comedy as a critical artistic vehicle for treating sensitive issues of our own time. (The script for Rain Man had been rejected by numerous producers as too controversial before being picked up by United Artists. The film went on to win four Oscars.)
A year later, building on the foundations of Sombre Comedy, Grawe presented “Big Chill’s Entropic Humor” to ISHS in St. Catherines, Ontario. That presentation expanded investigation into ways in which humor, while not the defining characteristic of comedy, could be the characterizing trait of a dramatic work. Simultaneously he defined a previously unrecognized form of dramatic humor, “entropic humor.”
Investigation into humor’s relationship to comedy in both these papers had made it clear that humor could not be treated as one entity but rather needed to be thought of as many. And burgeoning computer technology was making it possible to apply quantitative investigation even to literary realities. Seeing the opportunity to bring empirical research methods into the traditionally humanistic fields of dramatic studies and literary criticism, the Grawes founded ITCHS, the Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies. Applying ideas of humor from critical giants such as George Meredith, Henri Bergson, and Susanne Langer, the Grawes through ITCHS entered into an empirical study of some of the specific types of humor, particularly Humor of the Mind and Vitalist Humor. Their Humor Quotient Test revealed numerous relationships between humor preference and other factors (reported in the Humor Quotient Newsletter). And the test's theoretical basis became the foundation for entirely new techniques of literary humor analysis based on careful distinctions between different types of humor.
These new methods of humor analysis were explicated in several presentations to ISHS and finally culminated in Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle: Humor in American Film Comedy (CTCV) (ITCHS, 2008) where the Grawes delineated in highly acclaimed American film comedies six literary “humor personalities” derived from combinations of four types of Humor of the Mind. In that volume, Grawe returned to consideration of Rain Man where advanced humor analysis demonstrated the use of humor modulation to indicate character growth and to create a virtual future.
The final chapter of this present volume, “Twelve Forms of Irony: the Theoretical Significance of Forrest Gump,” was presented to ISHS in 2007 in Newport, Rhode Island. Using the technical humor analysis derived from empirical testing, Grawe then went a step further to explore the interaction between Humor of the Mind and a different humor overlay, irony. Demonstrating that Forrest Gump is dominated by irony rather than by Humor of the Mind, Grawe delineated 12 types of irony. And he demonstrated how a particular humor personality, Intellectual, based not in irony but in Humor of the Mind, can color an often-thought-to-be-dark humor form, irony, to unexpectedly create contemplative optimism and brightness.
The investigation of new moods of comedy can never be complete, in time or scope, for comedy has proved to be a resilient, ever-changing genre, offering up new variants, such as Senior Comedy (See December Comedy: Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays, ITCHS 2009) and new blends of humor. Yet the critical tools Grawe explicated and developed first in Sombre Comedy and later in presentations to ISHS hold great promise of providing a basis for approaching new forms as well as for developing new analytic tools as comedy continues to delight and challenge us.