Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
Work in Progress
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2015
Langerian Momentary Vitalism
The honor of introducing vitalism and the élan vital to literary studies goes, as indicated in Chapter 1, to Henri Bergson. Additional kudos should go to George Bernard Shaw who adapted Bergson’s philosophy to the English stage, the élan vital championed as the Life Force. For the purposes of the current study, however, we will be championing primarily the other side of the vitalist coin, the Langerian, rather than Bergsonian, vitalism which responds to, smiles with extraordinary life. Shaw, while echoing Bergsonian philosophy, actually represents a middle voice between Bergson and Langer. Shaw is thus also the great pioneer in the vitalist comedy which Langer made philosophically intelligible.
Bergson’s idea was profound but essentially began with the negative. To Bergson, two forces or spirits contend throughout the universe: life and death. While we remain alive, we are part of that minuscule fraction of the known universe which is life. And the dead part of the universe is consistently and unremittingly out to get us.
We are deluding ourselves, according to Bergson, if we don’t notice that death is, in fact, winning the battle. We are no longer nearly as alive as when we were born. Philosophically, this decreasing aliveness can be thought of as the “mechanical encrusted on the living.” Things can have motion and not be alive. We can still be animate and yet be far less alive than at some pristine time when death had not yet put much of the mechanical upon the living in us.
It is within this infinite philosophical understanding that Bergson posits a strategic role for laughter, especially a laughing response to artistic representation. The artist represents for us the mechanical encrusted on the living in ways which make us notice the truth: this isn’t really life vitally lived. It is, instead, exemplary of the mechanical passing itself off for life while simultaneously suffocating life. And when we see this, the life force, the élan vital within us, takes over, and we laugh. And the laughter pushes back the darkness, the death, the mechanical. And to that extent, we are more alive. And we are deeply indebted to the artist- author who has prompted our laughter. Please note, the successful comic like the successful sketcher is an artist, the artist of a few deft strokes. The art is no less art for its Spartan, close-to-instantaneous impact.
Bergson deserves his high standing in modern philosophy. He also deserves a very special place in aesthetics, because what he has elucidated is a very powerful dynamis. As we define it in all our works and as we think Aristotle meant it, dynamis is the power of a work of art to get us to do something, typically to feel something. Aristotle focused on the dynamis of tragedy. He asserted that the dynamis of tragedy has the power to make us feel pity and fear and then to go further and to purge us, to wring out of us pity and fear. This purging enables us to go out of the theatre back to our quotidian lives and responsibilities not overwhelmed by the pity and fear which under a Greek worldview was virtually the inevitable response to the condition of humanity.
It is not only tragedies, however which create dynamis. Many great plays have been written whose dynamis is predominantly created by Bergsonian humor. Virtually anything by Molière, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, and a good deal of Shaw all come quickly to mind. Bergsonian humor is rather typically the dominant humor of satire, and satiric comedy could use a more careful Bergsonian criticism. Most of Chekhov has a Bergsonian impetus, as does Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In all these instances, the prominent, even blatant resort to Bergsonian humor forms, working as a woof against the warp of comedic meaning or import, becomes the mechanism for strong dynamic effect or dynamis for the work as a whole. For Chekhov, Ionesco, and Beckett, this dynamis has been variously described as dark comedy, black comedy, or in our own case, somber comedy.
It is by no means accidental that all these examples are European. By and large, Bergsonian perceptions have not been a great impetus for American dramatic masterworks. Our choice of purely American plays to exemplify vitalist comedy in later chapters of this work is thus also far from accidental. We are explicitly in this essay working with dominantly Langerian, not Bergsonian, vitalism, and the conclusions we draw are about Langerian vitalist dynamis.
This is not to say that we will never have further comment on Bergsonian elements, and, in fact, unremitting Langerian momentary humor without a counterplay with Bergsonian can seem Pollyannaish or sentimental. Yet it is the Langerian humor forms and dynamis that are critical to this new form of comedy we call Vitalist, a new form which is particularly American.
We have explored Langerian momentary humor in film in other works, notably in December Comedy: Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays , where we consider the use of Langerian humor in comedies focused on aging protagonists who do not fit traditional concepts of comedic heroes and heroines. Some of these comedies we will investigate further in this volume as part of a deeper, more thorough study of Langerian, positive vitalism.
Suzanne Langer, an American scholar, in Feeling and Form asserted that we laugh in response to life. She pointed to the natural human smiling response to newborns, whether human or animal. There is a sense that the newborn is the most alive it will ever be. While Bergson pointed us to the erosion of life that occurs through aging, Langer points us back to the start, the beginnings of life, before the erosion has started to take place, before the mechanical has done its encrusting. Young life forms exude life. In that sense they are extraordinarily alive—and delightfully humorous.
And more important for this study, the extraordinarily alive call up in us a life response. They touch what is alive in us and call up a smile, sometimes a laugh, or perhaps a quiet inward gladness. Life responds to life.
Langer also points us to the positive life force that, in fact, fights the mechanical, the forces of death. She asks us to consider a fish whose tail has been nipped by a larger predator fish. The fish swims with a list because it is no longer perfectly balanced. But swim it does, and survive it does. It is alive, extraordinarily alive, because of as well as in spite of its handicap. And in its movements we see an assertion of the life force, a claim on life and survival that goes beyond thumbing its nose at death. It celebrates life. It celebrates the life force that it was born with and that has guided it to grow and adapt.
Typically Langerian humor is subtle and gentler than Bergsonian. It is sympathetic in affirming life and the one alive, laughing with life and the alive, rather than laughing at the mechanical and the dead. It smiles with the lame who nevertheless walk with a lively spring, with the elderly who face a new day with perseverance and creativity, with the underdog who by sheer life force overcomes.
Langerian and Bergsonian vitalism shares an interest in extraordinary life or life in extraordinary manifestations. Bergson takes the essentially negative approach of laughing off the mechanical encrusted on the living. Langer takes the essentially positive approach of laughing with extraordinary life. Both are real. And both can be subdivided into four major sub-types: Tenacity, Performance, Creativity, and Potential. We have discussed elsewhere in detail how such sets can be considered “quadralaterally.” Again here, we start with a very sketchy summary.
A single vitalist joke may be “pure,” that is, it may represent exactly one of our four sub-forms of Bergsonian or Langerian vitalism. Or it may be “complex” and represent more than one of these sub-forms at the same time. Since these forms are laughable or risible, this is tantamount to saying that a vitalist joke may have a single analysis or ambiguous multiple analytic humorousness.
Let us consider Tenacity. Tenacity is one of the very basic forms of vitality. We wouldn’t be here to read this essay if we hadn’t tenaciously continued to breath, if our hearts hadn’t continued to beat, if our brains hadn’t continued to function our whole life long until this very moment. This is obvious, and for most of us, it is hard for it not to be bo-ring.
And thus the Langerian vitalist emphasis is on extraordinary in extraordinarily alive. We can’t actually be more than fully alive, and most of us are still at high performance levels of breathing. But what Langer is talking about is extraordinary perceptions of life alive.
Consider then the bulldog. We hope you are already smiling. Many sports teams call themselves the Bulldogs, and they say it with a smile. Bulldogs were bred to be an inherent Langerian joke. They are bred to latch on and then to hold on, indefinitely, despite the odds, in the face of death, in the face of mutilation. They are meant to come out winners, but win or lose, we admire them as so tenaciously alive.
What does Tenacity humor look like in Bergsonian as opposed to Langerian guise, in a joke that laughs at Tenacity rather than laughing with extraordinarily alive Tenacity? Bergsonian jokes laugh off the mechanical and the dead encrusted on the living. A good deal of tenacity is equally analyzed as foolhardiness or pure stupidity. Foolhardiness and stupidity are both forms of the dead encrusting itself upon the living, making it mechanical rather than vital. When through art we see that kind of Tenacity, the life force laughs it to scorn, to derision, to mild contempt, or to whatever will best deactivate it.
Bergsonian jokes and Langerian jokes can be in the little or in the much. The bulldog Langerian joke we just discussed seems to be the whole being and essence of the bulldog. Let’s go to the opposite extreme for our Bergsonian example.
Hogan’s Heroes is one of the most successful American television comedy series with a Bergsonian impetus (typically reserved for the Nazis) as well as a Langerian impetus (virtually entirely reserved for the Allies). We hope our readers can still remember and visualize Colonel Klink in mid-winter facing down a line of prisoners with a very German salute and the single word, “Dis-missed!” It was always done the same way with the same intent. And in being invariable, it became its own small Bergsonian joke, the joke of a purely mechanical response. It was tenacious, of course, but it was a wrong kind of tenacity, a non-living, mechanical reality, and it always got a smile if not an open laugh. We can laugh at mechanical Tenacity as well as with alive Tenacity.
We move then to Performance vitalism. Our example of Bulldog Langerian Tenacity humor is really quite unusual. It is a snapshot, a still sketch which nevertheless characteristically carries vitalist import. Most vitalist jokes are dramatic or narrative. In cartoon strips they take more than a single frame, because duration and motion are inherent in vitalist concepts. So here’s a typical narrative Langerian joke especially for Packer fans who can remember when Bret Favre still played for Green Bay.
The scene is a Wisconsin sports bar. It is one of those rare years when the Packers aren’t really contending for anything; this is the last game of the season, and they are behind by six points. But the fans have not deserted. The Packers have the ball on their own 24 yard line with 36 seconds left.
Given that Favre is quarterback, the game is still winnable. But it will take at least one major play to get down field and then a successful Hail Mary completion in the end zone as time runs out.
The ball is snapped, Favre fades back, eludes tackles, throws a pass 40 yards down field to an all-pro wide receiver who catches it on two fingers going out of bounds, scraping the toes of both feet in-bounds with a safety already belting in to him. And the fans break out in laugher, laughter in response to an extraordinarily alive performance, a “Did you see that?” performance.
This is Performance vitalism at its Packers best, though it has been seen before with other quarterbacks like Bart Starr and seen again later with Aaron Rogers. One of the keys to the joke form is the instant replay. It may be that the season is lost and the Packers aren’t going anywhere. But with every slow-motion rerun, the laughter in the sports bar grows, high fives increase exponentially, and decibel readings move inexorably higher. Langerian vitalism is typically like that, with the exception that it is the sports bar ambience and perhaps a few local brews that are most responsible for the audible laughter. A much more characteristic humor response to vitalism is an inward warmth and a silent smile. But typically, Langerian vitalism grows with reruns, contrary to what any Surprise theory of laughter might suggest.
If the Favre pass is an example of Langerian Performance, what then will Bergsonian Performance look like? Bergson tells us directly because it is evidently his favorite joke. In the vaudeville of his day, it was a great favorite for a comic dressed up as an old man with cane to walk out onto the stage and slip on a banana peel.
The joke is no longer politically correct. But by Bergson’s own analysis, it is a perfect example of the mechanical encrusted visibly on the living as old age, with either poor eye-sight or a wandering mind missing the banana peel until too late. It is a Performance joke, but a joke that laughs at Performance, rather than laughing with Performance, laughing at the mechanical defeating the living rather than the life force overcoming the forces of age.
A third form of Bergson-Langerian vitalism is Creativity. The Trojan Horse is perhaps the great Langerian Creativity joke of antiquity. The joke is enhanced by the frustrations of a ten-year inconclusive war, by the heroics and deaths of Hector and Achilles. But it finally comes down to the wily Odysseus’ creative winning strategy in the form of an immense horse. The joke has in the very long run become something of the Greek conception of its own national character.
A second national-emblem Creativity joke is the picture of Benjamin Franklin as American minister to France during the American Revolution. What is so funny? In a great sense everything was highly serious, Franklin trying to form a French alliance to establish a new nation with a new philosophy of government.
But the picture is of a man in homespun among the highly coiffured of Parisian society, a man in homespun from a city 50 miles from the frontier of civilization, but simultaneously a man who had creatively found what no one else had ever found—current electricity. And, moreover, it is the picture of an old, homespun man flirting with all the belles dames of French aristocracy. It is a totally over-the-top Creative picture. It won the hearts of France, and it is often credited with winning the American Revolution. We laugh with the victors who won not by superior force or even tenacity, but by creative thinking.
What would a Bergsonian Creativity joke look like? The French have been familiar enough with this form to give it a special name, idée fixe. When the mechanical has encrusted itself far enough on the living, every problem seems to have the same solution. Especially in works like Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the typical Greek warrior, like his typical Trojan counterpart, may be a virile young man in performance, but in his head, he is a premature geriatric with a single pride-in-violence-cum-lust answer to all of life’s problems. We laugh at this lack of creativity.
We come finally then to Potential humor. In Langer’s own discussion it is quite clear that puppies and kittens are inherently vital and thus humorous. We could add lion and bear cubs, baby robins, and human infants. In all our experiments, women seem to have a more profound affinity for Langerian Potential humor than men. We are back to snap-shot vitalism here. But snapshots of babies and puppies and elk calves have brought smiles to many people, particularly people in nursing homes, enduring kidney dialysis or dissolving into Alzheimer’s disease.
As to Bergsonian Potential vitalism, the old man and the banana peel joke is as much a Bergsonian Potential joke as it is a Bergsonian Performance joke. The mechanical encrusted on the living results in an absence of Potential, a long day’s journey into the night of incompetence and death. It is inherently a sad joke (sadsack jokes they are often called). But for Bergson, however sad, it was also necessary for the preservation of real life to laugh off stage such incompetence and lack of potential. Here is a clear example of the legitimate multiple analysis of a seemingly simple joke. In professional comic circles, professional cartoonists, professional screenwriters, professional stand-up comedians, the “pure” unadulterated single-analysis joke is virtually an anomaly.
There may be Bergsonian-Langerian vitalist humor that doesn’t fall into one of these four categories. None of our subsequent discussion precludes this possibility. And many vitalist jokes, as already demonstrated, fall simultaneously into multiple categories: the Ben Franklin joke is not only a Creativity joke, but also a Tenacity joke, a Performance joke, and a Potential joke, all of them Langerian. We claim, however, these four categories largely cover the territory, and we further claim that making such distinctions between sub-types is meaningful in high-confidence empirical demonstrations about our human psychological and social nature.
Now for each of these four momentary Vitalist sub-forms, we started by giving an example of the Langerian joke type and followed with a Bergsonian example. We were not attempting to skew perception of the difference for any ulterior purpose. But looking back on all four, we feel, and we hope readers can feel, that the Bergsonian jokes are rather a let-down as vitalism. They have a perfect philosophic pedigree. They have a very special place in the unending stand-off between the life and death principles of the universe. But for the plebian minds that most of us wear on most days, they are, after all, just put-downs of insufficient life.
The Langerian examples, contrastingly, have a sense of inherent sparkle outside the telling. They have a certain kind of memorability that doesn’t quit, and an instinctive affinity to all the great questions of our getting through life. At the same time, the Langerian jokes are far more subtle and typically far more subtly responded to than the Bergsonian.
It is such qualities that make for drama and narrative that stands out as clearly not like the rest of the herd, not because it is moral, not because it is lovely, not because it is artistic, or intelligent or educated, or credentialed, or vetted, or sanctioned, or sacrosanct. These qualities stand out because they are directly, extraordinarily alive. They are the moment-by-moment, joke-by-joke, smile-by-smile foundation for Vitalist Comedy.