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
The Vitalist Forms of Frye and Watts
Langerian and Bergsonian concepts are centrally concerned with momentary jokes, not with the humor of a full-length play. But a play can be characterized as strongly Bergsonian if it is structured to have one Bergsonian joke tumbling in on top of another. It can be strongly characterized as Langerian if one moment of laughing-with vitality portrayed on stage is followed by another and then yet another. These are strongly divergent artistic techniques, and they have strongly divergent artistic effects. Notably, the widespread use of either is strongly influential in establishing texture throughout and dynamis in response to the work as a whole.
We turn now to Northrup Frye and Harold Watts, both of whom as critics were not focused on jokes Instead they were focused on a form of action, the kind of action that could be said to underlie all comedy. We normally consider their thinking formal, that is, investigating the form which defines a genre of literature. Frye and Watts can both be said to work on the Langerian, the positive side of comedic form, the side of comedy that recommends certain values and ways of living to us. Watts’ argument, however, allows substantial room for Bergsonian jokes which laugh off aberrations to get society back on track, back to normal.
We will proceed with the inherent assumption that there can easily be a Bergsonian form, a negative form, as there is a positive Frye-Watts form. While we assume such form, it is not centrally relevant to the definition of vitalist comedy.
Frye and Watts are concerned with form. Yet as Suzanne Langer has insightfully shown, form affects feeling. If, for the moment, we loosely define humor as a felt aspect of literary art, the forms that Frye and Watts investigate are positive forms that generate positive humorous feeling, specifically positive vitalist humorous feeling just as for Langer, positive vitalist feeling attaches to humorous response to and in favor of extraordinary life. Put in the simplest possible terms, like Langer, Frye and Watts are investigating comedy which primarily laughs with extraordinary life not which primarily laughs at insufficiencies and shortfallings. Frye and Watts push Langer’s interest in form to new vitalist insight.
The word “form” is, therefore, important in a way that few other terms in criticism are. Unfortunately, the word is often used without a solid foundation of meaning. So let us take a few moments here to rehearse some of the basic—essentially mundane—elements of form.
Form is not quintessentially a literary word nor a concept of aesthetics. It is a word from quite ordinary life, and its basic examples are quite homely and ordinary. Let us look at two examples of form. A concrete form is used to create stone-hard sidewalks, patios, and the like. Typically such forms are made of sturdy boards with metal pegs pounded in the ground behind them to hold them in place. A gelatin form or mold is typically filled with gelatin and then cooled and hardened in a refrigerator.
In both cases, something is poured into the mold or form, and when that poured-in material has dried and hardened, the mold or form can be removed and the poured material retains the shape of the mold or form.
We say such things, but they are, in fact, only partially correct. In fact, if we have poured gelatin into a fish mold, where the scales of the fish bend inward on the mold the effect will be to create a scale or fin that bends outward in the gelatin.
So such differences lead to our speaking more accurately in terms of the mold being a type and what is molded being the antitype. For purposes of discussing literary forms, the point of such refinement is that form is not the same thing as the product it makes. And just as the form and the product are clearly highly related but also in certain aspects opposites of each other, so too the literary product creates something in us as audience, but what it creates in us, which we will be discussing as dynamis, is not the same thing as the work of art, just as the work of art is not the generic form in which it is cast.
Taking a specific humor example of humor form (in this case Bergsonian form) and resultant textural and dynamic effects on us as audience, we can define a form in which a full-length drama is filled with as many Bergsonian attacks upon the mechanical encrusted on the living as a creative mind can think to cram into the space. Think of Jackie Gleason and The Honeymooners as something of a practical example. We have just defined the form. When we pour content into the form, we produce it as an episode of The Honeymooners.
As a dramatic product with all kinds of specific content about working-class living in tenement New York and the like, the concentration of Bergsonian humor which comes from the form chosen rather than from the content poured in will have effects, the moment -by-moment effects which elsewhere we have called “humor texture.”
This humor textural effect then becomes part of the dynamic effect of The Honeymooners as individual episodes and as a whole series. The over-all thought-feeling or dynamis is what we felt at the end of the show as it moved to a station break or perhaps that we remembered sometime in the succeeding week in deciding whether to watch the next episode or not. The form is clearly not the plot of the episode nor is it either the texture or dynamic “feel” in the audience. Nevertheless, the humor form has produced major outlines of texture, and texture has contributed to dynamis.
Going into deeper issues, let’s say that we decide not to use gelatin in our gelatin mold. It is, after all, just a mold, and perhaps we’ve become a little tired of repeated red gelatin fish. So we decide instead that we would like a nice chocolate fish instead of a red-gelatin fish. Simple enough, all we need, it would seem, is pourable chocolate. Having found our chocolate, we pour it into the mold and put the mold in the refrigerator.
Homely and homey as this example is, it strongly emphasizes that the mold does not force the product. Our chocolate, hoped-for masterpiece may have almost none of the affects we think of as pertaining to the tried-and-true red-gelatin fish. Hopefully, however, the chocolate and the red gelatin will both look like fish in a competent crafty or artistic sort of way.
In short, individual artistic achievement is not obviated by the use of a mold. The mold, the form, is simply a potential constructive element to be used along with an artist’s more personally idiosyncratic choices.
When our chocolate fish comes back out of the refrigerator and has been freed from its mold, we hope we have had the talent to free it in such a way that it does, in fact, resemble a fish and an artistic fish at that. If we are clumsy, the product may not have even these basic attributes.
It may also be that the material we poured in, our liquefied chocolate, is just not appropriate because it will not harden to the mold or it will not allow itself to be disengaged from the mold without altering its form. These homely realities turn out to be reasonable metaphors for problems real artists face. Artists can choose to go with tried-and-true materials in stereotypical forms. Artists may train themselves to handle separating the art work from the mold deftly rather than clumsily. And the net effect may be something that is pretty enough, but is rather pedestrian and ho-hum precisely because it is art with most of the risks taken out of it and most of the individual ingenuity, creativity, insight, and genius taken out with it.
On the other hand, an artist may be very creative in the choice of materials, and we may all wait in anticipation for the final product. But for any number of reasons of individual creation, it may be a great disappointment.
Alternatively, everything may come together beautifully, perhaps because of an artistic gift which the artist possesses. When everything does gel perfectly, we are all far richer for the enjoyment of that product.
So a form is only a form. In the 20th century, there were strong intellectual currents which denigrated form, threw it out the window wherever possible, and seemed to exult in the pure subjective choices of artistry. Ironically, throughout the same century, comedy became the dominant form of literary achievement. While most of the comedy produced stuck very close to tried-and-true formulas, a number of comedies began to work with new material, material which seemed unlikely for traditional comedy and which stretched our ideas of what comedy was all about. And some of that comedy became inexplicable to criticism which had entirely done away with the idea of molds and forms in which new material could produce very new and yet in some sense traditional products.
Many of the screenplays which we will examine in detail later in this work fall into this category, very new material in old forms. Consider Forrest Gump, the story of someone so subnormal in intelligence that the State of Alabama, in which he resides as a child, mandates that he be placed in a special class for the intellectually handicapped. It doesn’t sound like comedy, does it? And yet, like the heroes of a great deal of comedy, Forrest Gump as hero succeeds at phenomenal levels in widely disparate enterprises, among other things being thrice honored by invitation to the White House.
Or consider The Sound of Music, the story of a girl committed to becoming a nun, a girl who quickly is identified as not possessing ordinary novitiate spiritual aptitudes. And yet this same girl, whose heart is wholly concentrated on becoming a spiritual bride of Christ becomes instead the bride of a political heretic and a new mother to children who have lost both their own mother and the joys of child life. Ultimately, the same woman becomes a beacon of hope to a world that has descended into political, martial, and intellectual madness. It doesn’t sound like comedy does it? It seems light years away from frothy situation comedy which seems at ease centering its concern on a loose-spring sofa or on a burnt grilled-cheese sandwich.
And so with this renewed sense of form, the form of a genre, not to be despised and not to be confused with the final artistic product either, we turn again to the positive formal insight of Frye bolstered by the poetic formulations of Watts.
Both Watts and Frye can be said to be within the tradition of vitalism in that both see comedy as formalizing a life dynamic. Harold Watts in his essay “The Sense of Regain” asserts that comedy creates in us a “sense of regain,” a sense of restored balance. Comedy allows us to put aside disturbing challenges to our human nature in favor of a restoration of superficial security.
Now we would argue that comedy can be considerably deeper than Watts would suggest, that is does not have to make us content with superficiality, escaping from the deeper questions of humanity. Nevertheless, Watts offers an important insight into the character of much traditional comedy: much traditional comedy is about getting back to something, and thus words beginning in “re-“—“regain ,” “rebalance,” “return,” and the like— are at the center of comedic form.
In Latin, the prefix “re-“ can be an intensifier as in “reemphasize,” that is, emphasize again, but its fundamental meaning is “back.” For example, our word “religion” comes from “re-“ meaning back and the Latin verb “ligio” meaning to tie, as in to tie a rope. Religion, then, is a tying back, specifically tying humanity back to God or, in the original Roman sense, to the gods. Comedy in the variants that Watts focuses on gets us back to something we have lost or are in danger of losing.
For Watts, comedy gets us back to quotidian realities and more important to quotidian, conventional attitudes which get us through life, the life “of the marketplace,” (196) and away from the deeper, more spiritual, more disturbing and dark realities embodied in religious awe and in tragedy. Such assurance that comedy is extremely conventional, of course, quickly runs afoul of the idiosyncrasies of Forrest Gump and Sound of Music.
Watts was not trying to be unconventional. We might say that his vision of comedy was in the end quite conservative, celebrating the rebalancing of society back to comfortable, basic, popular values. Such a vision, though not defiant in itself, can be accommodating to Bergsonian momentary humor which laughs at the mechanical which is outside the generally accepted norms of healthy living.
In Northrup Frye, we have a different, more positively progressive picture of the form of comedy. Frye calls comedy “the Mythos of Spring.” And in doing so, he suggests not just a going back or even a coming back, but continual renewal. By making analogy to nature, Frye suggests a cyclical undercurrent to comedy which, yes, returns us each year to the same seasons but at the same time moves us forward. We must, after all, go through summer, fall, and winter in order to return to spring, the time of renewal and new launching out. Frye’s mythos of spring comedy has a sense of coming back to go forward.
Frye’s formulation calls up the “again” sense of “re,” the sense we have in renew, refresh, recreate, reconstruct, revision. And it is very accommodating of Langerian momentary humor which celebrates positively the presence of life itself, especially young and burgeoning life.
To sense the difference between a Watts sense of regain and a Frye sense of renewal, let us look again at The Sound of Music. Captain Von Trapp certainly recovers a great deal that was lost: his family, his sense of himself as a father, his love of music. And the children recover a lost father. If that were the basis of the form of the film, however, it would be about a remarkable would-be nun, who through special qualities of her own and the grace of God brings the Von Trapps back to being a loving, functioning family, with probably a wedding in the near future. That would be a comedy à la Watts, and we would all feel happy. Many a Christmas special has been built on the reuniting of separated parents, thus restoring lost values.
But, in fact, The Sound of Music does more than go back. It returns the Von Trapp family to healthy relationship but goes on to renew and refresh them, and Maria as well, not for what had been good in the past but for whole new challenges requiring new strengths of character and talents. And the values they embrace are hardly superficial, hardly marketplace but rather facing down some of history’s deepest moral and spiritual challenges. Many of the films we will be discussing will have in them elements of going back, of returning, but more important to the dynamic of the film will be the elements of going on having been renewed, as well as deepening and strengthening and maturing.
Comedy has been an ever changing genre, ever challenging critics to understand it more fully. Just in the past century, writers have presented us with new forms such as dark comedies and senior comedies which challenge previously accepted notions about comedy, forcing us to expand our critical conceptions about stock characters, the role of laugher, and the spirit of comedy itself. Thus by the twenty first century, even Northrup Frye’s Mythos of Spring begs the question: are there comedies which emotionally, dynamically connect us into the renewing cycles of nature but call up seasons beyond spring—the vibrancy and strength of summer; the gathering in and adding up of fall; the turning from past to future of winter? We think the answer is yes. And we will be exploring then the full year of vitalist formal dynamics.
Moving forward with Watts’ and Frye’s shared insight of re-form, if Langerian momentary humor can be subdivided into a reasonable set of subtypes that can be empirically demonstrated to be related to aspects of our social and psychological reality as human beings, can we define somewhat analogous sub-divisions of regain form in comedy?
We suggest the following subcategories to be a fruitful subdivision of regain comedy.
Probably the most powerful idea of getting back to something old which is also the beginning of something new is the concept of Re-creation. It is highly debatable philosophically whether human beings are ever capable of creating or recreating anything. The word, however, is in very general parlance, and its qualified reality as, after all, not creation per se, is evidently close to universally accepted.
If in secular terms, literal re-creation can be doubted, in the religious traditions of the West, supernatural creation is never in doubt, and presumably re-creation is thus theoretically beyond the possibility of doubt. Within Christianity specifically, at a personal level, conversion on biblical authority entails a new creation. All old things have passed away, and everything is made new. So Re-creation as a category includes both a qualified re-creation of street parlance and an unqualified supernatural creation of religious parlance.
For our purposes, it is enough if we follow Watts’ attitudes of the marketplace which accept that Re-creation has happened if something is not a rehash of previous components but if instead something old has clearly passed away and something very different has taken its place or if something now exists and can be said at some previous time not to have existed in some previous construction.
This attempt to give a reasonably solid definition to Re-creation suggests a second re-, restructure or Re-construction.
If Re-Creation is philosophically highly questionable as ever within the capabilities of human beings, Re-construction is almost prosaic in its all-too-obvious constant employment in human affairs. Governments and governors are constantly reforming, reconfiguring, and refining almost anything they can lay their hands on to claim when they run for reelection.
If we are all over-aware of Re-construction, it is nevertheless well to recognize that some reconstructions or restructurings use all the old parts but relate them in somewhat new ways while other restructurings may delete a redundant or obsolete part or two and perhaps add a bell or whistle here or there in an effort which good judgment still is confident to call a restructuring.
So new things seem to be examples of either Re-creation or of Re-construction.
This, however, is much too simple for human affairs, which are primarily affairs of perception imposed on top of objective reality. So we posit a third re-, Re-presentation. Re-presentation is much concerned with representation. When something is Re-presented, someone represents it as something new even though underneath it is something old. Put otherwise, something old is given a new façade, or something old is given a face-lift, or something old is advocated to be something other than it once was.
And this possibility suggests a subtly-different fourth possibility, a fourth re-form: Re-visioning. It is not that someone or some force Re-presents things. Rather in our own sovereign minds, we decide that something is not what we thought it was but that it is something else entirely, that things are not related as we once thought they were related but that they are related in a different way. When we achieve such a revolutionary change of perception, we tend to call it a new insight. For our purposes, emphasizing the re- element, such a revolutionary change of perception is a Re-visioning.
Whether getting back somewhere is essential to all comedy we leave undecided. But we posit that in a very special sense, getting back somewhere is one of the consistent attributes of vitality. And, therefore, something like the four categories of regain which we have suggested will be fundamentally important to Vitalist Comedy.
Let’s take some very common examples to avoid misunderstanding. Walking is one of the great gifts of healthy human living. Without the ability to walk, horizons quickly vanish, but perhaps even more important, without walking, health deteriorates often in ways that threaten life itself. And yet the simple act of walking is a constant complex of regaining balance and just as constantly losing the balance just achieved.
Breathing is even more essential and just as much a matter of leaving one state for another just to make every effort to get back to the original full-lung condition. The same, of course, is true for the beating heart.
At more complex levels, and levels that comedy routinely treats in its Romantic phase, history always goes from one generation managing somehow to bear and raise children only for the children to leave the parental nest only for the children to somehow get together to bear and raise yet another generation of children. When a society forgets even partially how to accomplish this back and forth process, its days are clearly numbered; note, for example, the plight of the Roman Principate virtually from its inception.
Since we are assuming that analogous analytics to those we have developed for the Langerian-Bergsonian distinction can be fruitful in these subtypes of formal regain, we posit here that a single dramatic reality can be an ambiguous manifestation of two or more re- categories just as a joke can be an ambiguous manifestation of more than one form of Langerian humor.
So, as we have argued in the previous chapter, a single joke may be interpretable both as a Tenacity joke and a Potential joke. Now, we are positing that a dramatic situation can be interpreted as, for example both a Re-creation and a Re-construction.
While it won’t overly concern us in our following practical critical investigation of eleven vitalist comedies, it is possible for a momentary joke to be simultaneously Langerian and Bergsonian. For example, the bull dog may be a fine example of Langerian Tenacity vitalism in general but a particular bull dog tenacity may be so clearly futile or mean-spirited that we end up recognizing it as a Bergsonian example of the mechanical encrusted upon the living. It is entirely possible and entirely human to be able to laugh with and laugh at simultaneously.
Similarly among our four subtypes of regain comedic form, it may in some cases be possible to convincingly argue that a particular dramatic exchange is based on Re-presentation of some reality by one party and on Re-visioning of that same reality by a second party.
And going entirely beyond Frye and Watts and positing negative or Bergsonian-analog re- form, it is entirely possible in drama for an action to be presented as positively re-presentational in one aspect and negatively re-presentational in another, to be laughed with as a positive form and to be laughed at in a negative form.
We further posit that when such ambiguity can be convincingly demonstrated, it is likely to be also a careful act of artistic craftsmanship and is quite likely to carry important artistic implications. In short theoretically distinct concepts and definitions can and do overlap in practice, and when they do, good criticism should be able to make accurate distinctions.
Langerian and Bergsonian vitalism are in the first instance positive and in the second instance negative examples of vitalist joke appreciation. The Frye-Watts insight in its original formulations is not initially similarly two-sided. Yet we have just restated the construct of re-forms precisely to have both a Langerian and a Bergsonian analog. In this study, we will be dealing almost exclusively with the Langerian form, because it is the Langerian positive form that produces a strong positive dynamis. But negative vitalist re- forms do exist, and it is well to start with the caveat that when identified, they should never be confused with the positive form nor should it be assumed that they contribute to the positive dynamis in any direct sense.
We should then be on guard in practical critical contexts for “false regains,” that is for some re- form of action which is, in fact, demonstrably not healthy and demonstrably leading away from rather than toward healthy vitality. Where we find such false regains, there is something analogous to Bergsonian humor.
Some examples are in order. In the early 1980’s detective-comedy series, Remington Steele, Steele is a character of extraordinary and positive vitality. His virtual past allows for an infinity of previous occupations, but one is particularly well-explicated. He has at some point been in Argentina where he attracted the attention of a boxing trainer because he was never willing to stay down for the count. As the Kilkenny Kid, he took on much more burly opponents but always came back and with the help of professional boxer training always triumphed.
In other words, Steele was—and remains—a very special re; he is a vitalist rebounder.
But if there is a positive rebounder, there is also the possibility of negative rebounders. Throughout the series, Remington and Laura are in the presence of many criminals who rebound well, but not in a healthy vitalist way. Chief of these is the Moriarity figure of the series, a Major DesCoines, who is Remington’s true equal in never going down for the count however many times he is sent down to prison.
There are also repeated examples of Remington and Laura taking pity upon a variety of “losers” and even “sleaze bags” whose endearing quality is a similar recurrent picking themselves up and starting over. However, they are starting over as losers or denizens of sleaze.
Moreover, what keeps the series returning is Remington’s and Laura’s inability to find an accommodation with each other, notably because of returns and regains in both of them. Every time circumstances move toward the possibility of commitment, Laura gets on a high horse of “her agency“ and “real detective work.” And every time Laura points out that romantic intimacy is not achievable with someone who has no past he is willing to share, Remington finds that he has regained all those talents that make his past so impenetrably mysterious.
The fact of negative regain can be an important part of developing a vitalist comedic “feel.” In this case, Remington’s vitalist fighter rebounds are made all the more vivid by the contrast with sleaze-bag/ loser rebounds. And In Remington Steele the presence of so many forms of negative rebound allows the series to focus on extraordinary vitality in Remington, Laura, and even office manager Mildred without engendering the kind of unalloyed vitalist response that we will be exploring in later chapters.
Examples from the great tradition of fine literature would also include plays by Chekhov, particularly Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya. In both plays, upper-class characters typically rebound. But they rebound only in their own minds back to lower and lower degrees of successful coping with the world around them. In this sense, following Chekhov’s own assertion that he was writing comedy and not the tragedy that his directors, Stanislavski and Danchenko, consistently made of his plays (Magarshack, 264-267), Chekhov was writing Bergsonian-analogous anti-vitalist comedy.
Perhaps the most seminally important of all Bergsonian rebounders is Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Sir John is loveable in never being at a loss, always moving toward another “go” at the big time. But with each rebound, he is getting older, he is more hemmed in, his track record of failure often despite success is more in the ascendant. (See Grawe, R., “The Irrepressibly Complex Falstaff”).
Re-forms of action are then another staple of vitalist comedy. Like momentary humor, re-forms of action can be either positive or negative, Langerian-analogs or Bergsonian analogs. For the creation of drama in a strong sub-form deserving the title Vitalist comedy, it is the positive forms that must most concern us.
And while we have not strongly stressed it in this set of theoretical definitions, positive regain form carries with it feeling, moment-by-moment feeling that creates a sense of texture within a play and overall feeling which creates a sense of dynamis for the play as a whole. These forms create feeling because, again, “re-forms,” forms of “getting back to” have so much in common with the demands of life itself, and thus at least metaphorically, for something to have a re-form is an inherent recommendation of its being alive. Add to that recommendation that the re-form is also positive, that it is conducive to healthy on-going living, and positive vitalist feeling and incipient dynamis is inhibited only with difficulty.