Humor: There's Funny -- and There's Symptom of Decline

Any culture that can laugh at torture and murder is a culture in deep, deep trouble.
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It's been said that to analyze humor is to take the fun out of it. But sometimes analysis is needed, funny or not. This train of thought was sparked by a panel, "Comedy as Commentary," presented recently by a Seattle theater.

To start, the critic on the panel outlined the historical development of comedy in the theater, beginning with the ancient Greeks when Aristophanes tweaked the tragedians and philosophers, continuing through the traveling improv players of the commedia dell'arte who sent up social types, through Moliere in the 17th century who made enemies and risked arrest with his satires skewering hypocrisy and power. The playwright and the actor on the panel spoke of how comedy is harder than drama to write or play, but when it works, it's magic onstage.

Interestingly, during the back-and-forth of audience discussion, it became apparent the 20th century, and the 21st to date, was/is not so funny. At least not many examples were offered, and those that were offered were drawn with some strain.

One person mentioned the heyday of radio comedy and Jack Benny's impeccable timing. Another noted it was a comic, Charlie Chaplin, who in The Great Dictator (here and, more soberly, here) dared to make fun of evil incarnate Adolf Hitler as he invaded country after country in Europe. As for theater comedy, the playwright on the panel speculated that Neil Simon's period-specific comedies will not be produced 50 years hence. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart were cited as models of today's political comedy.

But another audience member lamented at length the prevalence of "scatological" humor, especially in movies and TV. The cruelty in much of today's humor -- such as the putdown and the roast -- was also cited. In contrast, the critic on the panel noted the gentle humor of a new play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain, about his mother's decline and death (in that play the mother says to her playwright son, "I know you'll write about this. Just don't make me look foolish" -- a line guaranteeing the play's humanity). Still, making others look foolish is the thing now. Do we wonder why the sound of America laughing is at present a hollow sound?

Finally, when someone in the audience exclaimed how he "loved" the subversive humor of a recent play -- The Lieutenant of Inishmore by "hot" Irish playwright Martin McDonagh -- in which the central character tortures and kills five people because somebody killed his cat, I had to respond.

Any culture that can laugh at torture and murder, I said, is a culture in deep, deep trouble. Rather than serve as outlet for healthy laughter, such comedy -- that laughs at torture and murder, that pioneers in ever grosser scatology and cruelty -- is, in truth, symptomatic of decline, about which there is much talk and much evidence these days. Such humor is so not funny. Warming to my theme, I took a parting shot at Stephen Colbert: While his TV show is clever, his testimony in character to a Congressional committee was not. Congress is already broken, what's funny about sending up ruin?

Audience response, to judge by comments made afterward, was supportive -- "I'm so glad you said that!" -- though a Colbert fan argued that Colbert, in setting up his Super PAC, is actually performing a public service by highlighting the "humongous role" of money in politics. O.K., I can agree about the Super PAC, though I still think the Congressional testimony fell flat.

Later, on the drive home, I had an attack of what the French call "the wit of the staircase," when -- too late! -- you imagine how much more apt and eloquent you might have been when on deck. It came to me, then, why I get so agitated about Inishmore: It's not only the play's inhumanity, but its timing. First produced in London, it opened in New York in 2006 -- two years after America's official policy of torture came to light during the Bush years (Abu Ghraib broke in 2004). While conscientious artists and members of the public were protesting America's moral degradation -- after three years of protesting in print I found myself in a very dark, very unfunny place -- a New York Times culture reporter could snigger about the production, "Truly, is there anything in the world more bracing than watching people storm out of a play in disgust while you remain behind, having a marvelous time?" This joke of a cultural gatekeeper proudly noted his 14-year-old daughter joined him in his juvenile glee ("That's my girl"). The Times review suggested we turn off our "political correctness monitor" (a theme another theater parroted).

Please: If your country's foundations are being rendered into ruin, what is funny about watching the rubble bounce? For the conscientious artist and public, what is the counter?


It's then that I thought of George Bernard Shaw, who come to think of it, had not been mentioned by either the panel or the audience -- strange, since the subject was comedy as commentary and Shaw is possibly best known for his dramas of social and political commentary. I can't say Shaw is always my favorite -- his "talky" plays can get derailed in patter and subplot (I dozed off once during a performance of The Doctor's Dilemma). But for what ails us now, Shaw's toolkit could be a tonic.

Shaw set out explicitly to write "problem" plays -- anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-aristocracy, pro-working class ("Only in the problem play is there any real drama," Shaw wrote). He created compelling characters, often archetypal in weight, to animate a play's problem. Given the high stakes in his plays, Shaw made demands: He expected his audience "to take its conscience and its brains with it when it goes to the theater, instead of leaving them at home with its prayer-book." And, as this quote indicates, he understood that revelation, perhaps even reform, was more likely to occur if the problem were leavened with wit.

Shaw's wit could be dark: Heartbreak House, written during World War I, depicts upper-class twits pursuing their twittiness as war looms, even welcoming a bombardment as a break in their boredom, while old Captain Shotover natters on and on about the need to hone one's "navigational skills." No wonder this play wasn't produced until war's end. Less dark is Major Barbara, in which the young Barbara works in a Salvation Army mission to counteract the influence of her father, "the cannon king," munitions manufacturer Andrew Undershaft. Posing the swords or ploughshares choice, Undershaft challenges Barbara and her fiancé, a professor of Greek, to take over the factory and make war on war and on poverty; they accept.

Think what Shaw could do with our own Heartbreak House of a moment -- with our political paralysis, bloated capitalists, Occupy protests, not to forget a culture reporter who proudly cultivates in his teenaged daughter a funny bone for torture and gore. As commentary on the times, even Shaw would be hard-pressed to find the comedy.

Note to self and audience: Try anyway. And bring along the conscience and brains. Perhaps we can take the rubble and rebuild.

To a new kind of humor -- and a new day.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is the author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," which is included in a forthcoming volume titled "Two Plays of Life and Death." She is at work on a new play titled "Prodigal." Her book of commentary is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character."

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