Thursday, February 12, 2009
A Laughing Matter
A Laughing Matter
My British Literature classes have been studying the eighteenth century drama ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ and talking about the way comedy works. Its author, Oliver Goldsmith obligingly wrote an essay on comedy, setting out what he was trying to do. His thoughts can be summed up pretty simply by saying that comedy should make people laugh. Well, yes.
My students find the play mildly amusing. Humor doesn’t always translate and there is nothing more deadly to a joke than having to explain it several times. Having said that, we did get talking about why people sometimes don’t find something funny. It seems that finding something funny relies on two very different things. First of all you need to connect in some way with the situation presented. Goldsmith says it should be about human weaknesses that we can all make a judgment on ‘because all have sat for the picture.’ On the other hand, we all agreed, that for something to be funny, we need to view it as an intellectual exercise and not an emotional one. Once we relate emotionally to the object of mirth we are usually done for. Comedy just can’t be sustained. As soon as we feel we are being laughed at, it isn’t really amusing any more.
I tested these two ideas by showing my classes an episode of Dad’s Army, a British 1970’s sitcom which is set in World War 2. Dad’s Army relies on a lot of comic devices including slapstick, word play and farce. It also relies very heavily on satirizing the way we use stereotypes. The episode I chose was ‘My British Buddy’ where Captain Mainwaring’s platoon are required to welcome some American soldiers to Walmington-on-Sea. The Americans are dreadfully stereotyped, gum chewing and oblivious to any cultural signals given them. The real joke is that these stereotypes are being shown up for what they are: our own prejudices. My class struggled dutifully not to identify with the American soldiers, and as a result managed to laugh at some of the jokes. I consoled them by complaining about the stereotypical Scotsman, ‘Frazer’ who is taciturn, pessimistic, mean with money and difficult to understand. Nothing familiar there surely?
A couple of my students said they found themselves thinking about people close to them who would be similar to those being parodied, and then found themselves less inclined to laugh. It seemed like ‘being funny’ was more about how we felt about the subject than about the ability of the comedian. Sort of explains why writing humor is so difficult, doesn’t it?
Have you ever been the only one not laughing? Why was that? Are there some things we should never joke about?
Posted by Liz O'Neill at 5:00 am