Several years ago, in a fiction writing and reading class, I signed my group up to read David Sedaris’ essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” In this piece, Sedaris turns the frustration, even trauma of learning a foreign language into hilarity. Perhaps ironically, or at least incongruously, our discussion took place on a sunny day, just before the warmth turned to unpleasantness, sitting on a grassy quad under a cloudless sky. (Early summer in Utah is a spectacular thing.) When it came time for the group to discuss the piece, everyone roundly agreed that it was delightful…except for one person. Joel was classically handsome, traditionally masculine, a former high school football star who also worked as an assistant coach for the university team while working on his master’s degree—in English.
“I don’t get why everyone likes this so much,” he complained.
“Are you serious?” I asked, incredulous. “I think it’s brilliant.”
“Why?” he replied. “It’s just funny.”
“Exactly,” I said, finding myself at a loss for better words. “It’s so funny.”
Those words, “It’s just funny,” have haunted me ever since—in a quiet, low key kind of way—because I failed to really defend comedy. As I continued educating myself, I did find defenses of comedy, largely in psychological theories (Freud is fascinating on jokes) or cultural criticism. Both fields analyze what comedy does for us as individuals or as a society. As such, comedy is quite important from these perspectives.
I’ve also heard comedians unpacking comedy as craft. These include the recent double podcast conversation between Aisha Tyler and Kevin Smith or people on speaking about what they do on Inside the Actor’s Studio such as Tina Fey’s recent foray. Such discussions emphasize the thought and deliberateness that goes into creating comedy, elevating it to the same level of artistic creation as anything else.
But while I appreciate and agree with these kinds of analyses, they weren’t what I was ultimately looking for when I felt inclined to defend comedy. In the end, I wanted to understand and convey something like an aesthetics of comedy. And in my admittedly limited knowledge, I have never heard anyone defending comedy purely as an artistic expression the way we talk about sonnets or jazz or Picasso paintings. Even still, my gut tells me that Sedaris is an important author, a talented author, worth considering as a serious artist. So the question lingered: What is the worth of something that’s “just funny”?