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”?
The defense of comedy comes more easily when found under that ugly portmanteau “dramedy.” Films such as Little Miss Sunshine and Away We Go walk the line between heft and levity, and we delight in the opportunity to wrestle with Truth while also getting in a bit of a giggle. But in such cases does comedy function as honey sweetening the heavy Truth pill or a necessary part of the aesthetic, the craft, the artistry?
The question of comedy’s merit came up again recently in a discussion with a friend over the history of sitcoms. I was declaiming the importance of 30 Rock, in part because it’s almost a classic sitcom and yet consistently transcends and manipulates the conventions of a genre grown so tired it usually has a lot of nerve calling itself comedy at all. (I’m looking at you, Two and a Half Men.) During this conversation, I returned to the problem of defending the aesthetics of comedy. As I told this friend, I believe that comedy has artistic merit but I cannot find the words to explain why.
Like all such lingering questions of much giant weightiness, I found my answer quite unexpectedly and it was so obvious that the feeling was less “Ah ha!” and more “duh.” My friend mentioned Louis as another important, recent evolution in comedy television. A few days later I watched my first episode of this bizarre creation of comedian Louis C. K. Many smart things can be (and have been) said about the show’s depiction of masculinity and fatherhood, and its strange hybridity—Autobiographic fiction? Fictional autobiography? Pastiche? Vignettes? Post-modern sit-commery?
But what struck me most about Louis was its darkness. Despite the comedy, make no mistake, Louis is grim. It’s also hilarious. And yet it somehow didn’t quite fit the whimsy I generally associate with “dramedy.” And yet again, though it’s overtly “comedy,” written by and starring a “comedian,” Louis feels like it has more in common with The Wire than Ally McBeal.
As I pondered Louis and pondered the aesthetics of comedy, I finally stumbled upon the key question: apart from craft, what gives Art its virtuous weight? The answer: it reveals essential truths about the human condition. Huh, I thought, quality comedy does that too. See? I told you it was more “duh” than “Eureka!”
Charlie Chaplin to David Sedaris, Kurt Vonnegut to Nick Hornby, Roseanne Barr to Tina Fey, Molly Ivins to Stephen Colbert—there’s a reason why the best comedy punches you in the gut even while you’re laughing. Quality comedy makes us squirm, allows us to laugh at forbidden topics, shows how laughter may be the only defense in the face of bleak, human existence. Even when it’s not palliating the horrors of life, it still emphasizes the pleasures of joy, silliness, and belly laughter. And it often teases the brain, requiring foreknowledge or complex thinking in order to “get” the joke. In sum, it does everything that Faulkner does and yet it’s fun! Hence, it’s unflaggingly miniscule place in the echelons of Art. But that’s okay. I won’t tell if you won’t.