Comedy

Mindsprings blog post Comedy

When I was growing up, the mother of the family across the road, Marilyn Chapman was a teacher at a local school .

I remember talking to her at some party at their house when I was 17 or so. I was talking about my French ‘A’ level set texts and was moaning about how much I hated ’L’Avare’ by Moliere.

“It’s stupid steretypical comedy. I much prefer the Sartre’s ‘Les Main Sales’,” I said rather ponderously.

The younger self loves tragedy because the younger self is so self-absorbed

She seemed bemused. “Ah,” she said, “as I get older I like comedies more and more. I love Moliere. He’s so… human, so sweet. Perhaps it’s an age thing?”

That comment has been burbling around in my head all these years. And now that I’m 50 I think I might finally understand what Marilyn Chapman meant.

The younger self loves tragedy because the younger self is so self-absorbed.

Of course, when you are the be-all and end-all of existence any problem, defect or obstacle naturally becomes ‘tragic’.

The seriousness of the existentialists, the blood and fury of Lear and Macbeth and Othello, Sylvia Plath and Dostoevsky. These are all beloved by the young because for the young every event in life seems so very IMPORTANT and WEIGHTY.

From a Buddhist point-of-view this is all of a piece with having too much self.

When we have too much self (a glimpse at any of my journals from 18 years to 35 years will give you a flavour of that) then we suffer. When we let go of the GRAVITY of the self and surrender to the ANTI-GRAVITY of selflessness, then suffering stops.

Being narcissistic doesn’t necessarily mean you think you’re great.

Noticing, caring, watching, admiring, smiling at and talking to other people is krytonite for tragedy. If Othello had simply talked to Desdemona about his jealousy then they would have lived happily ever after. But tragedy depends on a closed and claustrophobic circuitry of self. And it makes no difference if I’m as gradilioquent as a Lear or as doubtful as a Hamlet.

If I think that the world is out to get me; that no one loves me; that I am fatally flawed; that I’m a hopeless, insignificant nothing. Well, I’m still always thinking about ME.

Being narcissistic doesn’t necessarily mean you think you’re great. You can be equally egotistic when you are constantly telling yourself (and everyone else) how shit you are. It’s still a morass of self-thoughts.

Which brings me back to comedy.

It struck me as I was talking to a client the other week that we would do well to live our lives more comedically. To stop making a drama out of our lives all the time – or at least see the comedy in the drama we make.

Tragedy would have us be all transparent and timeless but comedy insists on flaws.

Rather than criticise ourselves for being jealous or needy or judge others for being selfish and remote – we can recognise that this is both sweetly unique AND charmingly human. Yes, my neurosis about being single is a pain. But it’s my own sweet characteristic that adds savour to the unique thread of my life. Tragedy would have us be all transparent and timeless but comedy insists on flaws.

In fact, you could say the very stereotyping that Marilyn Chapman found charming and I found offensive in Molière illustrates the two views quite neatly.

We like to think we are unique and our suffering is tragic. But the truth of the matter is that we are part of an infinite sprawling mass of similarity.
Probably nothing that we experience is not also being experienced by a billion other human beings at the same time.

It’s unacceptable for my ego to admit that my issues around myself are actually common-a-garden and generic

“My sadness. My OCD. My neuroticism. My family woes. My pain” is so much more painful (and tragic) than “All the sad people in the world. All the people with the same OCD, neuroses and pain. All the squillions of people who get tangled with their parents.”

Of course, it’s humiliating, shameful and unacceptable for my ego to admit that my issues around myself are actually common-a-garden and generic. Because that would turn my experience from a tragedy (poor unique me) to a comedy (charmingly human me).

But perhaps the ego needs to laugh more and not take everything so seriously?

It seems to me that the essence of comedy is that there’s no perfection. The foibles and madnesses of every character (miser, lover, misanthrope, hypochondriac, king) are all held up to the light of humour and not taken too seriously. They’re celebrated in a way but it’s a very wry celebration.

There’s a good case for simply living our life as a comedy rather than a tragedy

Moreover, there is a strong recognition of contingency in comedy. The farcical coincidences and sudden changes of heart that are integral to comedy are actually a more accurate mirroring of life that the leaden certainties and fixity of tragedy. We do change our minds (a million times a day). There is no reason to be the same person day-in-day-out. Life is always throwing massive curve balls. And we can cut ourselves some slack when things go wrong.

Things go wrong in life. And likewise, things go wrong in both tragedy and in comedy. But in comedy we think it’s charming.

So, there’s a good case for simply living our life as a comedy rather than a tragedy. Which is not to make light of painful things and shocking traumas, but to simply frame them differently.

I could grow old as a tragedian seeing the inevitable arrival of old age, sickness and death as a personal tragedy. Or I could grow old as a comic, seeing the delightfully painful humanity in all those things.

When we embrace impermanence, non-self and interconnectedness then we are almost forced into the comic camp

We all know old people who have made that choice – in one direction or another – and we know what it’s like to sit in their presence for extended periods of time.

For that reason, it’s salutary, I think, to make a choice for the comic view each morning. Yes, there are difficulties and pain in each day but in a tragic view that’s where the story ends (Elsinore, a bloodbath. Dunsinane, the same.) But in a comedy there’s always a twist, a resolution. Bad things turn good. (Or at least they turn.)

The Buddha was quite clear there was pain in life. No kidding. But he’s not a tragedian. The Pali canon and all subsequent canons of Buddhist writing spend much more time talking about sukka (sweetness and joy) than dukkha (suffering). When we embrace impermanence, non-self and interconnectedness then we are almost forced into the comic camp.

Nothing lasts (not Harpagon’s piles of gold, not David Brent’s job), nothing is fixed (the lovers in Midsummer Night’s Dream can fall in love elsewhere, Fleabag can let the Sexy Priest go). And we are all interconnected. We are all suffering together and we are also being human together too.

So why not laugh?

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7 Comments

  • Jane Davis says:

    Intriguing ideas….for some reason, I thought of this blog when I read today (2/23) of the death of San Francisco literary fixture Lawrence Ferlinghetti (at 101 years old), who published many of the Beat Poets, including publishing Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” (and got arrested for publishing such a ‘lewd’ poem). When I was in my teens-early 20s, Ferlinghetti’s poem “The World Is a Beautiful Place” really spoke to me when I would be feeling more in tune with how sucky certain situations seemed. I think its (clever) sort of cynicism spoke to me then in the way you discuss how some young people can be attracted to the more seemingly gloomy aspects of literature (and some other things). Anyway, since the blog brought back Lawrence Ferlinghetti into my mind (and vice versa), here he is:

    The world is a beautiful place
    to be born into
    if you don’t mind happiness
    not always being
    so very much fun
    if you don’t mind a touch of hell
    now and then
    just when everything is fine
    because even in heaven
    they don’t sing
    all the time

    The world is a beautiful place
    to be born into
    if you don’t mind some people dying
    all the time
    or maybe only starving
    some of the time
    which isn’t half so bad
    if it isn’t you

    Oh the world is a beautiful place
    to be born into
    if you don’t much mind
    a few dead minds
    in the higher places
    or a bomb or two
    now and then
    in your upturned faces
    or such other improprieties
    as our Name Brand society
    is prey to
    with its men of distinction
    and its men of extinction
    and its priests
    and other patrolmen
    and its various segregations
    and congressional investigations
    and other constipations
    that our fool flesh
    is heir to

    Yes the world is the best place of all
    for a lot of such things as
    making the fun scene
    and making the love scene
    and making the sad scene
    and singing low songs of having
    inspirations
    and walking around
    looking at everything
    and smelling flowers
    and goosing statues
    and even thinking
    and kissing people and
    making babies and wearing pants
    and waving hats and
    dancing
    and going swimming in rivers
    on picnics
    in the middle of the summer
    and just generally
    ‘living it up’

    Yes
    but then right in the middle of it
    comes the smiling
    mortician

  • Hi Alistair,
    This is quite long so you might want to save it for a slow day, but I found myself cheering this post:

    “… we would do well to live our lives more comedically. To stop making a drama out of our lives all the time – or at least see the comedy in the drama we make.”

    We seem a little short on comedy these days – even pre-Covid. There seems to be a view that for something to be worthwhile it must be listened to with notepad and poised pen and choreographed with wise nods and ponderous chin stroking. We take ourselves too seriously in order that others too will take us seriously. To laugh at the ridiculousness of life, to go off-script in the age of virtue-signalling for validation, is to invite censure and judgements of not being enough or relevant or adequately compassionate. To have a comedic approach to life today is deemed an act of callous insurrection, a belittling of circumstance and suffering.

    I agree that tragedy is an excess of ego. Yikes, my teenage journals. So much angst! So much railing! So much self-victimisation! But is tragedy transparent? This is where I think I may have misunderstood your meaning. I would have said that tragedy is the very opposite of transparent. It is cloaked in layers of inner subterfuge, self-delusion, denial and justification. Our desperate, self-serving manoeuvring is transparent to the audience, but not to the players. “Bloody Lear,” we sigh as he huffs and puffs. “He’ll regret that later.” And we help ourselves to another chocolate so we can hate ourselves better in the morning.

    It’s only through your introduction to somatic meditation and tapping that I’ve become aware of the extent of my own quite brilliant – even if I say so myself – mental dodges and swerves. Up until that point, I’d remained blissfully unaware of my secret stash of tragedy. I like to bounce and bumble through life, living in the present, leaving the past where I left it. I’ve mentioned to you before that having things rear up from the deep tends to rubber-band me back into the gravitational pull of that ego-fuelled, tragedy-loving teenager which can be hard to escape from.

    However, I found the perfect rocket booster in comedy. I’d been working through your tapping course and had become increasingly avoidant of practising. Out of curiosity, I tested the statement “I trust Alistair”. Of course I do. Nice chap, Buddhist, rescue dog, great range of home knits, enunciates beautifully. Why wouldn’t I?

    Apparently I don’t! You are not trusted! Not by a looong way! Sorry, no offence.

    So of course, then I had to run through everyone I knew. Turns out the only people I trust are Chris and my two children. And do you know what? I roared with laughter. I found this illumination gloriously, hilariously messy, ridiculous and human.

    Coming at if from a psychotherapy point of view, perhaps this raises yet more ponderous chin stroking, a demand for greater examination, more importance, more weight, narrower vision, more ego. But simply recognising and enjoying the absurdity – not to mention impracticality (try finding a cat-sitter) – of distrusting everyone, to laugh at this, is hugely liberating.

    I’ve always been drawn to comedy – I’ve dabbled in script and sitcom writing – and all the comedy writers that I’ve ever met have been angst-riddled introverts. They have bumped up close to the frailty of the human condition and, through their writing, alchemised it into something gentler that can be safely recognised by an audience – by us. We see ourselves as the players, our sameness, and finally we can laugh with, and not at.

    Comedy. What a wonderful gift.

    T x

  • Andrea Keohane says:

    Really enjoyed this post and loved the reference to fleabag! I will try to choose the comic view tomorrow morning.
    Jane, thank you for sharing “The World Is a Beautiful Place”, it was full of life toward the end and then, a little eerie.
    Thanks both 😊

  • Lorraine says:

    Well i never.

  • Angela Packer says:

    I just loved reading this. Choice is a glorious thing. 😊

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