Throughout history, some really smart people have written about comedy. They are not funny in general, in print at least (though some of them do tell some pretty good jokes). But some of the most influential thinkers in Western civilization have tried to explain what comedy is and how it works, which may explain why civilization in general is not very funny.
I’m thinking, in particular, about Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Henri Bergson.These great minds of Western civilization have provided definitive answers for the riddle of comedy. Yet all of their answers are different. Why is this? Well, for one, all of their answers to pretty much everything are different.
But there is another quite obvious reason for the differences: comedy has evolved. Look at this timeline:
|Socrates||470 BC – 399 BC|
|Aristophanes||446 BC – c. 386 BC|
|Plato||428 BC – 348 BC|
|Aristotle||384 – 322|
|Menander||341 – 290 BC|
|Plautus||254 – 184 BC|
|Dante||1265 – 1321|
|Cervantes||1547 - 1616|
|Shakespeare||1564 – 1616|
|William Wycherley||1640 –1715|
|Laurence Sterne||1713 –1768|
|Lewis Carroll||1832 –189|
|W S Gilbert||1836 –1911|
|Sigmund Freud||1856 –1939|
|Oscar Wilde||1854 –1900|
|Henri Bergson||1859 –1941|
|Will Rogers||1879 –1935|
|Neil Simon||1927 –|
The human phenomenon of comedy has changed in keeping with (or maybe faster) our understanding of the world. Comedy in the time of Plato and Aristotle may well have been much as they described it, and those few works from that time that still exist may lead us to this conclusion. But by the time Immanuel Kant was writing, he had the benefit of Cervantes and Shakespeare; these two alone are a comic revolution, with Quixote and Falstaff arguably the greatest comic creations in history. (Who would be next I wonder? Puck, Lady Bracknell, Felix Ungar…). Freud and Bergson had uniquely hilarious contemporaries in Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, W. S. Gilbert, and Oscar Wilde.
Can we blame these men for thinking differently about comedy when comedy was so different? Of course not. We would be surprised if they had not. (Philosophers talk like this, making obvious and categorical statements to buttress their fuzzy thinking; it is why I like being a philosopher).
(If you want to read more about how comedy has changed over the centuries, I suggest reading The Death of Comedy by Erich Segal. You’ll never have to say you’re sorry.)