The Riddle of Comedy

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
Moliere 1622–1673
William Wycherley 1640 –1715
Laurence Sterne 1713 –1768
Immanuel Kant 1724–1804
Lewis Carroll 1832 –189
Mark Twain 1835–1910
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.)