Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Matt Malone, S.J.July 27, 2018
Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

“On the Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy,” Jerry Seinfeld once observed, “there are four faces: Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Don Rickles.” Obviously, Mr. Seinfeld was referring to their professional accomplishments, not their private conduct. By that standard, I think he is probably right; though, as Chris Rock has argued, the memorial might also include Joan Rivers, who broke new ground in the largely all-male world of professional comedy, leaving a lasting mark on late night television. Truth is, I do not really know enough to decide whose image should be etched in some metaphorical stone.

Yet Mr. Seinfeld’s comment got me thinking about what those famous folks have in common and whether it might explain how American comedy is and is not like its British cousin. I can tell you this after living in London for three years. It is easy to see that British and American comedy are different; it is not so easy to say how. Perhaps that is because there is something inherently mysterious about comedy. Most of us have a sense of when something is funny and when it is not, especially when we transgress that boundary. But it is much harder to say why something is funny and, even more, to say why someone is funny.

I suspect that what is unique about American comedy is rooted in that “someone,” in the people who created it. If Mr. Seinfeld is correct, then American comedy is largely the creation of Jews, Catholics and African-Americans. That is not to say that other groups have not made important contributions. But after a quick survey of the historical and contemporary comedic landscape, one gets the sense that if we were to remove the influence of Jews, Catholics and African-Americans from American comedy, we would be left with something like Ziggy. (That’s a joke, meant to test the hypothesis in the second paragraph).

Still, like most jokes, there is some truth in it. For one thing, good comedy is usually the work of outsiders looking in. Mr. Seinfeld’s observational, what’s-the-deal-with-airline-peanuts brand of comedy is a good example: He steps out of the minute absurdities of our common life and invites us to join him there, outside, to peer in and laugh at how ridiculous the party looks through the window.

Every laugh expresses a hope—the hope that this mysterious, terrifying world is somehow intelligible, or survivable, or both.

Since the story of the United States is largely the story of outsiders becoming insiders, it is probably not a coincidence that the principal creators of our distinct brand of comedy belong to groups who were, at one point or another, on the outside looking in.

So maybe the difference between American comedy and its British counterpart is the singularly American ambition to go to the party, accompanied by the confidence that in America we can and eventually will. A similar ambition exists among the British, but more often than not the joke is about how those on the outside looking in are likely to stay there, because they were born to the wrong family, in the wrong class, or went to the wrong school.

In other words, American comedy is more optimistic. The British comedian Stephen Fry once put it this way: “That scene in Animal House where there’s a fellow playing folk music on the guitar and John Belushi picks up the guitar and destroys it. The cinema loves it. [Belushi] just smashes it.... Everyone thinks, ‘God, is he great!’ Well, the British comedian would want to play the folk singer. We want to play the failure.”

Yet that explanation tells us only that culture can determine how something is funny. It does not tell us why something is funny. Since it is ultimately a mystery, we surely cannot know the answer in any definitive sense. But I found a clue in, of all things, a definition of the church from the writings of the theologian William T. Cavanaugh: “The mission of the church,” he wrote, “is to enact the comedy of redem- ption amid the tragedy of the world.”

Popular comedy strikes me as doing something similar. Every laugh expresses a hope—the hope that this mysterious, terrifying world is somehow intelligible, or survivable, or both; that, at a basic level, we can make sense of the world, or at least make our way through it without being crushed by the weight of events. When we laugh at the absurdity of life, we embrace it anew with a daring we somehow lacked before.

Comedy, then, doesn’t just tell us what the deal is with airline peanuts. It tells us what the deal is with ourselves, and why it is important to take this very serious world—and our very serious selves—a little less seriously.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago

A comment about modern comedy.

https://althouse.blogspot.com/2018/07/its-era-of-thats-not-funny.html

There's always Stephanie Wolfe, heroine of the left. Let's not forget Kathy Griffen. There's the tasteful late night TV comedy which Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert excel. Thank God tor Trump. Much fewer would watch these people. Trump Hate is big business. Is this optimistic for America?

JR Cosgrove
5 years 9 months ago

Comedy, then, doesn’t just tell us what the deal is with airline peanuts. It tells us what the deal is with ourselves

Spot on!!!

The latest from america

A Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinMay 22, 2024
Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee in ‘Cabaret’ at the Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre (photo: Marc Brenner)
The complicity of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust is the central subject of two shows now running in New York City.
Rob Weinert-KendtMay 22, 2024
At center: Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson sits beside Democratic President Joe Biden during the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 1, 2024. (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters)
Your enemies are children of God—and that includes the presidential candidate you can’t stand and his supporters.
“Brothers and sisters, humility is everything. It is what saves us from the Evil One,” Pope Francis said at today’s general audience, concluding his cycle of catechesis on virtue.
Pope FrancisMay 22, 2024