Photo Credit: Untitled painting, artist unknown (but noted from the Flemish school). 1571-1604, Carnavalet Museum. A representation of a commedia dell’arte troupe, one of the carnivalesque groups of comic actors performing in Italy in the 16th century. A lose translation of the description in French tells of a scene where a lover passes a message to his beloved under the suspicious eye of another suitor (the man in grey) while his servant (in red and black) looks on: PRA/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0
“[H]umor often helps us deal with difficult subjects that might be too hard to face without it.” (Oliver, par 2)
I have always loved humor, when done intelligently and with sincerity, in art. At one time, I tried to write humor but feedback from other writers told me that I was pretty dismal in my attempt. It wasn’t that the story wasn’t interesting, they said. They just didn’t see the humor in it.
In her article, “Dealing With Serious Issues With Humor And Wit”, writer Kelly Oliver talks about how using humor in art gives us a way to digest hard-hitting topics (sometimes boring, sometimes offensive, sometimes intense). I recently saw a clip from an interview done with legendary director Frank Capra where Capra states that, especially for an American audience, using humor is a way to entertain and the American people aren’t sold on a film or a book, no matter how entertaining, without it.
While I appreciate humor for its own sake, like the purely American breed of comedy slapstick, I think, as Oliver does, that humor can do so much more than just entertain. Humor can show us different perspectives on subjects that we usually don’t find too funny. For example, many wonderful comedies focus on criminal behavior, exposing its absurdities and defeatism. A classic film, The Lady Eve (1941) gives us a charming example of card sharks working their way on an ocean liner. A father and daughter (played by Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck) entice a young man (Henry Fonda) who is heir to a fortune into card games, fleecing him with complements about his rather sophomoric card tricks. Of course, the tables turn when Stanwyck falls in love with Fonda in the film. A more contemporary example is the con men team of Michael Caine and Steven Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) who set out to cheat a beautiful heiress (Glenne Headly) out of her fortune and end up being beaten at their own game.
Another reason why wit can be so effective in art is that it can show us ways in which dominant ideologies affect us, literally, emotionally, and psychologically. Through humor, we see the limitations of the big “T” Truths that we’ve always been taught. Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called this kind of wit the carnivalesque. This idea comes from ancient times when political and social power was subverted during carnival time when the lower classes observed comic performances that mocked the higher classes. In the essay “In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival Against Capital, Carnival Against Power”, Andrew Robinson states “[f]or Bakhtin, carnival and carnivalesque create an alternative social space, characterised by freedom, equality and abundance” (par. 3). This freedom gave one chance to those who were not of the dominant classes and ethnic groups to expose the absurdities and cruelties of those who were. To this end, the carnivalesque was “not simply a deconstruction of dominant culture, but an alternative way of living based on a pattern of play” (Robinson, par. 5; emphasis added).
In her article, Oliver refers to the feminist revenge story as an example of the way in which humor can be used to deal with topics that pertain to the oppression of women, such as rape. She points out, “who doesn’t like a feminist revenge story where the fraternity would-be rapists boys get their butts kicked and our heroines prevent another campus rape?” (Oliver, par. 5). The purpose of these stories is not to glorify violence and oppression against women but to “focus on ways women can be strong and fight back, at least in the world of fiction, a feat not always so easy in the real world” (Oliver, par. 4).
The feminist revenge story has been a staple of many comedies for years. Many pre-code Hollywood films, for example, turned sexual harassment of a male boss on a female employee into a humorous event. In comedies, the boss usually got a lesson in human respect by a smart, snappy secretary who always resisted his advances. The 1980 comedy 9 To 5 turns this scenario on hits head. In the film, Doralee (Dolly Parton) is the personal secretary to the boss Mr. Hart (played by Dabney Coleman) enduring his constant chased and ogling. Mr. Hart even brags to his colleagues about sexual exploits with her that take place only in his wishful thinking. In a fantasy of her own, Doralee becomes the boss while Mr. Hart is the secretary and gives back the sexual harassment that she’s gotten (only she is straight-forward about what she wants rather than subversive about it). The fantasy ends with Mr. Hart tied up over an open fire like a roasting pig (a mirror of the chauvinist pig he really is).
Wit, when done with intelligence and potency, can really be the way to open the door to the lives of those we don’t often see. As Oliver states, “Humor and comedy allow us to face and process difficult issues that we might otherwise avoid or deny” (Oliver, par. 11). I recently saw the wonderful comedy Torch Song Trilogy (1988). The film follows the experience of a gay man (played to perfection by Harvey Fierstein, who also wrote the screenplay and the play on which it was based) named Arnold Beckoff in his search for life and love. The film is not only hilarious but a touching and powerful window into attitudes towards gay lives in the second half of the 20th century. One particular scene illustrates this beautifully. During a visit to the grave of his recently deceased father, Arnold and his mother (played by Anne Bancroft) get into a vicious fight about love. Ma Beckoff accuses her son of being insincere in his compassion for her loss because she doesn’t believe that, as a gay man, he can really know what it’s like to lose a life-long companion. This is a huge blow to Arnold, who is grieving over his lover (Matthew Broderick) who died a year before in a gay bashing. The fight escalates into the kind of insults that come off as both tragic and hilarious. The idea that Ma Bekcoff’s prejudices come from the perception that gay people cannot love and mourn like straight people, that they are invisible and somehow less than human is not lost on the audience.
Writers and other artists do need to be very careful when they incorporate humor to tackle sensitive and serious material, just as they need to be careful when dealing with cultural issues. But humor and wit are potent tools in the artist’s toolbox.
Oliver, Kelly. “Dealing With Serious Issues With Humor And Wit”. Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books. Women Writers, Women’s Books. 9 September 2016. Web. 28 September 2016.
Robinson, Andrew. “In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival Against Capital, Carnival Against Power”. Ceasefire. Ceasefire Magazine. 9 September 2011. Web. 28 September, 2016.