Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

August 10, 2009


Ty Burr, Boston Globe - Who decides that laughter is a lesser response than the sigh or the sob? Why isn't the gift of transfixing audiences with delighted surprise, with forging new connections from the absurdities of life, with undercutting pretentiousness and reminding us of the shock of the real, not considered a profound thing?

Perhaps the answer lies in a comedian's psychological profile. The stereotype, of course, is of the class clown who will do anything for a laugh, with laughter standing in for attention and attention standing in for love. The competitive drive that fuels a racing mind can mask deep insecurity, always feeding, always hungry. . .

That drive can create great comic art out of isolation, resentment, and self-pity: Think of all the "little men," before and after Chaplin, who have gotten laughs from exacting revenge on the pompous and complacent. . .

The mold was set by Chaplin but the rigidity of the Hollywood studio system, in which moguls owned their stars outright, kept comedians in their place. Those who tried to break out learned the hard way, as when silent star Harry Langdon tried to imitate Chaplin's pathos and saw his career dry up overnight.

It wasn't until the rise of Jerry Lewis in the 1950s and early 1960s - the solo, post-Dean Martin Jerry - that slapstick turned ambitious again. "The Nutty Professor" (1963) was a manic comedy laced with real anger and hurt; within the decade, Lewis would embark on the infamous "The Day the Clown Cried," still never publicly screened, about a death camp comedian leading children to the gas chambers. . .

The persecution of stand-up artist Lenny Bruce at the hands of censors and the law in the 1960s gave the culture its comedian-martyr, suffering for our sins of repression, and many of the ambitious comics since have worked from his template. Melding Bruce and Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams erupted on late-70s TV sitcoms and in performance like a volcano of the Id. . .

Great comedy and great drama both spring from the delusions of fictional characters, but they point in opposite directions. Tragedy makes small characters big, magnifies mistakes until they're epic, flatters our own daily disasters by equating them with Fate. Think of heroes from Oedipus to Lear to Willy Loman.

Comedy, at its best, does the reverse: It cuts the powerful down to size and gives the common man a voice. Moliere's Bourgeois Gentleman is revealed to be an officious twit, the generals and presidents of "Dr. Strangelove" are misguided buffoons, a Will Ferrell newscaster can be a blowhard marvel. The idiot savant is ennobled: the Nutty Professor and Happy Gilmore and Ace Ventura insist that surrealism and studied rudeness are the only sane responses to an insane world.

It's through this endless clash between lowbrow and high, in fact, that culture itself comes - that standards are established and values assigned across boundaries of class and power. Of course comedy matters. If comedians themselves ever realize that, they may yet have the last laugh.


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