How does one describe the nature of comedy? Comedy is both simple and complicated. How comedy works is simple, but what is funny is complicated. Comedy describes the nature of the universe in universal terms. Every culture has a sense of humor. Every culture across the global and across time values humor. There are figures in literature and culture such as "the fool," and "the jester." These kinds of figures in literature and history and culture are valuable. The voice of comedy is often one that is able to cross social boundaries/construction, class, institutions, etc. The Shakespearean fool gets to speak the truth when often many other characters cannot. As Shakespeare wrote in "Hamlet," "Much truth is said in jest." Comedy as a psychological expression or function is also very interesting. The ways people use comedy say a lot about who they are and what they think. Comedic writing, like other artistic expressions, reflects the perspective and experience of the author. It also communicates the author's reflections, conclusions, and questions about life, reality, and the human condition. These three pieces of writing the paper will examine are classic. Though written hundreds of years ago, they are still studied today. The texts upon which the paper will focus are "A Modest Proposal," "The Unbidden Guest," and "The Importance of Being Earnest." The paper will describe the nature of comedy. It will look specifically at comedic methods such as irony, satire, and farce in the three pieces of comedic writing. The paper will provide a comparative analysis of the comedic methods present and offer an evaluation of their comedic efficacy.
Let us discuss of what constitutes comedy. Comedy is some kind performance with intent to induce laughter in an audience. What is laughter? What makes people laugh? The study of the psychological and physiological effects of laughter is called gelotology. Laughter is a necessary function to survival. All mammals laugh, not just humans. Laughter keeps contributes to psychological, emotional, and physiological health. Laughing engages both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously. Laughter can be a coping mechanism when one experiences emotional stress. Sigmund Freud theorized that laughing releases tension and psychic energy; his theory is called relief theory. Laughter does always come from a place of joy or happiness. People laugh when they are nervous, upset, and angry. Sometimes excessive laughter is a symptom of a neurological disorder and psychosis. We can experience laughter across a great spectrum of emotions. So again, what makes people laugh? Any and every subject is perceived by someone as funny. What one person finds offensive, another person finds hilarious Because we can laugh when we feel just about any emotion, comedic writers have a great wealth of material from which to choose. Comedic writers enjoy a wealth of freedom, actually. A comedic writer, an effective one in any case, is able to take any subject, engage with any emotion, and make people laugh.
What of the comedic methods of satire, farce, and irony? Satire is a literary form or genre in of itself. Within satiric literature or the satiric form, the goal is to display human flaws of character and other shortcoming to ridicule and mockery. Comedic writers who use satire intend to show the shortcomings of humanity in such a way as to motivate personal change of behavior and/or attitude. Comedic writers utilizing satire are concerned with social change through shame and ridicule. The description could be perceived as cruel or harsh, though the intent is also, always to be funny. Satire expresses social commentary and social criticism. Satire uses comedy as a weapon used upon the audience to push society into social change or even revolution. Sarcasm is a critical element of comedy in general, and in satire specifically. Elements of satire may include parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre. The subtle and versatile manipulation of language is integral in any type of writing, particularly in comedy. In comedy, satire is a form of assault.
Farces involve virtually indeterminable narrative threads. There are often many characters, convoluted plots, and fast-paced action or dialogue. Farce entertains audiences with hyperbole and improbability. There are often characters with disguises or characters that are victims of mistaken identity. Linguistic play is additionally key in farce; there will exist a spectrum of humor, from highbrow, to lowbrow or vulgar. Towards the conclusion of a farce, there is often some kind of chase scene. Because in a farce there are multiple narrative threads, unlikely and random occurrences, audiences are invited not to concentrate so much on the plot, but focus more on the comedy and other aspects of the show. Farces are absurd, silly, and involved physical humor such as slapstick.
Irony is likely to be the most widely used comedic method. Irony functions through contrast, juxtaposition, and schemas of reality. Irony is simple, yet the successful execution can be challenging. Irony occurs when an author expresses meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite of the intended or explicit meaning. The contrast serves typically for humorous and/or emphatic effect.
"Jeeves & the Unbidden Guest" is a farce. It uses very dry wit. The comedy is this play stems from absurd solutions to absurd situations. There are under-reactions to people and circumstances, as well as overreactions. Jeeves, the servant, and Bertie Wooster, an English gentleman, get into a brief argument over the appropriateness of the tie he wears. The contention persists throughout the piece of writing. That there would be such a discussion about a tie or that the narrator who is clearly the man of the house would care or even engage in an argument with a servant about his own tie, is absurd and hilarious. In fact, although the main push of the plot is Motty staying with the narrator at the request of Aunt Agatha, most of the comedy and the drama comes from the domestic disagreements between the butler and the man of the house:
"I could have sobbed into the bacon and eggs. That there wasn't any sympathy to be got out of Jeeves was what put the lid on it. For a moment I almost weakened and told him to destroy the hat and tie if he didn't like them, but I pulled myself together again. I was dashed if I was going to let Jeeves treat me like a bally one-man chain-gang!" (Wodehouse, "Jeeves & The Unbidden Guest")
The comedy is also evident the in actual manipulation of language; language is a primary tool of comedy in "The Unbidden Guest." There is also evidence of physical comedy and irony.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" is also a farce. Earnest pretends to be other men whom he is not. The men he pretends to be are not qualified to marry Gwendolyn as she declares she must marry someone named Earnest. Though for awhile, Earnest's charm and personality work upon Gwendolyn and not only does she believe him to be Earnest and earnest (as in sincere), but she also believes him to be an honest man: "Ernest has a strong upright nature. He is the very soul of truth and honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception." (Wilde, "The Importance of Being Earnest," Act II) What the "fake" Earnest learns toward the close of the play, is that he is named after the father he never knew whose name was Earnest; therefore, Earnest was Earnest all along, although he did not know himself. This play is additionally a satire on the institution of marriage and on class. Each act of the play takes place within the interior of the home of a socialite or aristocrat. The practices and behaviors of the upper class are portrayed in an absurd manner. Cecily comments: "This is no time to wear the shallow mask of manners." (Wilde, Act II) The manners of the upper class are a superficial mask to disguise vulgarity, lust, and unpleasant emotions.
"A Modest Proposal" is definitively a satire. Jonathan Swift suggests that citizens of Ireland eat children because there are too many. When the reader considers the subject of the writing and then title, the reader becomes aware of Swift's sense of irony. There are too many people procreating irresponsibly. That kind of disregard is causing all kinds of challenging consequences in society. Instead of altering the behavior, Swift says, essentially, the kids are already here, we cannot put them to work; they are not really useful and there are quite a lot of them, so why not just eat them? Furthermore, Jonathan Swift's American friend in London claims children taste delicious and are a versatile ingredient:
"I have been assured by very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy children, well nurse is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout." (Swift, "A Modest Proposal)