A Funny Thing Happened While Reading these Books

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

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September is comedy month around here. Actually, every month is comedy month around here. However, September is especially funny right now since I have two large projects due in the next ten or so days. One of those projects is involved with the journal SCREEN BODIES. The other, is a book on comedy and philosophy–ethics to be more precise–and I’m trying to draft a decent introduction to the book. So, in light of my attempts to introduce some themes on comedy, I thought I’d share four books that have helped me hone my thoughts these past few months. This is just an introduction.

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Lisa Trahair’s The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick (SUNY 2007) is an interesting study at the intersection of early film and philosophy. Bringing Deleuze, Bataille, Hegel, Gunning, Freud, and Lyotard into conversation with Chaplin, Keaton, Sennett, Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers is no easy task, and Trahair maintains a careful balance between film and philosophy, keeping them both in sight without allowing either to dominate her focus. While I’m partial to Chaplin above all, her focus on Keaton especially has helped me rethink slapstick, the gag, and embodiment in my own work.

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Laughter: Notes on a Passion (MIT 2010) by Anca Parvulescu has bent my thinking in two directions. First, I’ve always thought too much (all) philosophical writing on comedy and humor reduces comedy or humor to laughter. There is no tradition of talking about comedy itself without invoking laughter. Rereading some overviews of the small number of philosophers who have written seriously about comedy, I have had my suspicions reconfirmed. There is yet to be a good study of comedy as comedy, without the move to laughter. Yet, Parvulescu warns us, all this talk of laughter has not even been about laughter proper, but has been about laughter in relation to the comic or humorous. Comedy and laughter have always been yoked together. Her project is to think laughter without reducing it to comedy; mine is to think comedy without reducing it to laughter. Second, just as there are few canonical women in the history of philosophy, there are few canonical women in the history of comedy. Traditionally, Parvulescu reminds us, women have not been allowed to laugh but only smile. There may be no more taboo image than the image of laughing woman! I have especially enjoyed and reread Chapter 5: “Cinema, or the Laughing Gas Party”–and its focus on “the echo of revolutionary noise.”

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Bernard Freydberg’ Philosophy & Comedy: Aristophanes, Logos, and Eros (Indiana 2008) is a new book to me. I’ve only just read about it only just opened it after some friendly recommendations. Anything at the intersection of comedy, philosophy, logos, and eros excites me these days, so I look forward to spending the weekend with Freydberg’s thoughts on the matter. According to the back cover, “Fredyberg challenges notions that philosophy is best served by a tragic disposition and arrives at a new assessment of the philosophical importance of comedy,” so I bet I’m going to enjoy it.

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If you’ve only just begun to take comedy seriously, this last book is for you. John Morreall’s Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor (Wiley-Blackwell 2009) is by far the funniest of the books on this list–and the most accessible “comprehensive philosophy of humor” I’ve read. Morreall approaches his survey with a clear and concise language while covering a lot of history in 145 pages. (I was struck by how manageable the book is.) In mapping the history of theories of humor and traditional rejections of comedy’s seriousness, Morreall discusses the Superiority theory of laughing at others, the Incongruity theory of laughing at oddities, and the Relief theory of laughing off steam. He then comes to his arguments (following Aristotle and Aquinas) about laughter as play, as sign of sociality. “I’m not laughing at you; I’m laughing with you so you don’t bludgeon me with that fallen tree branch.” Living amongst one another might be a pretty ticklish adventure after all! [In the end, I remain skeptical of the evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology deployed in this last argument. Cognitivism does always make me snort, a little. But it is interesting to contemplate laughter as play, even if we might giggle at some of the “evidence.”]

I recommend all four of these books (and many others) on the philosophy of humor. It is interesting stuff, and once you begin taking comedy seriously, you might just find something funny in others dismissing it. 😀

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