When I was a freshman in high school, I had a crush on a senior who was everything I wasn’t: rebellious, jaded, cynical and depressed. We were in plays together and often had conversations that went something like this:
Him (seductively sipping black coffee and listening to Pink Floyd on his CD player): So you want to be an artist?
Me (breathlessly): Yes!
Him (lights a cigarette and roguishly sweeps his bangs to one side): Well then, you’ll have to do a lot drugs. And, of course, get your heart broken and become hopelessly miserable. Otherwise, your work won’t have meaning.
Me (eagerly): Okay!
It didn’t work out between us. He’s now married and has a kid.
His advice — though he probably meant it to be profound and nonconformist — expressed a very mainstream view: If you can’t fake a mental breakdown, then you can’t act; if your words don’t stem from past emotional trauma, then you can’t be a poet; and if you don’t find either of these things to be true, you can’t be an academic, a politician, or considered intelligent. Glance at the syllabi of most English or theater classes anywhere and you can infer that it is the tragedy, depression and morbidity of Chekov, Plath and Poe that we are supposed to worship.
Yet how many people reading this have watched all three of Tina Fey’s parodies of Sarah Palin on YouTube and think they are brilliant and worthy of praise? And how many think the movie “Mean Girls” provides an incredible commentary on modern teenage social interactions? I feel I could write a thorough, analytic essay on either. I’d even turn it in to Harold Bloom. But would I get any credit for my labor? Probably not.
Comedy has traditionally been an under-appreciated — and even openly condemned — element of art, academia and politics. Aristotle, the original trendsetter of western civilization, defined tragedy as any noble representation of noble people, and comedy as a base representation of base people. Tragic flaws and agonizing pain are desirable qualities, and even have the power to elevate the status of those who possess them.
Shakespeare cemented it by making his comic relief consist mostly of peasants and drunks. Being funny is for the poor, ignorant and unfeeling — not for heroes. The final scene of Henry IV illustrates this best: Prince Hal (now King Henry V) publically denounces his friendship with the witty, debauched and loveable Falstaff so he might be taken seriously as a competent leader of his people. Needless to say, the rest of the play is a lot less funny.
But Falstaff provided invaluable perspective — and so do today’s comedians. While politicians must be politically correct and diplomatic at all times, comedians can say whatever they want. In accordance with this double standard, the former becomes circumventive and the latter incredibly honest.
By throwing out all mediating jargon, the latest SNL parody of the debates highlights Biden’s contradicting views on gay rights and Palin’s lack of ability to discuss a concrete plan for healthcare, among other things. The comedians on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” regularly mock all parties, races, creeds and genders, revealing incongruities in American society. And they do so with such perfect timing, intonation and skill. I will be the first to declare Daniel Day Lewis a fine specimen of an actor, but I do not think he could do what Jon Stewart does. Nor could Milton rival Chaucer or Oscar Wilde in social criticism. Why, then, does the dramatic still retain more cultural capital than the hilarious?
The intellectual and art communities need to grow up. Stop being so emo. Learn that it’s okay if nerds have senses of humor — I promise a good joke won’t lower your intellect. It might even stimulate valuable discussion and provoke dialogue about taboo from the dirty underside of modern society. Comedy often exposes the ugly truths about racism, sexism and prejudices exactly as people see them — not as politicians would want them to be seen.
Sure, society often needs bitter medicine, and we can’t always laugh our way through the tough issues. But, as Mary Poppins says, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The medicine may still be there; the sugar is only trying to help. It usually works.
O’Hagan Blades is a junior in Pierson College.