The Study of Humor

Dear Readers:
Yesterday hubby and I were assigned an airport pick-up: our granddaughter was arriving from Tucson via the campus shuttle service. We scooped her up, I handed her a sandwich, and we slogged off through legendary Phoenix rush-hour traffic to attend her alma mater’s homecoming football game. I commented about her delayed arrival, knowing she’d had a late class. She responded, around a mouthful of ham sandwich, that she probably hadn’t learned much in that class but then proceeded to expound on comedy and tradegy in the ancient world. After years of hearing about the latest fad in attire, rap music, or yoga, I was surprised when she launched into a dissertation on ancient playwrights and their use of comedy as it applies to philosophy. For twenty minutes she compared Aristotelian vs. Brechtian approaches to epic drama, citing examples from Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles. As we pulled into the school parking lot, she commented, “Guess I learned more today than I thought. In fact, a lot more.” 

What a pleasing and astonishing event hearing this freshman drama student talking about how tragedy can be turned into comedy by approaching unhappy circumstances and casting them as the unavoidable capriciousness of the gods, the cosmic lightning bolt flung from the clouds. The human race becomes bound together as the “straight woman” on the stage of life. Humor becomes the yeast that leavens the bread, helping us laugh at what should be painful moments without obvious smacking of principles or morality.

This seems like a good lesson for a serious writer like moi. I want my protagonists to take life seriously, their frown a perpetual mask. But a lively character needs to comment wryly, pointing to the absurdity of the situation by making it funny. The “woe is me” dangling around my heroine’s neck needs to laced with the survival skills of comedy to convert gloom into laughs. I only wish as much could be said for the outcome of the football game.


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