Some Thoughts About Comedy
The word comedy comes from the Greek komos., meaning a triumphal procession. It is thought to have originated in Greek festivals celebrating the death and resurrection of Dionsysos, composed of a tragic play (which developed into a trilogy of three) and a comic play (which survived in the form of the satyr play performed after the tragedy, a word which it is thought comes from the Greek tragos meaning a goat song, for the goat was an animal sacred to Dionysos.) One led into the other. The chorus of the tragedy became the triumphal procession celebrating the resurrection, and the priest leading the komos, which was frequently a bawdy rout for Dionysos was god of wine, represented the god. Thus we see that comedy is intimately linked to tragedy, and I think that’s true still today. Behind every great comedy there is a sadness, which is what gives the edge to its humour. Comedy, at its best, is always serious underneath and perhaps you could say, without being too pompous about it, that it has a moral purpose. It gently makes us aware of our own faults and gives us a sympathetic insight into those of other people.
There’s another aspect that fascinates me as well. It’s quite illogical and yet it isn’t irrational. When the guest complains to Basil Fawlty about the lack of view from his window and Basil says ‘What do you expect? Herds of wildebeest’ we don’t say ‘no Basil you’ve got that wrong, there are no herds of wildebeest in Torquay’, we find it funny. But you can’t explain why it’s funny. It’s a kind of logic beyond logic. It may sound absurd but it makes me think of the way all the great mystical theologies of the world teach that God is beyond images or reason or explanation, that there is a dimension of reality beyond the logical and reasonable one we know. Now science seems to be coming to much the same conclusion. Wave/particle duality, nonlocality, time going backwards, and infinities of universes are all beyond our capacity to understand them. According to Stephen Hawking when Pietersen hits a ball to the boundary the electrons in the ball don’t just go to the boundary, they visit everywhere in the universe on the way. Well it doesn’t look like it. How could one do anything but laugh? It seems completely irrational but it can’t be because it underpins the rational world we know. So maybe even comedy, in its funny way, puts us into contact with this further dimension of reality, in fact, thinking back to Dionysos and the komos, perhaps it is even a celebration of it. Not, when viewing a video clip of Bernard Manning, that one might immediately leap to that conclusion.