Comedy: A Few Moral Considerations

by Mr. Sheehy

The following is a handout I created for my American literature students as we consider comedy and its role in literature. While I have always respected E.B. White’s comment that “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind,” I do think that we can misapply what White is talking about if we use it as an excuse not to discern and appreciate what we consume when it comes to comedy and humor.

Comedy: A Few Moral Considerations

Since part of the essence of comedy is recognizing an inconsistency, it is small wonder that comedy is so frequently a tool of reproof, a tool often used to expose behavior that is morally inconsistent or false. Yet as comedy enters this territory it often broaches subjects and behavior we would not endorse or commend. What should we make of that? That and a few other questions come to my mind as we consider the moral aspect of comedy, and I thought we could explore some of them in this handout. In his book Realms of Gold, Leland Ryken addresses some of these ideas, and I have framed his comments as answers to a few questions.

Why does comedy so often address touchy subjects, or subjects that would normally be socially awkward to discuss?

  • “There is a logic to comedy. A comic handling of a sensitive subject is one way to distance it so it can be viewed from a safe distance.”
  • “Comedy thrives in a spirit of freedom from ordinary restraints, with the result that we normally find it funny when someone displays a flagrant disregard of normal inhibitions.”

Should we laugh when we see others in pain?

“An important part of the dynamics of comedy is that the audience feels superior to the comic victim. Secure from the threat of what is happening to the victim, we are in a position to laugh at something that we would find painful if it happened to us in real life.”

When we laugh at someone, even a character, are we consequently mocking them?

  • “In the very act of laughing at literary characters, we acknowledge that life is this way. We do not wholly approve of human nature as we look at it, but neither do we for the moment sit in harsh judgment of it.”
  • “Comic art possesses in the highest degree that faculty shared by all art, sympathetic vision.” – Ernst Cassirer
  • “The vision of comedy is social, in contrast to the focus of tragedy on the individual.”

Does comedy potentially look past folly or vice, to excuse it?

In one sense, it does:

  • “Both tragedy and comedy reconcile us to common human failing. But tragedy makes us fear it, while comedy makes us comfortable with it.”
  • “Comedy reduces people to the common lot of the human race and declares it good.”
  • “In the act of laughing tolerantly at human misconduct, we withhold our moral judgment, no matter how temporarily. The strategy of comedy is generally to make us relax our sense of moral judgment against the moral failings that we observe.”

Is relaxing our judgment against vice ever a good thing?

There is a sense that comedy helps us cope with our own limitations and fears: “Reading stories about human failing can serve the beneficial purpose of helping us cope with a ‘given’ of our own experiences in a fallen world, namely, human failure.”

Aside from biting satire, can comedy be used to to reprove human folly?

  • There is a sense in which comedy done well can be seen as “a compassionate reproof of human weakness.” In this sense, there is correction, but it is coupled with compassion.
  • “A spirit of forgiveness hovers over comedy.”
  • “To laugh at human error as we do in comedy is to know that we have surmounted it.”

Comedy is often praised for being “irreverent.” Will comedy inevitably corrupt moral standards?

  • Certainly it can be used to corrupt standards, but comedy itself is likely not the corrupting force, and comedy gets rid of moral standards at its own cost: “The force of humour is frequently dependent upon stirring our sense of the incongruity between what people do and what they ought to do. Humour can rarely afford to dispense with the yardstick of traditional morality.” – Harry Blamires
  • “It is dangerous, though, because of its status as a weapon of destruction and nothing more.” – Aaron Belz
  • “It’s important to know that satire functions as an anti-rite, relies on shared values, so it’s equally vital that we double back and identify the positive source of the satire we appreciate.” – Aaron Belz

Is comedy immoral?

It is probably helpful to separate the ideas of morality and taste. A joke may be moral in nature (that is, it may teach a fundamentally moral lesson) but be indecent in content.

Similarly, a joke might also have an immoral thrust to it and be “decent” in terms of appropriateness. However, if this immoral thrust is truly immoral, according to the audience, will the audience find it funny? It seems unlikely, since, in such a case, it is likely that the humor would be deemed untrue, transgressing what E.B. White observes about humor: “I don’t think I agree that humor must preach in order to live; it need only speak the truth–and I notice it always does.”

Sources

  • Belz, Aaron. “On Satire.” Comment. Cardus, 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.
  • Ryken, Leland. “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Comic Spirit in Literature.” Realms of Gold. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1991.
  • White, E.B. “Preface.” A Subtreasury of American Humor. E.B. White, ed. New York: Modern Library, 1941.
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