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Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opens with the phrase: “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.” He seems to promise a performance free of troubles and the burdens of everyday life, a musical that is little more than a distracting amusement. Don’t worry, he seems to say: No philosophical musings and no moral explorations here.

And, at least on the surface, the musical does live up to that assurance. It’s a farce emphasizing slapstick and lighthearted mischief involving mistaken identities, witty plots and humorous merriment, without serious commentary or dramatic depth. It’s a romp through classical comedic elements with a modern twist.

However, within its comedic structure, the musical touches upon several serious issues through the lens of satire and parody. It comments on the dynamics, injustices and absurdities of social hierarchy and class distinctions and the arbitrary and corruptible nature of power. It critiques gender roles and the objectification of women in society.

The musical’s central theme centers on one character’s quest for freedom. Pseudolus cleverly uses deceit and manipulation as a way to achieve a degree of autonomy and self-determination in a society in which all characters, irrespective of their status, are bound by rigid societal roles and expectations.

Above all, the musical is a celebration of human folly, showcasing the foolishness and absurdities of human behavior. It reflects on how errors, misunderstandings and irrational desires drive human actions, providing a comedic yet poignant commentary on the human condition.

As Sondheim’s musical suggests, comedy need not just be played for laughs. It can also be a pathway to learning.

Profound truths and insights can be found in comedy, if students know where to look.

I have written several times about the value of tragedy in the classroom. After all, tragedy can teach us about how the noblest intentions can lead to disaster and about suffering and loss as inevitable and inescapable parts of the human experience. Tragedy can also provide valuable lessons about the consequences or our choices, the tension between fate and free will, the value of resilience and acceptance in the face of life’s ordeals, and the need to approach the complexities of human actions and decisions with more empathy and less judgment.

But what about comedy? Can comedy, too, serve as a mirror to our humanity and offer insights into the human condition? I believe the answer is yes: that there’s an important place for comedy in a humanistic education.

Comedy, of course, takes many forms. There is:

  • Slapstick: The use of visual gags and exaggerated physical actions, including pratfalls, pie throwing and exaggerated collisions, to provoke laughter.
  • Verbal: Comedy that appeals to the intellect through clever dialogues, puns, wordplay, and subtle jokes.
  • Farce: A comedic style that includes highly exaggerated mistaken identities, misunderstandings and improbable situations in which the characters find themselves in silly predicaments.
  • Satire: The use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.
  • Parody: Mimicry of a particular genre, work or artist in an exaggerated way to comic effect.
  • Screwball: A subgenre of romantic comedy that involves a battle of the sexes or a clash of personalities, characterized by fast-paced repartee, absurd situations and comedic misunderstandings.
  • Stand-up: A seemingly improvisational or raw, unfiltered form of comedy that involves speaking to a live audience with a series of humorous stories, jokes and one-liners and that often seeks to challenge norms, test limits and question the conventional wisdom.
  • Sitcoms: A genre centered around a fixed set of characters who carry over from episode to episode and who provide predictable humor in a home or a workplace.
  • Dark: A form of comedy that combines elements of tragedy with morbid and mordant elements of humor and that often explores topics that are serious, taboo or distressing.

The appeal of comedy in contemporary society tends to revolve around escapism, enjoyment and entertainment.

At its core, the primary appeal of contemporary comedy lies in its ability to provoke laughter and provide a light-hearted diversion from the routine stresses of daily life. Comedy offers a form of escapism and a stress reliever, releasing endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals.

Comedy also offers social connection. It brings people together by creating moments of shared joy and amusement.

Many comedies serve as vehicles for social commentary, offering insights into societal norms, politics and human behavior. By framing serious issues in a humorous context, comedy can make complex or controversial subjects more accessible and digestible. Like tragedies, comedies can offer a form of catharsis, but in a manner that is uplifting rather than sobering. By laughing at the absurdities of life or the flaws within ourselves and others, audiences can achieve a sense of release and renewal.

In contemporary society, comedy’s primary function tends to be therapeutic and escapist, providing relief from stress, a more optimistic approach to life’s challenges and a critical lens through which to view and critique societal issues. It offers a way to process the world around us in a lighter frame.

How, we might ask, do contemporary comedies differ from their ancient Greek or Roman or Shakespearean counterparts?

At the risk of exaggeration and overgeneralization, let me suggest some distinctions that point to the way that comedy has evolved over time. Contemporary comedies differ in several key aspects due to changes in cultural contexts, audience expectations and media forms.

Ancient Greek and Shakespearean comedies frequently tackled themes of mistaken identities, romantic entanglements, and societal norms, but within the framework of their time’s morality and social hierarchy. In contrast, modern comedies frequently deal with a broader range of themes that reflect current societal issues, including politics, sexuality, race, and identity. The treatment of these themes tends to be more direct and explicit than in classical comedies.

In ancient Greek and Shakespearean comedies, the language tends to be formal and stylized, utilizing a rich vocabulary and often incorporating poetry and lyrical expressions. Shakespeare’s comedies, in particular, are renowned for their inventive use of the English language, including puns, metaphors, and complex wordplay. These works differ sharply from contemporary comedies that use a more casual dialogue, involving slang, profanity, and colloquial expressions that reflect current linguistic styles.

Also, in classical Greek and Roman and Shakespearean comedies, characters often fit into clear archetypes such as the mischievous servant, the braggart soldier, or the disguised lover. These characters play roles within tightly structured social and moral orders. While modern comedies still utilize archetypes, they are less bound by static roles. There is often more emphasis on character development and complexity.

Unlike classical and Shakespearean comedies, which tend to follow specific structural formulas that typically progress toward a resolution that restores the social order or culminates in marriages, contemporary comedies vary widely in their structure, often eschewing rigid formulas for more fluid and fragmented narratives.

Another striking difference is that ancient Greek and Roman and Shakespearean comedies were a theatrical experience, meant to be performed in front of a live and responsive audience, which influenced how humor was timed and how stories were told. Although live comedy persists, most modern comedies are now consumed where audience feedback is delayed or mediated electronically or digitally, altering the dynamic between the performer and the audience.

What has prompted these comments is my chance to see a community performance of Twelfth Night—a comedy that includes a rich range of characters and a wealth of lessons and insights.

The theme of identity is central to the play. Viola’s disguise as Cesario not only drives the plot but also opens up explorations of gender and identity. It suggests that our identities are fluid and that sometimes it takes stepping into another’s shoes to truly discover ourselves. This leads to broader reflections on how external appearances and social expectations can shape our identities.

The play, you’ll recall, also explores love in various forms and its complexities. Love, we see, can be profoundly foolish and sublimely beautiful and often results in misunderstandings, misreadings and miscalculations.

Twelfth Night highlights the randomness and unpredictability of life. Many of the play’s events are driven by coincidences or whims, which suggests that chance plays a significant role in human affairs.

Another key theme is the foolishness of pretension. Malvolio, who is both pompous and ambitious, provides a critical look at the follies of social ambition and pretension. His downfall is a comedic lesson in humility and highlights the perils of overestimating one’s own importance or abilities.

The play also celebrates the power of humor to cope with life’s absurdities. Humor offers a way to challenge social norms, question authority and manage personal hardships. Twelfth Night suggests that a good laugh might be just as important as serious reflection for understanding the world and our place within it.

The play concludes with revelations and reconciliations that restore social order and resolve the chaotic entanglements. By forgiving one another, the characters find peace and the possibility of new beginnings, pointing to the healing power of forgiveness in human relationships.

Twelfth Night exemplifies many of the themes that run through Shakespeare’s comedies: witty dialogue and puns, disguises and mistaken identities, multiple subplots that intersect and weave together, social commentary, and resolution and reconciliation, with multiple couples coming together, misunderstandings cleared up and social order restored.

While comedies can be light-hearted, joyful, and escapist, the best contain keen observations on human nature and social norms, critiquing social pretensions and exploring human folly. Yes, comedies can provide relief and entertain, but they can also provoke thought through satire, irony and exaggeration.

In short, comedy can provide not just laughter but a lens through which we can view and reflect upon the absurdities and joys of life, encouraging a playful yet thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human.

Shakespeare’s comedies often delve deep into questions of identity, self-perception and the roles we play in society—themes as profound as any found in his tragedies. In plays like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, characters don disguises that not only drive the plot but also invite us to consider how flexible and socially constructed our true identities can be. These plays encourage a reflection on authenticity, the performative nature of social roles and the fluidity of gender roles. The comedies also explore fidelity, the nature of true love, the capriciousness of emotions, and the consequences of deceit.

Even in his lightest works, Shakespeare weaves in existential questions about the meaning of life, the role of fate and the pursuit of happiness into his plays. Comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor show that recognizing and laughing at human weaknesses can be a path to self-knowledge. They show us how humor and forgiveness can lead to personal and communal happiness. The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure offer powerful critiques of societal norms and human hypocrisy. These plays tackle issues like justice, mercy, prejudice and corruption within political and legal systems.

Comedy, in other words, can be much more than mere entertainment. It affords us essential insights into the struggles, joys and absurdities of the human condition, making them not only profound but central to our understanding of life’s fundamental nature.

Once one of my students complained that watching a comedy analytically stripped the experience of its fun. Yes, there is a tension between enjoying comedy as entertainment and studying it as a subject of academic inquiry. The student’s comment raises a number of interesting points about the nature of humor, the purpose of analysis, and the balance between experiencing and understanding art that are well worthy reflecting upon.

Comedy often relies on timing, surprise, and subversion of expectations to provoke laughter. Analyzing these elements requires breaking down the mechanics of jokes, timing and context, which can make the experience more intellectual and less visceral. After all, knowing the “trick” behind the magic inevitably reduces its impact.

Also, part of what makes comedy enjoyable is its spontaneity and the natural reactions it elicits. Over-analysis can make the comedic experience seem forced or overly scrutinized. Comedy often works best when it taps into immediate emotional responses. Analytical approaches might shift the focus to intellectual engagement, where the primary goal is understanding rather than feeling.

Yet, while initial enjoyment might be dampened by analysis, deeper understanding can enhance appreciation of the craftsmanship behind comedy. Understanding why something is funny doesn’t necessarily negate its humor; instead, it can lead to a more profound appreciation of the skill involved in effective comedy writing and performance.

Analysis also helps situate a comedic work within larger social, historical and cultural contexts, enriching our understanding of its themes and relevance, adding layers of meaning that might not be apparent through casual viewing alone.

There are many ways to engage with art, and analytical thinking is just one of them. The student’s perspective assumes that entertainment and analysis are mutually exclusive, but they can coexist. One can enjoy the humor in a comedy while also appreciating its structure, technique and underlying messages.

And finally, the academic study of comedy can illuminate various aspects of human psychology, cultural norms, linguistic creativity, and social critique. This educational value can coexist with enjoyment, and over time, students may find that their capacity to enjoy comedy is enhanced, rather than diminished, by their deeper understanding.

So, reject E.B. White’s insistence that “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Comedy can be much more than a laughing matter. It can unpack life’s complexities and absurdities, serve as social commentary, and expose human foibles. Comedy is serious business and the study of comedy should be an essential element in a humanistic education.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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