The Value of Comedy

Comedy is often in our lives for reasons we don’t stop to think about. There’s comedic movies, stand up comedians,  television shows, and then there’s just those funny people we like to be around. It feels good to laugh, that’s no secret. In fact there’s actually many health benefits to laughing, but comedy itself also signifies a deeper meaning to the viewer.

Much of the comedy we watch is absurd, wacky, unrealistic, and yet we still love it. Think of some of the popular comedies on T.V. like Family Guy, South Park, Archer, The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, ect. These are all cartoons, having little basis in reality. Other popular shows like The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, The Middle, Parks and Recreation, are sitcoms that have at least some basis in reality. This first group of shows, the cartoons, are in a sense meaningless. That being that they are sporadic, subject to change, don’t follow to concrete story line, and aren’t purposefully set up to teach a message. There are some exceptions to these, but in general these shows are there to make the viewer laugh and forget about reality. The second group of shows, the sitcoms, allows the viewer to enjoy the show as they make jokes about things that are meaningful to them. Things that have basis in reality like jobs, politics, relationships, ect. 

The reason why these shows that have no basis in reality have grown to such startling proportion is because it is much easier to lose oneself in them. For instance, after a long day at work an episode of South Park will help a person forget their day easier than a show like The Middle, which often displays the characters dealing with the stresses of their jobs and home life. At the same time that’s what makes sitcoms like The Middle or Modern Family so appealing. The take the concept of home life, school life, work life, and they display it so it can be laughed at, and suddenly everything is alright.

Much of comedy aims to point out the absurdity in life. This is the specialty of satire, and groups like Monty Python honed this trait. In movies like “The Life of Brian” satirizing religion, or “The Meaning of Life” satirizing life itself, the viewer always walks away with a lighthearted grin, even after being repeatedly subjected to the meaningless the film presents.

Stand up comedy reaches similar goals. But the advantage of stand up comedy is that a single person is performing, allowing for the individual to take away certain truths from the show. For instance, an hour of watching Louis C.K. might make a person aware of how selfish or slobbish they act. Or a show of Lewis Black might make a person rethink their stances on political issues, how they deal with technology, or how they spend time with their parents. This is the upside of having a single person, it is much more personal for the viewer.

Comedy really does play an important role in our lives. It makes things better again and helps us cope with daily life. It can help a person discover more about their personality by what they find funny. A person’s sense of humour is one of the most revealing traits about them because it gives a glimpse of their inner psyche. But their is also a downside to comedy. I’ve personally witnessed this before, but too much comedy can lead a person to have a near disconnect from reality. Meaning their entire reality becomes cartoons and movies. Likely this is just a side effect from a much deeper issue, but it’s what our parents always warned us about when turning on the T.V.

So for those feeling a little blue, sinking a little too deep into the absurd, it’s okay. You can laugh. In his book Either/Or the existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it as:

When I was very young, I forgot in the Trophonean cave how to laugh; when I became an adult, when I opened my eyes and saw actuality, then I started to laugh and have never stopped laughing since that time. I saw that the meaning of life was to make a living, its goal to be- come a councilor, that the rich delight of love was to acquire a well-to-do girl, that the blessedness of friendship was to help each other in financial difficulties, that wisdom was whatever the majority assumed it to be, that enthusiasm was to give a speech, that courage was to risk being fined ten dollars, that cordiality was to say “May it do you good” after a meal, that piety was to go to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.”

And this is the goal of so much comedy and a trait that so little of us practice. Philosophers like Kierkegaard or Voltaire never underestimated our need to laugh, and neither should we.

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16 thoughts on “The Value of Comedy

  1. And comedy is in the eye and mind of the beholder. Some folk at crazy about Monty Python. Others are driven crazy, in the “can’t stand it”, “what do people see on this?” exasperated sense. By the way, the MP team had a thing or too about philosophy and philosophers. Check out the Philosopher Song, and the also, the Philosophy sketch in The Meaning of Life. Much of the great British comedy of the fifties and sixties was like this. A wisdom and insight bordering on the juvenile and surreal. The Goons, Pete and Dud, Tony Hancock. At times existential, at times pantomime, but always connecting with life and all its secret chords. Then, there is Woody Allen. He is loved and hated in equal measure, often for reasons totally unrelated to his art. The thing about Woody is you either get him or you don’t. I am one of those who “get him”, and even in his more mediocre moments, you can can glean the existential angst of his greatness. What would life be without Annie Hall, Manhatten, and Hannah and her Sisters? And if you only watch one Woody movie, then watch Oedipus Wrecks, his contribution to the marvelous trilogy New York Stories. .

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  2. Robert Heinlein in the book Stranger In A Strange Land spent a lot of time having the character of Mike thinking about laughter which he believed was the key to understanding humanity. Mike’s revelatory moment was when he saw a pen of monkeys at the zoo beating on one another and suddenly grocked that laughter was ‘not a goodness’ but a ‘healing and balancing’ thing. He asked his friend to tell him any joke and he would be able to point out why it was funny, and that it would be because there was an inherent ‘wrongness’. He pointed out that the joke was almost always about something that hurt someone on one level or another and that most jokes would not be funny if they happened to you.

    When his friend told him that this was a horrible thing, Mike replied that it was a wonderful thing because, through laughter, there was a sharing of the pain which made it possible for humans to bear up under so much and not lose hope.

    Ever noticed that most comedians have led a life that was hard or emotionally challenging? “We laugh that we may not cry.”

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  3. In one of my comparative literature classes we actually read an essay that was entirely about the cultural significance of comedy, the argument being that in many ways comedy can act as a sort of gatekeeper of what is culturally acceptable and what isn’t — what we feel comfortable laughing at shapes how we view/interact with those subjects. It was very interesting, I wish I could remember the author or title so I coins link you to it.

    The act of creating comedy is, I think, just as important as laughing at comedy. The cathartic effect it has on those writing the comedy is immense, just as is the cathartic effect of actually laughing. My roommate does stand up comedy, as does my partner, and both use it as a way to cope with trauma, mental illness, and stress.

    The power of comedy really is great and underestimated.

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  4. I particularly liked your line, ” comedy…makes things better again and helps us cope with daily life”. How true that is, and there’s nothing better than to have a few mates to have a good laugh with-it really does help to make the burdens of life lighter.

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