Black Books and the gift of comedy

Shakespeare ruined comedy. I had this realization — not for the first time, but with renewed force — last night as I was watching an episode of a British TV series called Black Books in which the lead female character, under the influence of a yoga-teacher friend, attempts to improve herself, stops smoking and drinking, etc., but at the end of the episode gets roaring drunk and backslides to her old self. The way it was set up, with the yoga teacher and briefly the main character herself waxing exceptionally self-righteous and hypocritical, the reversion to the status quo ante came as a huge relief and added greatly to the satisfaction I felt as a viewer.

It occurred to me that the imperviousness of human beings to real change is a theme in all the funniest comedy I’ve read or seen, from Japanese Bunraku puppet theater to the plays of Ben Johnson to Rabelais, the Marx Brothers and Monty Python, and yet it directly contradicts the orthodox view of What a Good Story Should Do, which was drilled into me as early as primary school. There must be character development, right? In the course of the play or story, through some sort of conflict, the main character(s) must grow or change in some way. Otherwise, they’ll remain two-dimensional — mere caricatures!

Well, there’s a certain amount of truth to that, actually. Perhaps what I am advancing here is a defense of the caricature as a satisfying stand-in for human beings in the round, especially in the dramatic arts. Even where tragedy is concerned, too much so-called realism can spoil things for me. The slow, spare gestures of Noh and the histrionic emotions of Western opera alike point to deeper truths about the nature of existence than a merely naturalistic portrayal might. In Aristotelian aesthetic theory, the proper audience reaction to tragedy is catharsis, a kind of emotional purging or cleansing originally associated with sacrificial rites. Physiologically speaking, there’s little doubt that a good cry when one needs it tends to improve one’s general outlook. But it seems to me that comedy can do even more to restore a sense of well-being and harmony, and that the primary physical manifestation there is the belly-laugh — but sometimes tears, as well. This can feel at least briefly transformational.

So I guess there’s an irony at work here: in order to enable a profound emotional change in the audience, the playwright or scriptwriters have to depict characters as basically powerless to change either fate (tragedy) or their own nature (comedy). The more a comedic character remains true to type, the funnier the comedy, I think, because the biggest laughs tend to be provoked by nervous recognition, shock and relief. And when there isn’t any expectation that characters have to conform to some notion of realism, the true (as I see it) absurdity of existence is brought into sharper focus.

Romantic comedy as more-or-less invented by Shakespeare gives us happy endings in which characters change for the better, but sacrifices the sense of total absurdity found in true, Ben Jonson-style comedy. After hundreds of years of cultural conditioning, we tend to perceive the Shakespearean approach as more realistic, but what if the Buddha was right, and life is in fact inherently painful and unsatisfactory? Isn’t the sort of progress envisioned by the writers of conventional dramas rather trivial, if not down-right delusional? We all die in the end, and many of us will suffer rather intensely before that happens. We need belly laughs, I think, much more than we need the false comfort of belief systems that teach us to yearn for progress. Hoping and yearning, while I suppose necessary at some level, don’t restore a sense of harmony with the universe the way laughter can. They leave us perennially dissatisfied with our lot, a society of whiners and wankers (and — totally coincidentally, of course — a society of avid consumers).

In some ways, the caricature is realer than we are willing to admit — perhaps because our very sense of self is a social construct, with no real soul or essence behind it. There’s an artificial quality to every personality, which a well-written and -acted comedy simply exaggerates. Thus, comedy simultaneously tests and reinforces our belief in the self; it’s oddly comforting when characters in a comedy attempt to change and fail miserably, as in the episode of Black Books that I was watching last night. The caricature is stretched a bit, it heaves and threatens to break its bonds like a belly in a paroxysm of laughter, but when it returns to the way it had been, there’s both relief and pleasure. Change is scary and difficult, so a failure to change is reassuring, letting us off the hook in our own fucked-upness. But while the characters haven’t changed, and perhaps we haven’t either in any fundamental sense, at least for the moment we feel a greater affection for them — and for our own, fucked-up selves. And this is the greatest gift of all.

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