Philosophical Slapstick

What might make comedy tick (or not)

Apparently, John Dewey has been carving out a secure little place in my brain; from the post a couple of weeks ago that helped me clarify the experience of at-home food delivery to the man’s thoughts on aesthetics in general, I’ve been weirdly intrigued by this great of American philosophy.1

It’s not necessarily his big ideas that are holding me captive. Rather, every now and then, I’m hit by the unintentional hilarity of some of his phrasing. Maybe it just has to do with the weird way my brain can twist even the most mundane subject matter into some screwball scenario; maybe, too, it has to do with outmoded forms of speech, or even of spelling (Dewey’s prone, for example, to talking about providing a “clew” to help us think through a given matter). But I’m also coming around to the possibility that what I’m seeing is the result of thought becoming so intense, it doesn’t realize that the seriousness with which it takes itself has crossed the line into comedy.

W. J. Morgan & Co., 1885. Public domain image courtesy Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.

Two of the quotes I’ve been sharing all week might offer good examples:

"It is a familiar fact that colors of a landscape become more vivid when seen with the head upside down."

"Space is inane save as occupied with active volumes. Pauses are holes when they do not accentuate masses and define figures as individuals... space remains... an opportunity for further action."2

I mean look, the first one is a given; how could you not wander into cheap images of a philosopher swinging by his knees on a tree branch in pursuit of aesthetic truth, the better to experience the sunset’s true brilliance, or Brainy Smurf seeing stars after landing on his head, the result of being kicked out of the village for refusing to shut up? As for the latter quotation, it’s been eons since I’ve come across a better phrase than “space is inane;” it’s just begging to be turned into a good punk anthem.

Admittedly, these snippets have been removed from their surrounding contexts; Dewey does not, of course, believe that space itself is inane; he’s talking about the mis/use of space in works of art. And abandoning your normal upright position is one particular way of forcing yourself to see any number of things from a different perspective—a view that might sometimes be essential to seeing meaningfully at all. But in the midst of paragraphs’ worth of carefully laid argumentation, these quirky few sets of words trip you up just a bit, make you forget where you were, remind you like a Zen master wielding a stick to relax the brow that was furrowed in concentration.

So no, I’m not trying to channel Beavis and Butt-head (heh heh: he said “hole”)—but I am starting to wonder what makes me, at least, laugh—a project that might after all be strangely aligned to Dewey’s own heartfelt investigations into what makes an experience aesthetic. In this instance, it’s the simple incongruity, the unexpected appearance, of something goofy raising its irrepressible head, popping into an atmosphere in which silliness just isn’t appropriate. It might be even funnier if Dewey really was unable to recognize any of the comedic possibilities in his writing; after all, that good old banana peel of slapstick isn’t funny until it inadvertently trips up the victim who wasn’t paying attention to what was right in front of him. Maybe both of those instances are reminders of the way in which too-intense focus—on our argument or on our attempt to reach our destination—fits us with blinders.3

But that sort of slip-up also says something about the spontaneity that seems to be part of good comedy, and why a lot of what goes by that genre’s name does little more than annoy me. The zaniness of clowns stomping around with exaggerated gait and make-up, the in-your-face clumsiness of Steve Urkel, any number of stand-up comedians who don big old sneakers to show their cool: it’s all so practiced, one more instance of trying way too hard. You can see the work being done, the labor that’s trying to hide the intense striving behind it all. Planned comedy, in other words, is usually no comedy at all. There’s not even a bit of space remaining for something unexpected to happen. Inanity, sure. Funniness, no. I’m guessing if Dewey attempted to “demonstrate” comedy by doing a goofy dance he’d prepared, no laughter would ensue—only embarrassment for the performer.4

What’s a comedian to do, then—not practice, just leave the routine to chance? That’s also not going to work; that fantastic eating machine scene in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times had to have been rehearsed and rehearsed again to make it work. My guess is, in line with the importance Dewey placed on continual feedback from and interaction with the environment, Chaplin and his crew knew they had something good because they recognized just how idiotic trends in workplace efficiency could be; they saw the ways in which the unexpected could break forth, and exploited those potential blowups for all they were worth—and were able to do so because they were experienced actors, and had learned what lands and what falls flat; and because they had taken the time to study how particular machines worked and could malfunction. In similar fashion, any comedians who’ve ever made me laugh are in the end nothing more than great observers, who make what’s already inherent in the everyday jump out at you. And even the connoisseurs of the oddity of daily life, like Mitch Hedberg was, recognize when something’s bombed—they register the feedback they’re getting, and try to roll with the punches instead of pretending nothing happened or turning defensive.5

Is this why so many sitcoms and movies are so often boring—because there’s no heckler to push the cast into course-correction? Because a person or team who just keeps plodding along the same path (here, I’d say, a script or style of acting), whatever the circumstances, seems more like a machine than a participant in the living interaction Dewey kept insisting was part of a great experience?

Maybe so. But maybe trying to explain every little chuckle will only wind up killing it; maybe I should just step away from the keyboard and let the laughs come whenever they feel like it. I’ve got about 70 pages remaining in Art as Experience; I think I’ll just get back to it, and hope its author drops at least one more inadvertent zinger before it all comes to a close.

1

In addition to that post I mentioned, I’ve also tossed out the same quotations I’ll cover here on Twitter and Patreon. Obviously, no catharsis has yet ensued.

2

John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn Books, 1934/1958), 249, 212.

3

And at the risk of going too far out on a limb, if Dewey couldn’t see the forest of comedic potential for the trees of exact description, he strayed from his own pragmatist assertion that art (including good writing) only happens when the creator and the environment are working together in a sort of feedback loop. In this instance, I’ll claim his potential audience could have stood in for that environmental representative, their snickering causing him to lift his head and tinker with his wording.

4

Although I can’t imagine Dewey ever being daffy in the manner of early Jim Carey, I want to believe he had and was willing to share a sense of humor. In the book under discussion, I take the following footnote, which accompanies a critique of the very unsilly Immanuel Kant, as evidence: “The effect upon German thought of Capitalization has hardly received proper attention." Dewey, 252.

5

Great as the linked set is, around 2:35, Hedberg asks in recognition of his previous comment kind of sucking, “Can we take that joke out?”