top of page

"On Violent Laughter (and Other Comedic First Principles)": An Essay by Will Franken (Keywords: Humour; Satire; Happiness; Subversion; Identity; Plato; Aristotle)


Eslabón by Carlos Martiel

From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.



With relatively few exceptions and across all fields, careerist concerns have always exercised a parasitical relationship upon artistic authenticity. From music to literary fiction to the visual arts, instead of facilitating original expression and legitimate talent, too often marketing apparatchiks, surreptitiously adopting the guise of artists themselves, stand poised to interfere with and muddy the streams of pure creativity. Particularly susceptible to this artistic toxification is the comedic genre, in part perhaps due to the scant empirical criteria required of the profession. That is to say, a virtuosic guitar player could theoretically try his or her hand at a few jokes between songs, but a standup comedian with no musical aptitude would be hard-pressed to make an equivalent transition.


Although this phenomenon within the comedy industry is by no means a new one, the current technocratic landscape has made such desperate opportunism more starkly evident. Terms such as “viral” and “influencer”, for example, as indifferently abstract as they are in tone, can at least be acknowledged for stripping away the pretence that a good majority of comedians today are striving for anything deeper than hits, shares, likes, or whatever else might be grouped under the heading of narcissistic recognition.


As a result, most true connoisseurs of comedy will find the contemporary landscape exceedingly misleading. A new generation of performers culled from the cutely-monikered platforms of TikTok and Instagram are punctuating their curricula vitae with numbers of online followers as if such mathematics reveal anything at all about comedic craftsmanship and insight. Meanwhile, for over a decade now, almost the entirety of live comedy bookings in the United Kingdom have been arranged through a solitary, members-only “Pro Comedy Gigs” Facebook page. From this platform, club bookers, most of these comedians themselves, having waived any interest in personally curating their own shows, lazily opt instead to select their line-ups through comments left on their posts as if chucking out so many breadcrumbs to a flock of starving pigeons. The implication, of course, is that comedy is an amorphous and indefinable substance that merely requires the right algorithmic jostling to give it form and function.


Unsurprisingly, the offline comedic world of today offers little respite from its digital counterpart. Former award-winning sitcom creator Graham Linehan, still nominally operating under the label of comedy writer, now divides his creative time between political chat show appearances and histrionic all-night tweeting about the rise of transgenderism. In fact, one of Linehan’s regular outlets, the conservative propaganda television channel GB News, features a rotating stock of hosts, performers, and producers all culled from Comedy Unleashed, a self-proclaimed free speech live comedy night in London. In the meantime, for those who eschew faux political outrage and crave instead the artificial comforts of televised domesticity, viewers can re-watch comedian Noel Fielding learning how to bake a cake on Channel 4 or comedienne Sara Pascoe learning how to sew a quilt on the BBC.


To anyone with even the most cursory appreciation of the by-now antiquated denotation of the word “comedy”, there seems to be very little of it evidenced by its contemporary crop of practitioners, both veterans and novices alike

This last winter, Stewart Lee, the doyen of the modern alternative comedy scene, was hired by the Royal Shakespeare Company to further their dual aims of undermining the Bard’s artistic authority and underestimating their audience’s literary intelligence by contemporising the “Porter Scene” from Macbeth to include five-year old references to Boris Johnson and his pole-dancing mistress, Jennifer Arcuri. Elsewhere on the live circuit, one of the more shameless offerings from 2023’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe was “A Show for Gareth Richards”, a night purportedly set up to eulogise a comedian who died earlier that year, but which to a more cynical eye seemed designed to offer a convenient theme for awards committees as well as ten high-profile minutes of stage time each for a swarm of still living comedians. All the while shows navel gazing on the race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical disabilities of the performer have now been forced to compete against a new vogue of spurious mental health confessionals.


***


To anyone with even the most cursory appreciation of the by-now antiquated denotation of the word “comedy”, there seems to be very little of it evidenced by its contemporary crop of practitioners, both veterans and novices alike. There are orchestrated acts of political outrage from either side of the illusory left-right spectrum, the smirking coziness of mainstream radio and television success, tragedian tugs at collective heartstrings, and now scores of psychiatric self-diagnoses, but nothing resembling an aesthetic appreciation of an ancient meaning and objective to comedy. Newcomers anxious to bypass talent in pursuit of recognition and old-timers neglecting craftsmanship in favour of careerism each appear to embody the ethos of Graham Chapman’s officious Colonel character from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”:


Nobody likes a good laugh more than I do. Except perhaps my wife and some of her friends. Oh, yes, and Captain Johnson. Come to think of it, most people like a good laugh more than I do.


It is incumbent on the discerning aesthete of the comedic craft, therefore, to push aside any misleading industry-based contemporary ornamentation as a first step towards establishing whether there is now or ever has been an objective and universal aim to comedy.


Many, undoubtedly, have argued and will continue to argue that comedy is solely a matter of subjective taste, in the process indiscriminately conflating the vocation of comedy with the various approaches of each purported comedian. In this taste-based argument, for example, if an audience member does not find Graham Linehan’s sneering at crossdressers, Noel Fielding’s on-air sampling of a profiterole, or a hastily assembled confessional show about a recent ADHD diagnosis funny, it is not because these events are in fact not comedy, but because the comedic tastes of the spectator run perpendicular to the material presented. Under this broad and inclusive umbrella, anyone, from a pun-peddling uncle on Facebook to a racist screaming about immigrants from an open-mic stage, could theoretically be called a comedian through mere assertion. This, of course, is different than, say, an argument as to whether Steve Martin or Richard Pryor was the funnier comedian. Here, subjective tastes may very well allow for a dislike of Martin’s absurdist methodology in favour of Pryor’s more vulgar storytelling approach or vice-versa. What is not in question, however, is whether Martin and Pryor were practicing comedy in the first place. As this essay will demonstrate, both these performers, along with others of their calibre, are successful as comedians because of their alignment with a core understanding of comedic first principles and not because of a flirtation with a presumably advantageous vocational identity.

 

As with its industry trappings, to achieve the necessary foundational clarity for establishing a definitive aim of comedy, all subjective concerns regarding methodological approaches and audience tastes must likewise be subtracted from the argument to see what, if anything, remains at the core. Which is to ask: Is there such a thing as a universal and objective purpose to comedy and, if so, what are its principle attributes?


Ironically, however, it is precisely this exponentially growing distribution of the word “comedy” as a vocational epithet and the concomitant industry that has grown up around the practice that belie the absurdism of believing there is no such thing as a universal comedic purpose. Asserting that anybody can do comedy is, after all, a parallel way of asserting that there is no such thing as comedy. For instance, if both a modern Fringe show with “ADHD” in the title, structured entirely around weak narratives of self-diagnosis and incessant appeals to pity, and the irreverently insightful satire of Aristophanes are equally to be considered comedy, then there is nothing to be isolated from such a juxtaposition and evaluated as more or less true to the form. There is no barometer by which one may judge how well a performer or writer hits the comedic mark if there is no mark at which to aim. Also, the empirical observation of so many non-comedians who have taken to calling themselves comedians, emboldened by the algorithmic free-for-all, demonstrates that there remains at least an appreciation and desire for the appellation, if not for the objective and universal purpose this label may once have signified. Subtracted from its purpose, however, the label is rendered meaningless.


When artistic vocational titles, through a type of linguistic entropy, have become as malleably deconstructed and indiscriminately egalitarian as they are today, there is a concern that the time-honoured crafts those titles signify will be altered in tandem, facilitating not an evolutionary, but a devolutionary shift towards their social irrelevance and ultimate extinction. The rampantly increasing ubiquity of these titles is nevertheless an effective catalyst by which true comedy aesthetes can be compelled to extricate themselves from the present cacophony to search for a fixed denotation of comedy at the origins of an historical continuum. From here, a lateral consensus among the ancients may prove vital in establishing a universal and objective comedic aim.


Aristotle, in his Poetics, may have been first among the Western ancients to observe, with fittingly humorous irony, that because comedy was not “at first treated seriously” its foundational principles are difficult to establish. At first glance, moreover, the diversity among the ancient comedic writers in terms of creative methodology seems somewhat consistent with contemporary taste-based arguments surrounding comedy. Some audiences, that is, may have preferred the humorous attacks of Aristophanes on the fickle trends and corrupt demagogues of his day whilst others may have discovered a malicious joy in the highly scatological and invective-fuelled poetry of the iambic writers Hipponax or Archilochus (authors whose satires were reputedly so effective they drove their shamed subjects to suicide).


Nevertheless, the various technical approaches used among the ancients, as well as those adopted by contemporary performers, can be evaluated through the prism of what Aristotle characterises as the universal and objective purpose of comedy, which is that comedy must bring about happiness. Such happiness can be the sense of all being well with the world when the loose, chaotic strands of a Shakespearean comedy are tied up neatly at the end or it can be manifested as the joyful satisfaction of seeing exalted demagogues or corrupt institutions excoriated, as in the satires of Aristophanes, Swift, or Twain. Whatever the methodology employed, the purpose of eliciting the happiness to which not just the comedic antithesis of tragedy but also the regular quotidian stasis of human life does not reach remains a fixed objective for both true practitioners and true connoisseurs of the comedic art form.


Defining comedy as a vehicle for happiness, though, and upholding the state of happiness as the epitome of personal and social good necessarily places Aristotle at odds with the earlier, decidedly anti-comedic, sentiments of Plato. Comedy, as Plato envisioned it, was a danger both to the self and society as it ran contrary to reason and, especially when effective enough to elicit a physical reaction in the form of violent laughter, threatened the order of the idealised State.


Despite their stated variance on the issue, Aristotle and Plato are not in conflict when it comes to the inherent qualities of the expected comedic outcome. 

What chiefly emerges from this Platonic/Aristotelian dichotomy on the social effect of comedy, however, is not a debate on the nature of comedy, but a debate as to what constitutes happiness. Despite their stated variance on the issue, Aristotle and Plato are not in conflict when it comes to the inherent qualities of the expected comedic outcome. In fact, Aristotle’s own classification of comedy as the least mimetic of the original literary genres, which is to say least representative of the natural world, could be construed as a positive recapitulation of Plato’s negative conception of comedy as anathema to a reality-derived sense of reason. If the threats to reason, order, and the State so feared by Plato are the concave to the convex of Aristotle’s comedy-inspired happiness, then comedy, at least in terms of objective, remains fixed. It is the understanding of happiness which remains malleable. Whereas Plato envisions happiness in a considerably less exuberant manner as the mild contentment of a well-reasoning individual contributing to and being shaped by a well-governed state, the very comedy that threatens this stasis is the source of the highest personal and social joy for Aristotle. While both viewpoints acknowledge the existence of a thing called comedy, only one is made happy by it. Syllogistically, the misery of the one entails the happiness of the other.


To this effect, for true appreciators of the art form, like Aristotle, the happiness that is comedy’s universal and objective purpose must de facto run contrary to the contentment of anti-comedy voices like Plato’s. A comedy that echoes distilled reason, seeks mimesis with order, and furthers the ends of a state would be a reductio ad absurdum, annihilating itself through assimilation with objectively anti-comedic aims. This underscores the unfunny absurdism of GB News stalwart Andrew Doyle or “Triggernometry” podcast host Konstantin Kisin palming off Tory talking points as politically incorrect satire. Contrary to such dire examples as these, the happiness which comedy strives to elicit must be one which instead upends reason, order, and the presumed omnibenevolence of the State. It is with this oppositional aim in mind that three distinct first principle attributes of the comedic purpose begin to crystallise.


The first of these is that to contravene reason, order, and stasis, comedy must contain an element of surprise. When one groans at a well-known or obvious pun, stops a friend from repeating a joke heard before, or simply experiences the ennui of seeing yet another stand-up comic hopeful appearing before an exposed brick wall, it is because reason and order have been conditioned to anticipate an outcome and the disillusioned audiences in each of these instances, having been thwarted in their hopes for a comedic surprise, are forced in the end to settle for a reason and order that at least does not repeat itself. Their expectations remain unsurpassed and, as a result, rather than having their ordered state of being upended, it is in fact confirmed and reinforced.


The possibility bears mentioning here as well that, with the passing of time, reason and order simply ossify within the collective mind as received wisdom or, more pejoratively, uncritical thinking. In this case, an effective comedian would be more indicative of true reason by using his or her creative abilities in a surprising manner to expose and upend a stagnant mental state of being that calls itself reason, but which is instead a quasi-instinctual pattern of rote behaviours and beliefs.


To be sure, this foundational aspect of surprise is universal to other genres such as horror and science fiction, to name just a few, but its applicability to divergent fields only bolsters its necessity in comedy. As a purported horror that fails to surprise and cause fear should not be considered a horror, so, too, a purported comedy that fails to surprise and elicit happiness has failed at being a comedy. Furthermore, the absence of this first comedic attribute, as will be made clear, necessarily negates the presence of the other two.


The comedic first principle of surprise, that is, must sequentially be met by the next principle, which is a violent reaction from the audience in the form of authentic laughter. It is this aspect that effectively elevates comedy from mere shock value or murky convolution with other genres. A surprise that elicits a startled jolt and anticipatory fear or one that provokes communal outrage and self-righteous denunciations would be more suited to the genres, respectively, of suspense or political propaganda. The comedic surprise, on the other hand, must incite laughter, specifically that of a violent strain.


To shed more expansive light on this comedic first principle of violence, a distinction must, of course, be drawn here between the authentic (or belly) laugh and the inauthentic (or head) laugh. The belly laugh is the necessary physical corollary to the comedic first principle of surprise which Thomas Hobbes described best when he named it the “Sudden Glory. . .the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter.” Following immediately in the wake of the comedically unexpected, this unleashing of violent laughter, inexplicably and uncontrollably, leaves audience members feeling as if an act had been perpetrated on them by an outside agent rather than that they had engaged in any premeditated behaviour of their own volition. One might consider here how the violent jargon of the modern comedic lexicon bears testimony to this first principle with expressions like “he killed the room last night” or “she slayed the audience with her impressions.”


Contrarily, the premeditation involved with the inauthentic (or head) laugh places it outside the remit of true comedy for not being contingent on any element of surprise invoked by an external comedic agent, but on the reasoned (or uncritically thinking) results of an interior monologue. A comedian that solicits this sort of non-violent, head-based laughter is not, objectively speaking, practicing comedy. Whether the aim is the alleviation of social anxiety, ingratiation within the ordered confines of received normality, or even the guilt-orchestrated manifestation of communal politeness in the presence of a struggling comedian, an inauthentic head laugh from an audience serves to uphold reason, order, and stasis and not upend them.


Because of this, it is likely that such precogitated, unviolent laughter would be welcomed by Plato for its dual ability to uphold social order and simultaneously offer the aural facade of joy and freedom within that social order. Something similar can be discerned when delineating the oft-overlooked differences between parody and satire. Hermann Göring, for example, was reportedly fond of light-hearted parodies concerning his external appearance and mannerisms once he apprehended that the resulting inauthentic head laughs could serve to humanise his image and, by extension, the Nazi state. On the other hand, any genuinely surprising satirical insight that provoked authentic and violent laughter at the expense of Göring or Nazism would have been rightly construed as a threat to the established order.


However, it might also be surmised that Plato would detect a certain unreasonableness to the inauthentic head laugh as it entails laughing when there is no physical need for doing so. Despite equating the violence of authentic laughter with an overt threat to the State, as Plato does, its immediacy and uncontrollability would, at the very least, render it an excusable biological necessity. Nevertheless, his humourless admonition in The Republic that “when one abandons himself to violent laughter his condition provokes a violent reaction” proves a fitting textual pivot by which to turn from the physical result of effective comedy to what is at once both Plato’s greatest concern and comedy’s most insurrectionary first principle, which is, of course, subversion.


Even if it can only be realised as an artistic wish or an idealised promise, comedic happiness, initiated through surprise and propelled by laughter, must constitute an act of subversion

Even if it can only be realised as an artistic wish or an idealised promise, comedic happiness, initiated through surprise and propelled by laughter, must constitute an act of subversion. Although the methodological approaches, idiomatic motifs, choices of medium, and topical ranges may vary wildly between comedic writers, the universal can nonetheless be deduced from the particulars. If the happiness that is the objective aim of a true comedy aesthete is to run perpendicular to received notions of reason, order, and the state, it must by nature be subversive to those governing shibboleths. Whether, on one end of the spectrum, an Horatian comedy of manners exposes and ridicules the arbitrary nature of received social mores or, on the other, a scathing Juvenalian satire uses highly literate invective to lead an esteemed public figure into ignominious shame, an act of subversion is evidenced in both instances. In each, a stasis is upended, although the methodologies and topical scopes differ. In fact, Aristotle’s  classification of comedy as the genre least mimetic of reality (as opposed to tragedy, the most mimetic) encompasses the possibility that comedy could even be an act of subversion against a pre-existing tragic state of the human condition in which happiness itself becomes an insurrectionary force against the nightmare of being.


It should be mentioned here, by way of caveat, that although the subversive label still very much appeals to more than a few of today’s self-professed satirists, many of these would happily do without the associated blacklisting and other punitive measures historically suffered by true comedy subversives, from Molière to Lenny Bruce. One of the better examples of faux subversion in recent times is the Netflix Special template in which high-salaried figures such as Matt Rife, Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, or Jimmy Carr will deliver a few unimaginatively banal one-liners about domestic abuse, transgenderism, or even Hitler’s extermination of the gypsies. With like predictability, social media soon responds with a chorus of condemnation, often spearheaded by lifetime comedy careerists such as Janus-faced Frankie Boyle. Meanwhile, as one side feigns sincerity and the other persecution, the end result is that two ordered states of being are upheld and reinforced – the stultifying technocratic lifestyle of social media and the ham-fisted business model of Netflix. In fact, the only ones to lose out in this orchestrated scenario are fans of genuinely subversive comedy.


As with the element of surprise, the element of subversion is also not specific to the comedic genre. While surprise can take various non-comedic forms, so, too, and more often, can subversion. Isolated from the first two aspects of surprise and violent laughter, subversion on its own might be the domain of political dissidents and conscientious objectors just as surprise on its own might be the domain of horror or suspense authors. Violent laughter, meanwhile, when not serving as the physical linchpin uniting the two other comedic elements of surprise and subversion, would be altogether something different, and perhaps disturbing, on its own.


The desired result of comedy to provide happiness to true enthusiasts of the art entails the commingling and interplay of all three of these first principles, surprise, violent laughter, and subversion, in a triune manner. Each is dependent on the other for its actualisation in the comedic scheme both as an important particular on its own merits and as an instrumental component in bringing forth happiness to a truly comedy-savvy audience. Employing the semiotics of the trinity here, one could envision the element of surprise as the inspired parent who sires the revolutionary offspring of violence in order that the divine spirit of subversion may descend upon a comedic event, converting audiences in the process to untrammelled comedic bliss.  

***

Jettisoning from the contemporary comedic milieu the deceptive industry trappings of mainstream name recognition, engineered internet clamour, or even the do-it-yourself blueprint of hosting comedy nights as self-esteem exercises, is there anything emblematic of this triune operation of the first principles of surprise, violence, and subversion discernible at the core? Quite the contrary. There is as little surprise, for example, in ostensibly free speech-supporting comedians complaining about what they call “woke” students as there is in their ostensibly politically correct counterparts dwelling sanctimoniously on race, gender, or sexual orientation. A cutaway to a one-liner delivered from a smirking guest comedian on a reality television cooking show is as unlikely to elicit a violent belly laugh as a relative sharing a collection of Christmas cracker puns on Facebook. Moreover, it would be an undisputed rarity if anything representative of authentic comedic subversion were to appear on a tax-funded and government-facilitated network like the BBC, much less in the Lord of the Flies atmosphere of the internet, where anyone possessing the social media conch shell can herald themselves, with no small flourish of artificially generated digital fanfare, a reigning Monarch of Comedy.


This is not to deny the possibility, of course, that the above pursuits cannot likewise have as their chief aim the dispensation of happiness. Again, as seen in the Platonic/Aristotelian dichotomy concerning the role of comedy in relation to society and the self, it is not the comedic purpose that is malleable, but the nature of happiness. Perhaps it is true that some modern audiences are seeking out a new form of happiness through attending public mental health confessionals marketed as stand-up comedy or through gorging on the rambling social media output of the latest comedian-turned-political-pundit opining humourlessly on inconsequential issues of the day. However, even if one were to concede that some form of happiness is achievable via these pastimes, in spite or possibly because of this emotion being tempered with maudlin pity and faux outrage, neither the Aristotelian nor the Platonic view would hold such happiness to be the result of comedy.


Rather than destroying the art of comedy with his anti-comedic assessment, Plato inadvertently supplies the very template by which one can apprehend comedy’s universal aim and insurrectionary first principles

As a final word, it would be remiss for a true comedy aesthete not to express some gratitude to Plato for at least demonstrating enough conviction to flatly dismiss comedy outright instead of colonising it and conforming it to his own contemptuous view of humour. As we have seen, rather than destroying the art of comedy with his anti-comedic assessment, Plato inadvertently supplies the very template by which one can apprehend comedy’s universal aim and insurrectionary first principles. A subtler and far more effective approach at hastening comedy’s extinction is the infestation of pretenders to the profession, bringing to mind an earlier critique of another creative field in which the visionary William Blake once wrote of establishment painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, “This man was hired to depress art.” Contemplating the current industry elevation of algorithmic recognition and jaded opportunism over natural talent and artistic inspiration, it can at times appear as if contemporary comedians are being hired precisely for the joyless purpose of depressing comedy.


Will Franken is a solo sketch comedian and Juvenalian satirist with over twenty years’ experience writing and performing for audiences in America and Europe. His work has been reviewed in various publications, including The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, The Independent, and The Sunday Times. For his 2014 show The Stuff They Put in Sleep, Franken was awarded both the Three Weeks Editors’ Award and the inaugural Barry Award for Best Performer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 2017, he was the recipient of the annual Tithe Grant Award from the William Blake Society and from Spring 2020 to early 2021, he produced, directed, and starred in an unexpurgated audiobook of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He holds a BA in Philosophy and an MA in British Literature from Southwest Missouri State University, where for a time he was also an instructor. Franken is currently working on a book exploring the philosophy of ethics in classic cinema. 

 

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

Comments


bottom of page