Defining comedy is extremely difficult. When something happens that makes you laugh, whether that is in a play or in real life, it’s difficult to pin down why you laughed, to begin with. I find myself defining comedy as a series of events that went down unexpectedly. That is to say, comedy is unexpected and extraordinary. In The Importance of Being Earnest, we do not expect high-status gentlemen and ladies to behave in such a petty and childlike way, but they do. In Tartuffe, we don’t expect Orgon to remain so inflexible in his views of Tartuffe nor do we expect Dorine to have such a truthful outlook of everyone, but they both do.
This assignment was more challenging for me because my sense of humour can be categorised into three areas: models falling down the runway, BattleBots on the SciFi channel, and the idea that at any moment gravity could “turn off” and we would all just be slowly floating around. In a way, all of those main things that are guaranteed to make me personally laugh are all things that are unexpected and extraordinary. I would say that I follow Henri Bergson’s thought process that “laughter happens when a person becomes like a thing or machine, full of rigidness”. There is something inherently funny about things not working out the way you expected them to. Unless the unexpected thing that happened was somewhat unfortunate or devastating to you. In which case that thing would probably become a tragedy to you.
Now bringing all of this to a play that I think fits this “unexpected” definition of comedy I thought of Sylvia by A.R. Gurney. I was able to perform as Sylvia in the show and it was always a hoot and a half. There is no denying that seeing a young woman play the role of a dog and run around hollering curse words is funny. The audience is constantly seeing this young woman (playing a dog) talking and interacting with the other human characters. The audience gets reminders that this young woman is not actually a woman, but in fact a dog, through subtle things like eating “dog treats” or coming on stage with a doggy cone on and a leash. Or talking about how she is rather fond of Bowser, a dog she met in the park, while she’s in heat. Beyond the fact that Sylvia, a speaking title role, is actually a dog, there is one major plot point that still falls into the “unexpected” comedy definition. The idea that Greg is choosing a dog over his wife, Kate, and therefore jeopardising his marriage. Greg almost chooses an animal he found in the park over his human wife.
Comedy is different for everyone. And the same Tartuffe was quite consistent with the fashion of his time. I find weird things funny but I don’t find Cards Against Humanity very funny. It doesn’t make for a great time at parties for me personally, but I can now say that my sense of humour makes more sense. Machine-like behaviour is funny. The unexpected and surprising is funny.
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