CTCV Contents

    CTCV Cover

   Works Cited

   ITCHS Home


Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:

Humor in American Film Comedy






Comedy and humor are different things, not misspellings of the same thing.









The key to eliminating fundamental critical confusion about the nature of comedy is to focus on dramatic form.



















The idea of an extended story told as a pretext for a string of jokes is so prevalent that it really ought to have a name, perhaps comickedy.









If there is some over-all message to comickedic routine, whether that routine is embodied in a drama or prose or not, that is an add-on, and a fairly dangerous add-on at that.





We will restrict use of the word comedy to mean formal comedy, that is, works sharing the form that is the essence of New Comedy and its successors in all western societies.









The key to comedy is that it is a form and that the form itself carries meaning, what we call the comedic assertion.




The comedic form is the form of on-going, success or survival.






















Any comedy worth its salt is more than simple comedy. 







Parents can approve of Cinderella's comedic assertion.







Going on to humor and humor texture in no way lessens the fact that even without humor, the Cinderella story still has the comedic form.





Repetition is of central importance to conveying comedic import.









Comedic assertion can be seen as an assertion of faith.




The audience has a right to contradict the faith that has been asserted.







Because comedy asserts a faith, comedies can be and often are controversial.



Chapter 1: Addressing the Woes of Comedy


If the criticism of comedy has suffered through millennia of confusion of comedy with humor, that confusion has certainly not been the only critical malady that has maimed the understanding of comedy.  Not much light can be directed at complexities of the comedy-humor symbiosis without first clearing up a number of other confusions about comedy, typically confusions that at first appear highly reasonable and thus are all the more serious maladies for critical insight.


We begin then with a discussion of formal comedy.  The qualifier, formal, is usually ignored.  It shouldn’t be if we are to make any headway.  People call all kinds of things comedy. With the growing popularity of “comedy clubs,” “comedy routines,” and “stand-up comedy,” the use of the word “comedy” to refer to humor in some form has become pervasive among practitioners of such routines, among the general populace, and also among scholars of humor. When comedian Jerry Seinfeld tells us “What They Don’t Teach You at Comedy School,” he’s not talking about dramatic form. But critics and scholars as well use the term “comedy” for humor. For example, Kirby Olson uses “comedy” to refer to “the comic,” “the humorous,”  “comic performance,” and “nonsense”; Delabastita in “Cross-language Comedy in Shakespeare” analyzes polyglot puns, a form of humor; Barrecca in Last Laughs:  Perspectives on Women and Comedy and New Perspectives on Women and Comedy, explores women’s use of humor.  Finney has edited a collection of essays on the relationship between gender and humor entitled Look Who’s Laughing:  Gender and Comedy; O’Neil uses humor and comedy as much the same entity in The Comedy of Entropy: Humour/Narrataive/Reading; and

Pye’s “Comedy Theory and the Postmodern” applies humor discoveries in psychology to the comic in literature. Insightful as these works may be, they are not elucidating formal comedy.


Adding to the confusion, many critics have defined the genre of comedy in one way or another in terms of its humor. Gurewitch, for example, calls comedy a disunited genre, a “miscellaneous genre activated by a plurality of impulses:  farce, humor, satire, and irony” (Irrational Vision 13). And Hollywood routinely defines comedy by its humor, as in Byron and Weis’ National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy or Durgnat’s The Crazy Mirror:  Hollywood Comedy and the American Image.




The key to eliminating fundamental critical confusion about the nature of comedy is to focus on dramatic form.


The discussion of comedy as a literary genre comes out of a long tradition including twentieth century critics Elder Olson, Harold H. Watts, Susanne Langer, J. L. Styan, and more recently John Morreall (Comedy). However, most people’s understanding of formal comedy is probably the contradistinctive-to-tragedy-understanding best represented in Albert Cook’s classic study The Dark Voyage and the Golden Mean. Cook’s distinctions are in a clear tradition of literary theory dating from Aristotle’s Poetics, and thus in the main represent an aristocratic tradition of understanding.[1]


In an aristocratic (typically warrior-class) understanding, there is a fundamental distinction between personal matters and matters of state, between acts of merely personal well-being and acts of national well-being, between acts that may be tense but are hardly mortal and acts which lead on inevitably to mortal clash and resolution. In the standard rhetoric of criticism in the aristocratic tradition, acts of personal well-being are trivial.  Acts of state and national well-being are important. And thus from an Aristotelian mindset, tragedy concerns itself with important matters, comedy with trivial matters. The notion that comedy is concerned with the trivial is still prevalent, for example, in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Elder Olson. It is countered, however, by Conrad Hyers, who argues against the idea that comedy is trivial and inferior to tragedy in The Spirituality of Comedy, and by Morreall, who strongly defends comedy from the charge of triviality in Comedy, Tragedy, and Religion.


American film comedy of course grew up in a society which was aggressively non-aristocratic.  Not surprisingly, the golden age of film literature that ensued was fundamentally non-aristocratic.  And it should not be surprising if a non-aristocratic audience finally defines seriousness and triviality differently than Aristotle did 2,300 years ago.


If we think with Aristotle of comedy as essentially non-serious, it is easy to move to a position that doesn’t recognize the difference between a stand-up comic routine and a comedic artistic work. We do not mean to suggest that a good stand-up comic is not an artist.  There is a definite art and craft to standing up and telling a series of jokes so that a basically bored and typically half-inebriated audience is worked up from one level of humorous response to another.  Bad audiences, audiences that refuse to be worked up, are the bane of such artists’ lives.





Much as there is a definite art of the stand-up comic, clearly that art has nothing of the story-creating art that is shared between drama and narration.  A stand-up comic creates situations that lead to laughs.  A comedic writer creates a story which typically has laughs within it, a story which is embodied as a drama or as typically extended prose or poetry.

A stand-up comic writes a series of gags that given a good audience can lead to a delightful performance of well-modulated hilarity.  A comedic writer writes a particular kind of story with a particular kind of form, and because it has that particular kind of form, it has a particular kind of over-all meaning.


It is possible, of course, for a writer to essentially do the stand-up comic routine but to embody it in some single story.  And this is in fact what many people think a comedy should be.  In such a case, the story in itself is simply an excuse for the comic routine, and the essential goal of the artwork is the essential goal of the stand-up comic, that is before a good audience to create delightful performance of well-modulated hilarity. With such a goal in mind, nothing is likely to seem—much less to be—important or serious.  A few delightful moments in the theatre, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, but good for relieving the tensions of the day in a few laughs.


Brilliant comedic actors are prone to interpret their art in this way—as Bob Newhart has recently asserted in his autobiography, he is ready to scream the next time anyone suggests the seriousness of comedy. Comedic actors know how hard it is to get laughs where the script calls for them, and like Newhart, they are likely to feel that reliably getting those laughs from good audiences and bad is the hallmark of their art.  They may also know that comedic assertion is typically insidious and that people might not be nearly as pleased with some comedies if they were fully aware of the comedic assertion.


Since this idea of comedy—the idea of a story told as a pretext for a string of jokes, the hilarity being the sole or central drive of the art—is so prevalent, it really ought to have a name, perhaps comickedy. In comickedy, to draw some over-all message, especially anything approaching a serious point, is a mortal sin.  When Phyllis Diller did her famous “Fang” routines, we were supposed to loosen up, we were supposed to let down our moral inhibitions, we were sine qua non to laugh, and particularly (though we didn’t notice this) to laugh in exactly the modulations that were Phyllis Diller’s artistic ideals. If anyone in the audience had chosen to take the Fang theme seriously and to moralize á là Jacques in As You Like It on the love-hate relationships we call marriage (can you imagine a Seven Ages of Marriage speech from some philosophically morose person in the audience?), not only Phyllis Diller on stage but we as normal audience would be appalled. 




In short, the comic and thus the comickedic (as distinct from comedic) form is explicitly one of moving on from joke to joke, from gag to gag.  If there is some over-all message to comickedic routine, whether that routine is embodied in a drama or prose or not, that is an add-on, and a fairly dangerous add-on at that.


In Aristotle’s experience, the genre of comedy had begun as this sort of comickedy, particularly a comickedy which emphasized political jabs and sexual stimulation.


 Today, we call Aristotle’s literary background in this area Old Comedy. But even as Aristotle wrote, playwrights were moving to something quite different.  In later criticism, this period would be known as Middle Comedy, of which we have, unfortunately, no extant exemplars.  But within 100 years of Aristotle, comedy would move clearly to a new form which Roman critics and their contemporaries knew confidently to be New Comedy.


New Comedy is based in story of a particular form.  While artists have been generalizing that form for over two millennia, it is still easily recognizable that the New Comedy form remains the essential form of comedic art.  Thus one of the great lights of New Comedy was Plautus’ Menaechmi.  Eighteen hundred years later, Shakespeare recreated the story and achieved an even greater comedic success in Comedy of Errors.  And 400 years after Shakespeare, two ambitious young men created a musical from the same material and the same comedic form in The Boys from Syracuse. So from this point on, we will restrict use of the word comedy to mean formal comedy, that is, works sharing the form that is the essence of New Comedy and its successors in all western societies.


It should be said explicitly before we move on that comickedy has a long and distinguished tradition of its own dating back at least to Old Comedy.  Like comedy and tragedy, comickedy has refused to remain within the boundaries of drama and has invaded other branches of literature.  Mark Twain made a career of comickedic success. Comic (comickedic) strips are a staple genre in modern newspapers. Recent comickedy is well represented in numerous sit-coms (though some are comedic rather than comickedic), in classic routines like Will Rogers and Burns and Allen, and in a substantial body of journalistic effort   Moreover, the humor textures we will be discussing in a comedic context could well be adapted to elucidating the particular successes of various comickedic efforts.





But refusing to be further bogged down in what could be a fascinating study of the comickedy super-genre, let us press on with comedy, and that wonderful, separate literary essence that made it impossible not to distinguish New Comedy from Old.


The key to comedy is that it is a form and that the form itself carries meaning, what we call the comedic assertion. So let’s consider form.  Two common material examples of form are the forms used for concrete work and Jell-O molds. What makes a form a form is that it has shape.  Something is poured into the form and hardens in the shape dictated by the form.  Once the material has hardened, the form can be removed and the hardened material remains in the form-enforced shape, or form.   So notice if nothing else that form is confusing because we use the word both for the Jell-O mold and for the shape of the Jello as it comes out of the mold.[2]


Now the concrete worker has a wide range of different materials that can be poured into the form.  Some make very smooth surfaces, others make pebbly surfaces, and so forth.  But because of the form, the hardened materials will all have the same form when hardened.  The homemaker can similarly use red Jell-O or green Jell-O or with art can contrive to have layers of different Jell-Os.  But if it is a fish mold used successfully, when the Jell-O is hardened and the mold is removed, the finished product will look like a fish.


If, as various critics through the ages have essentially maintained, the form of tragedy is the form of life lived at its highest power or important action affecting others far from its original source as important matters of state, the comedic form is the form of on-going, success or survival. Formal comedy is the representation of life patterned (formed) to demonstrate or assert a faith in human survival as Paul has more fully argued in Comedy in Space Time, and the Imagination. The current volume grows out of that discussion.


Before we move on to any fuller understanding of how comedy works, it is well to note that our definition of comedy in the last paragraph differentiates comedy not only from comickedy but also from a number of other popular literary categories.





Comedy differs from comickedy in that while comickedy always has and comedy almost always has profound interest in the comic, comedy has (and comickedy does not have) a definite form which generates comedic import concerning on-going success and survival—we will be exemplifying this comedic import in a few moments.


Comedy also differs from adventure stories, sagas, and the like in that comedy has a definite form which generates comedic import concerning on-going success and survival whereas adventure stories and sagas do not have such import. Adventure stories and sagas also have no inherent propensity toward the comic.


There are of course great adventure stories and sagas.  A mini-series and motion picture that has gained significant repute in this vein is The Far Pavilions (1984) starring Ben Cross and featuring Omar Sharif.  In The Far Pavilions we find a half-breed (Indian and English) hero who comes from an Indian background, has received a British education, and comes back to India as a British officer. He encounters many adventures both within the British command and on extended duty. He eventually saves and marries an Indian princess whom he knew and admired as a child. The settings are spectacular. The chase scenes are a Hollywood specialty. The escapes from death are various, improbable, and lengthy. The Far Pavilions is highly successful, adventure-film entertainment. But it is not comedy because there is no believable comedic import of a particular kind of success and survival. As with a great many adventure stories, the highest level of clear meaning for on-going life is that one must avoid stopping bullets, knives, and cannonballs to have a real chance at survival. (It also helps to have friends and relatives who will die during the hero’s hair-raising escapes.) Sagas and adventure stories, like comickedy, are tales signifying nothing through their form.


With both comickedy and adventure stories in mind as lacking comedic import and form, let us consider something very simple, definitely children’s literature, but true  formal comedy nevertheless with true comedic import and form.


We can start with a simple adventure story that moves toward a successful conclusion.  Ashenputel started life with good parentage but soon found herself the depressed servitor of a wicked and cruel stepmother and two incredibly ugly step-sisters.  Happily, Ashenputel turned out to also have a fairy godmother, and in the end, the fairy godmother managed to get her to a ball in glass slippers, one of which led to the prince expressing his true love and Ashenputel’s eventual marriage under the more poetic sobriquet of “Cinderella.”





Since this simple adventure story has. after all. a successful ending, we might want to say that our Ashenputel story has moved over the line separating adventure stories from comedies.  In which case, our outline would be simple comedy for you.  Of course, you’d have to be considerably simpler than your three-year-old child for such a simple comedy to be comedically enjoyable. And the fundamental enjoyment that is missing is not the enjoyment of humor but the enjoyment of comedy. Any comedy worth its salt is more than simple comedy.  It does more than form a narrative into one of success or survival.  It forms it into a personally meaningful success-or-survival import through patterned action.


Reconsider poor Ashenputel.  Pathetic isn’t she?  Well actually, if in our rendition she is, it is because we read in the afterglow of reading the real “Cinderella.”  In our version, perhaps Ashenputel has a prematurely haggish countenance and disposition.  Perhaps she outdoes her step-sisters in looks and character.  Perhaps the Prince is deaf and blind. But in the true comedic form, we are clued in over and over (that’s the simplest meaning of pattern) that Ashenputel is not only pathetic and to be pitied, she is also a heroine to be rooted for.  (In the Disney version, part of the clue is the use of mice as a cheering section.) And then, dramatically, we are repeatedly shown that Ashenputel is of a character that deserves a prince.  We are repeatedly shown—not shown just once as some sort of aberration—that Ashenputel is modest, obedient, cheerful, helpful.


And it is this combined effort within comedic form of approbation clues, repeated demonstrations of particular life traits, and the successful conclusion of catching a prince that together add up to  the comedic affirmation of “Cinderella.”   Disney’s Cinderella is considered child-appropriate not just for the negative reasons of its lack of explicit sex, violence, and inappropriate language. Much more positively and because of comedic assertion, parents typically approve of Cinderella because they can more or less approve of Cinderella’s comedic assertion:  modesty, obedience, cheerfulness, and helpfulness deserve reward, deserve and lead to a successful on-going life.





We will of course not typically be working with art as basic as “Cinderella.”  But “Cinderella” is art, even great art, and its currency over centuries and across cultures should not be underestimated.  We remember being in the Amazon jungle of Peru and coming across something like a hovel in the only town for hundreds of miles with a sign in Spanish—the  native language of the area was  Cashinahua—that Disney’s Cinderella was showing that night.


The Cinderella story can be told with or without humorWithout humor it still has the comedic form: a patterned action demonstrating on-going success or survival.  But what a difference talented humor can make, like the talented humor of the Disney version that we saw advertised in Peru.  It is that difference that humor can make, that added texture that humor can and so normally does bring to comedy that we are considering in this study. Going on to humor and humor texture in no way lessens the fact that even without humor, the Cinderella story still has the comedic form: a patterned action demonstrating on-going success or survival.


There’s a lot more to say about comedy.  But for now, the central fact of comedy is that it is a literary form that depends very heavily on repetition, and that very fact of repetition is essential to an implied assertion of what makes a successful or survivable on-going human life. Without patterned repetition of success, success can seem accidental, random, lucky. Without patterned repetition, there is no success formula, no comedic import.  Success without patterning is merely the accidental result of the throw of the dice. 


Since repetition is of central importance to conveying comedic import, we need to deal with it as a comedic, literary issue.  What is our general human response to repetition?  That’s a trick question, but most people will immediately think that repetition is boring and to be avoided.  There’s a great deal to that idea.  And we can hardly assume that any competent literary artist would not think of it. So if comedic form is heavily dependent on repetition, the comedic artist has the fundamental problem of creating patterning without boredom.  And the fundamental answer to this problem is that the comedic artist needs to disguise many of his repetitions.  The action must seem to move on to new things even though as comedy it needs to be formed to assert that the same basic factors are what create success or survival.





Recognizing the clear truth that repetition and redundancy can be a source of boredom and tedium, it is nevertheless true that repetition and redundancy can also be a source of satisfaction and security.  Especially a childish comedy like “Cinderella” is comforting in its consistency in demonstrating an asserted faith in what makes for a successful life.  That repetition breeds security, we must also assume, talented literary artists have always known.  And if they have always known both truths about repetition, then comedic art is heavily dependent on a judicious balancing of seemingly opposite principles, disguising repetition with great skill and equally skillfully allowing a sense of consistent, even redundant vision.  These observations are truest at the childish extreme of comedy with “Cinderella.”  These same observations are most modified in extremely dark and often highly experimental works which we normally associate with Chekhov and with dark comedic successors but which find impressive roots in Shakespeare, particularly in the four so-called romance plays, perhaps best represented by Winter’s Tale.


Finally, comedic assertion can be seen as an assertion of faith, whether sincere faith, hypocritical faith, nominal faith, or even ironic faith.  The artist has presumably carefully constructed the comedy to demonstrate that asserted faith in what makes for success or survival.  That assertion is based in redundant repetition, so that we as audience see the same success over and over, even when the repetition is disguised.  And the multiplication of same-successes breeds the implied assertion.  But since this is a matter of dramatic construction, it is never possible for a comedy to prove its assertion; it can only demonstrate it, and the assertion itself remains an unproved matter of faith. Did the original author of Cinderella believe that modesty and cheerfulness were really keys to survival and success, perhaps particularly for girls?  It is of course impossible to know.  But the “Cinderella” we have—the literary work—is an expression of such faith.


And if there is an expression of faith inevitable in every good comedy, then it should go without saying that after watching the comedy and apprehending it fully for its comedic assertion, we as members of the audience {has} have a right, if we wish to exercise it, to contradict the faith that has been asserted. For example, after watching and enjoying Cinderella, we have a final right to say to ourselves, “That was delightful, but of course the real world can’t support such a faith.    Modesty, obedience, cheerfulness and helpfulness are for losers and general life-incompetents.”





In this sense, comedies can be and often are controversial.  They often frustrate, alienate, and antagonize almost as many people as they please, precisely because we as individuals within the audience do not ultimately share the same understanding of what makes for life success or survival. At the childish end of the comedic spectrum, parents of three- year-olds tend not to have greatly deviating senses of what comedic assertion is wholesome for their children.  But at the sophisticated, adult end of comedy, controversy over the fundamental “values” of the comedy are likely to push themselves to the center stage of critical response.


In following chapters, we will stop short of this point of expressing personal preference for or against any particular comedy because of its agreement or disagreement with our own life philosophies. Our stopping short in this study should not be taken as disapprobation of making that additional personal step.  Comedy’s assertion is personally meaningful, and the best appreciation of comedy will always know whether the appreciator ultimately, independently favors the comedic assertion or does not favor it.


In this study, the films discussed all have had substantial, even spectacular box office success.  Whether the writer or the reader of this study disapproves of the success assertion of such a proven-successful film, the film nevertheless has had a substantial audience willing to applaud its efforts. And the understanding of how formal comedy works, particularly how it can use humor as a major determinant of its texture and of the finer nuances of its comedic assertion in no way compels us as critics or any reader to agree fully with what has been sensitively analyzed.



[1] For a collection of critical essays on the genre of comedy from the classical period to the 20th century see Paul Lauter’s collection, Theories of Comedy.

[2] In technical terminology, the form is the type.  The thing formed—like the Jell-O—has an anti-type form.  Look at a piece of type and a capital P will appear backward with the curve to the left rather than to the right of the staff.  Press it inked on paper and it will leave a mark in the anti-type form which is the P we are used to reading. For our purposes here, the inversions between type and anti-type are relatively unimportant.  Instead, the key to form is that it contains something until it hardens into the desired shape.



CTCV Contents          CTCV Cover       Works Cited       Next Chapter