Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:
Humor in American Film Comedy
Immigrants chose to come to America.
They come from somewhere where they tended to fit in over centuries or millennia.
Literarily, to lack a good sense of the demographics is to miss a great deal.
People began losing a sense of “who they were.”
By the ‘90’s, new immigration waves made any conception of the datedness of American immigration realities untenable.
As My Big Fat Greek Wedding proved, literary attention to immigrant and minority status is anything but passé.
The best-loved American immigrant stories are comedic.
Central to the comedic success formula of Greek Wedding is family and ethnic solidarity.
Greek Wedding is most emphatically not a comedic pattern of maintaining a Greek standard amidst an American sea of diversity.
Greek Wedding is a second-generation immigrant comedy.
Toula's outward frump is simply the objectification of her inner malaise.
But what is that work? What is the success formula for that second generation?
The superficial work of the second generation is to become American, not Greek.
Toula needs to break out and move beyond the Greek mold even as she needs to remain her Greek parents’ daughter.
She instinctively knows that she is less of a failure for every step.
Yiayia is a person of an Old World, marching to a drum of inner necessities that even her children cannot understand.
But Yiayia too must seek that personally right within the confines of family.
he comedic theme of three generations all having to work out their own relations in and with America,
Second-generation immigrant success is critically related to relieving the boredom of inherited success and of reinvigorating more established paths of American life.
Toula needs the Millers to break beyond ethnicity, to understand the fullness of American experience, not its narrowness, to have the typically American experience of dealing with novelty on an intimate basis.
Toula’s success makes everyone more alive.
The comedic success pattern thus advocates muddle and a muddling through.
Toula is a suffering protagonist, whose work is the personal trauma of holding on to the old while rushing to embrace the new.
Like most festive comedy, particularly Shakespeare’s, Greek Wedding’s pattern is ultimately one of social, not personal comedy.
Toula’s success requires cooperation within her ethnic family.
Gus’s movement from extreme Greek defensive superiority to tolerant inter-ethnic fraternity, at least as fruits, is the culmination of a social comedy.
The artistic as opposed to the coping interest in humor in Greek Wedding is strongly centered in incongruity.
There is plenty of pain in this movie.
Greek Wedding invites us to find the painful humorous, to substitute comic perception for outright sympathy.
The Sympathetic Pain jokes are often caught in the smallest of dramatic movements.
The combination of gross Incongruity humor and often subtle Sympathetic Pain humor yields a Reconciler humor personality.
Gus fights through, he struggles with himself, and he painfully makes the reconciling decision with his daughter to move forward.
The fact that Greek Wedding's hope for intergenerational reconciliation is clearly not borne out by all immigrant reality is not to the point. Comedy is a faith, a faith that success or survival can be achieved.
The texture of Greek Wedding would be immensely impoverished from the omission of the background of humorous incongruity to Toula’s cogitations.
The humorous Sympathetic Pain makes clear the constancy of that challenge and the constant sensitivity with which the assimilative challenge must be faced and conquered.
Passively nonresistant, Greek Wedding's success formula insists that the problems of immigrant status must be endured long before they can be cured.
Sympathetic Pain humor is active, alive humor, alive to the pain and relating to it.
Those who don’t have a great tolerance for incongruity shouldn’t apply for immigrant status.
The Reconciler humor texture is non-combative, non-violent, and even non-self-protective. engaged, sensitive, and vulnerable.
Humor textures are entirely separate from comedic texture.
Comedy itself normally has a certain feel or spirit.
Comedy is in its main line the hopeful genre.
Comedic texture and humor texture are both centrally hopeful.
Comedic texture is centrally a matter of faith, not a matter of sight.
That sometimes annoyance is one of the best proofs of the faith-feel typical of comedy.
Comedy normally has a tone of celebration.
Social texture is common though not not inevitable in comedy.
Chapter 6: My Big Fat Greek Wedding
We’re All Fruit
Throughout the 20th century, it was cliché that America was a nation of immigrants. And there is a very real argument that the quintessential American is an immigrant. Americans by birth are just that. They were born here, and they have had their natural growth here. But immigrants chose to come to America. So they are Americans by choice, and almost inevitably, there are poignant complications and intriguing stories bound up in the decisions that brought them to American shores. There are few American families that do not have at least a dim sense of such complications and stories as part of their own familial realities. All this mitigates in favor of Americans being fascinated with immigrant stories.
It is equally or more true that America is a place of minority experience. It is not just that American ancestors come from just about everywhere. It is equally true that they come from somewhere where they tended to fit in over centuries or millennia to a here in which, if they fit in, it is a different kind of fitting in, a fitting in as diverse. As the 20th century drew toward a close, Europe found itself more and more faced with the challenges of multi-culturalism which had been a way of life in America for hundreds of years.
So America is also full of demographic quirks that have important literary consequences, quirks like the fact that one seventh of the Revolutionary armies, and thus in all likelihood about a seventh of the general population at the time of the American Revolution, were Scots or Scots-Irish, and quirks like the fact that in the late 20th century, one quarter of American blood was German. Those who have no sense of the numbers involved can be out of touch with their own times in America and can be blindsided by the tides of demography. Literarily, to lack a good sense of the demographics, for example, behind the Scandinavian immigrant references in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street is to miss a great deal of what is being said about everyone else in the novel, notably about Carol and Will Kennecott.
By the 1980’s however, there were several reasons to think that consciousness of immigrant ancestry among native-born Americans might be ending. For one thing, in every generation, there were more native-born Americans and more families with multi-generational American roots. And for another, people began losing a sense of “who they were.” When Paul began teaching in the late ‘60’s, he’d routinely ask American literature sections how many members of the class knew “what they were.” This was a deliberately unsophisticated way of talking, and the interesting thing was that students didn’t challenge such talk. They did in fact know “who they were”—they were half Polish and half German, for example—and typically virtually every hand went up when Paul asked the question.
Twenty years later, students were far more ambivalent about knowing their own ethnic background, and the question had to be asked with a great deal more precision even to be understandable. Today, few students would confidently say that they know “what they are,” and a great many would absolutely deny such knowledge.
This reality was mirrored in Paul’s own family. He knew perfectly well growing up that he was three quarters German and one quarter Norwegian. He also knew that he was the son of a German immigrant and knew in detail stories of that complex choice of becoming American. Yet Robin and Paul have never been quite certain what their kids are. Evidently it is a higher mathematics than we are prepared to undertake. It seems enough to know that German is substantial on both sides of the family and that after that Norwegian, English, Irish, Scotch and maybe a little French all have to be added to the mix.
By the ‘90’s, new immigration waves, especially Asian and Latin American, made any conception of the datedness of American immigration realities untenable academically. The melting pot had indeed melted a good deal. But Americans also had to realize that more material was being added at disproportionately high rates to the pot.
This longish prologue then brings us to My Big Fat Greek Wedding and underscores the deep personal levels of interest that immigrant subjects have for American audiences as well as the level of general, impersonal sophistication about such things which is breathed in with American air. And as My Big Fat Greek Wedding proved, literary attention to immigrant and minority status is anything but passé.
The best-loved American immigrant stories are comedic. The rising tide of American wealth and influence have tended to raise almost all boats, and the lessons America has taught are primarily about at least surviving and often about succeeding beyond one’s wildest imagination. With every new crisis, of course, Americans have to ask themselves if the comedy can continue or if it is on its last legs. The comedy of the past is a matter of national averages, and within those averages there are wide divergences, so that Southern American literature characteristically modulates its comedy with darker elements of being left as a subjugated and ignored backwater for a century and more after the Civil War. American literature of the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains in the same time period, whether in Willa Cather, O. E. Rolvaag, Hamlin Garland, or Laura Ingalls Wilder, is dominated by a sense of the enervating challenges of building a civilized world on the endless and often frigid plains. It is these qualifications on the kind of success and survival possible in America which make for a great deal of the serious interest of American comedy.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding falls within the sub-literature of urban America and perhaps even the smaller literature of Chicago. Central to the comedic success formula of Greek Wedding is family and ethnic solidarity. These elements are so lavishly developed as to be presented as a Greek specialty, like lamb or gyros. To be Greek is to be essentially different and essentially united with other Greeks. As Gus Portokalos asserts, “There are two kinds of people—Greeks, and everyone else who wish they was Greek.” A racial purity is heavily practically enforced, so that Greek girls’ mission in life is to attract Greek boys, to marry them, and to become machines for making Greek babies and feeding them and everyone else obesely into the grave. Or as Toula says, Greek women in America are “to be loud, breeding Greek eaters.”
The Greek-American community, of course, holds this Greek-in-America persistence as one of the obvious truths of life. But it should be noted, if only as something of a literary constant, that most immigrant groups in America have maintained similar ideas of their cultural and ethnic insularity. Norwegians in Minnesota, the Irish in New York, the Portuguese in New England, Ukrainians in Chicago Cubans in Miami, Chinese in San Francisco, have all tended to feel that they had special powers of maintaining their ethnic identities even in a melting pot of democratic diversity.
Literarily as opposed to sociologically, the important point about the comedy of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is that it is most emphatically not a comedic pattern of maintaining a Greek standard amidst an American sea of diversity. Instead, Greek cultural isolation, solidarity, and pride are precisely the starting point for a journey away from that typical success story of first-generation, ethnic-centered Americans.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a second-generation immigrant comedy, and virtually by definition that means that change or progression is central to its comedic pattern. First-generation immigrants to America are often fantastically successful. The tight-knit Greek-American community provides a safety net, and family businesses provide opportunity to steady and even varying employment, as Toula Portokalos, for example, moves easily from the restaurant business of her parents to the travel agency business of her aunt. The hours are long, standards of quality are quite typically high, and millionaire-next-door status is not all that unlikely at the end of a hard generation of work. But even millionaire-next-door status does not by itself ensure the success of the second generation. And the tight solidarity of first generation ethnic existence quite typically threatens rather than ensures the second generation’s happiness and success in America.
The second-generation-challenge theme pervades Greek Wedding, starting with Toula’s dumpy looks. She has been a dumpy first-grader, a dumpy adolescent, and, as the movie opens, a dumpy 30-year-old failure both by her family’s ethnic standards and by American counter-standards. Most of all, she is a failure to herself. She is not happy, and her outward frump is simply the objectification of her inner malaise.
Toula is not the only second-generation potential failure. Her brother, Nick, has plenty of jobs supplied by an aggressively entrepreneurial older generation. But he doesn’t have self-fulfillment. He is proving that the American Dream of economic security is far from dead, but he hasn’t started to prove that the American Dream of self-fulfillment is still available for an immigrant’s son with artistic talents that don’t immediately blend in with the previous generation’s business model.
Toula’s older sister, the ever-perfect Diana, seems the exception within the younger generation. As oldest daughter, she has most closely followed her parents’ prescription for success: she has found a Greek boy, married early, and put herself in the baby-making business big time. But even here, there are small suggestions of failure, of frazzle, of a fundamental irascibility, and of spouse-domination. And as the movie progresses, there is a growing sense that perhaps Diana has simply put off the necessary change for a generation and that it is her sons who will have to do the work we see Toula accomplishing.
So the second generation obviously has work to do. But what is that work? What is the success formula for that second generation?
There are some obvious answers. The first, which is typical of romantic comedy in general, is to find someone to love and by whom to be loved. Love conquers all. True perhaps, but trite and repetitiously dull if that is all romantic comedy has to preach. Clearly, Greek Wedding’s reputation as an amazingly fresh take needs better backing.
Second, if the work of the first generation is to land in America and survive or even prosper, the superficial work of the second generation is to become American, not Greek. Becoming American implies a repudiation of the older generation and its Greek ways. And therein lies the higher work based in the complication on which comedy thrives, the doing of the impossible, the simultaneous achievement of opposites.
Toula needs to break out and move beyond the Greek mold even as she needs to remain her Greek parents’ daughter. Probably the main symbol of that breaking out is for her to seek an American education, to leave the old ethnic neighborhood with its certainties and to risk the great unknowns of a downtown educational campus. Gus Portokalos, Toula’s father, (played by Michael Constantine) cannot imagine anything of the sort as less than a nightmare of ethnic failure. Toula’s mother is more progressive, remembering why the family came to America in the first place. America was a place to live and not to be told by others what to do. The older generation is ambivalent about the opportunity to press out beyond itself. (And for most first-generation immigrants, that kind of pressing out is likely an unrealistic extravagance in light of much higher priorities of survival in a new world.) The younger generation needs to venture out, but for real success, at least of the type proposed by My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it needs just as much to stay connected to its familial past.
And it is that paradox that is repeatedly played out as Toula enrolls in computer courses, adopts a new style of dress, starts using make-up, lands a new career outside the restaurant, and forms a relationship—the first in her family history—with a non-Greek.
Non-Greek in this case is embodied in Ian, a several-generations American from an urbane, affluent, lawyerly family, teaching English classes focused on Shakespeare at a high school somewhere around Lincoln Park. At every step, Toula knows that she is transgressing the familiar ways of the old life. And at the same time, she instinctively knows that she is less of a failure for every step, not because Ian is older-American, not because he is affluent, not (mirabile dictu) because he teaches Shakespeare, but because their relationship fulfills American ideals of falling in love without respect to any of these practical considerations.
Comedic patterning is best when it is most devious. Sharp contrasts allow comedy to be both devious and obvious at the same time. Part of Greek Wedding’s deviousness is the inclusion of Yiayia, Gus’s mother, recently brought over from Greece. Yiayia adamantly resists progressive adaptation to America. She resents having been brought to the United States, calling her son a Turk, which may or may not represent an incipient stage of dementia in Yiayia. She regularly escapes the house at night, and irritated neighbors regularly return her from their roofs and gardens as if she were a stray dogs. And at a crucial moment in Toula’s movement toward independence, we see Yiayia in the background beneath Toula’s window, sneaking away from the house, evidently with a certain delight, only to be foiled as the automatic sprinkler system is activated on the lawn.
Yiayia, in short, emphasizes the progressive theme in Toula’s life precisely through her own deeply troubling attempts to find her own place in America. Yiayia is too old ever to be fully comfortable in America. She is a person of an Old World, marching to a drum of inner necessities that even her children cannot understand. And yet, Yiayia ultimately depicts the same comedic idea, that the meaning of immigrant success is dependent on generation and stage in life. It is more than individual success, and yet the individual cannot succeed without struggling to find what is right for him or herself. For Yiayia, what is right for herself evidently includes solitude and withdrawal from the New World life and from the success of her son and daughter-in-law.
But Yiayia too must seek that personally right within the confines of family, confines which constrain what success can possibly be. (Later on in the movie, there comes a classic still-life shot as Toula, her mother, and Yiayia look in a mirror at Toula wearing in her hair the wedding garland Yiayia wore at her own wedding. That still picture epitomizes the comedic theme of three generations all having to work out their own relations in and with America, each appropriate to its own generation, yet each inextricably constrained by familial ties.)
In a romantic comedy, of course, it does pay to find one’s Prince Charming. And the important, non-cliché point about Prince Charming is that he enforces the comedic pattern and in his own way points to the formula for success and survival. Ian Miller is, in this sense, a very powerful prince. Ian, and afterwards ironically his family, establish a very important part of the success formula, the necessary aid which can be provided by longer-resident Americans.
The help of longer-resident Americans for newcomers is something of a constant theme of American literature, harkening back to the stories told in Puritan America about the invaluable help provided to the Pilgrims by kindly, instructive native Americans. That native American theme is continued in American history and literature in Sacagawea (who now graces an American coin), companions to James Fennimore Cooper heroes, Tonto as classic companion to the Lone Ranger, native Americans recognized for extraordinary valor in all of the American armed forces in virtually all of her wars, and the wind-talker legends and films celebrating use of native American codes in the Second World War.
The Millers in Greek Wedding of course are white, so white in fact that they have great trouble keeping Armenians distinct from Greeks and Guatemalans. The Millers are also isolates in their upper-middle-class lawyerly gentility. But it is nevertheless important to the comedic success demonstrated in Greek Wedding that their son is able to find a Greek exciting, interesting, and novel even as he finds American girls trite copies of one another. And, admittedly with the aid of a strong Greek drink or two, even the Miller parents are able to accept the eccentricities their future in-laws are heir to and to be relieved of some of their own insulated boringness by the association. In short, it is repeatedly demonstrated through the Millers, particularly the older Millers, that second-generation immigrant success is critically related to relieving the boredom of inherited success and of reinvigorating more established paths of American life.
Toula needs the Millers to break beyond ethnicity, to understand the fullness of American experience, not its narrowness, to have the typically American experience of dealing with novelty on an intimate basis. And Toula’s relatives desperately need these things in and through Toula’s leadership. But Toula’s success is measured at least equally by her reinvigoration of an American family, by the Millers’ need for her and what they can access through her. Toula’s success makes everyone more alive in themselves and alive to the reality of America.
The comedic pattern of My Big Fat Greek Wedding then is the pattern of progressive adaptation to America, a movement away from ethnicity in favor of American experience and fundamental American values of self-fulfillment, but specifically a pattern that recognizes the need for these success elements to be blended with the realities and values of a previous ethnic background. The pattern thus advocates muddle and a muddling through. It is a pattern of half-a loaf living, so that even in the third generation, Toula’s daughter, would rather go to Brownies (which Toula thoroughly understands) but accepts the necessity of learning elementary Greek, just as Ian accepted baptism by oily immersion in the Greek Orthodox Church and as Toula accepts her role as Greek daughter enough to consider giving up her Prince if marriage to him is indeed killing her father.
In real life, there are more than enough examples of second-generation Americans who have entirely turned their backs on their ethnic origins, who have moved decisively forward to great business, professional, artistic, or political success with never a look backward over their shoulders, never a qualm about deserting those who gave them life, never a thought that there are any values in the old ethnicity to be maintained and built. But literarily My Big Fat Greek Wedding refuses to celebrate such success and instead affirms repetitiously a very different success which both refuses to give up the values of family and ethnic realities and at the same time recognizes the need to press forward and to join the greater society in its greater perspectives and struggles. Toula in this sense is a suffering protagonist, whose work is the personal trauma of holding on to the old while rushing to embrace the new. And through her suffering, she achieves a very high success in maintaining deep values. She is firmly rooted and capable of accommodation, nourished by love and lovingly nourishing in ever-widening circles beyond itself.
Moreover, the pattern of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is not willing to isolate Toula in her heroism, to make her a success even while others around her fail. Like most festive comedy, particularly Shakespeare’s, Greek Wedding’s pattern is ultimately one of social, not personal comedy. Thus Toula’s success is also Ian’s success. And their success brings new life to his too-successful parents. Toula’s success invigorates Nick to pursue his own dreams in education and in art. And Toula’s success invigorates her entire extended family to see itself not just as a Greek family in America, but as a Greek family moving to become an American family, having to try to explain itself to those who though not Greek are now family, and to begin to try to understand non-Greeks, at least by pronouncing “Bundt cake” somewhat successfully and by recognizing with Gus that in the end, his family and the Millers are just different kinds of fruit.
But, even more important, Toula’s success requires cooperation within her ethnic family. She gains that first from her mother, an incipient American who clearly remembers what coming to America was all about. Secondarily, Toula’s success is abetted by Voula, her aunt, whose family is much more the wave breakers into American culture than Toula’s own. But ultimately, if this is to be a formula respecting Greek values, Toula’s success can only be won in cooperation with her father. When Gus gives the deed for a house to Toula and Ian, that cooperation has obviously been won. But it is won at a far deeper level when Gus goes on with his notoriously erroneous false etymologies in Greek. When by a happy misconstruction he is able to derive the Miller’s name from the Greek word for “apple,” he concludes, having noted that his own family name means “orange,” that in the end they are all fruits. Gus’s movement from extreme Greek defensive superiority to tolerant inter-ethnic fraternity, at least as fruits, is the culmination of a social comedy with the deepest of American immigrant roots.
It is not necessary for an audience to believe in the success Toula achieves for herself and for her society. It is necessary for the audience to admit that Toula’s kind of success has been convincingly demonstrated, demonstrated most by its constant repetitions, often in deep disguise.
When we turn from the broad-stroke comedic patterning and social success formula of My Big Fat Greek Wedding to its humor, it can hardly be surprising that such a dramatically successful film uses its humor for equally broad and impressive purposes. It is also not surprising that a comedy dealing with cultural diversity, clashes, and adaptations would rely heavily on humor. Sociologists and psychologists have amply demonstrated humor’s role in life itself for coping with cultural incongruities (Nezlek and Derks, Abel, Thorson). Martin has developed a Coping Humor Scale (CHS). And more specific to America’s immigrant character, Mintz has noted that that “. . .relatively stable and homogeneous societies have less use for humor than dynamic and heterogeneous ones” (237).
The artistic as opposed to the coping interest in humor in Greek Wedding is strongly centered in incongruity. From beginning to end, Greek Wedding is dominated by incongruity, beginning with Toula’s home, a Parthenon wannabe with garage door painted like a Greek flag, all seen against a background of Chicago high rise apartments. Its people are incongruous, as Toula is seen early on trapped between her conventionally Greek parents, brother, and sister on the one hand and her swinger Aunt Voula with her equally avant and evidently super-sexed cousins on the other. Most of all, Toula is incongruous, a frump introduced to us in her own voice-over, a voice-over in which we can sense a beautiful, sensitive, Americanized woman.
Many of these incongruities are inherently funny. The fun in Toula is most typically subtle; in her relatives it is typically over the top—for example Voula’s agreement to respect Ian’s vegetarianism and quick decision to serve lamb. The Incongruity of half one’s relatives being named either Nick or Nikki fights for center stage with the outrageously Incongruous Greek phrases that Nick forces on his future brother-in-law (for example getting Ian to think he’s inviting people in to eat when in fact he is asserting that he has three testicles).
From the oversexed Nikki acting as Ian’s baptismal godmother to Voula’s admitting to the Millers, now that they are family, that she bore her twin sister as a lump on her neck, to Gus figuring out the Greek etymology of “kimono,” Incongruity is an obvious lead Humor of the Mind for Greek Wedding.
At the opposite extreme, Gotcha humor is lacking almost entirely, even though the film is studded with practical jokes. When Nick “gets” Ian, tricking him into saying outrageous things in Greek, we might think that this is Gotcha humor. But on closer examination, these practical jokes do not have the makings of Gotcha humor at all. Like most practical jokes, they are perpetrated on an unwary, even trusting butt. The fact of that unwariness and trust does not necessarily or probably depend on the butt thinking that he or she is smart or otherwise talented. And those of course are the necessary conditions for Gotcha humor as Humor of the Mind, requiring our accurate if quick calculation and judgment.
There is no question that there is plenty of pain in this movie: Toula’s pain in excruciating embarrassment over her relatives’ quixotic behavior, Ian’s pain bridging the gap between his insulated parents and his love, Gus’s pain of taking every act of Toula’s as a rejection of him personally, and on and on. But none of these pains are justly retributive for someone’s overestimate of him or herself and thus quintessentially Gotcha humor.
In order to identify a humor personality for Greek Wedding, we are left deciding between Word Play and Sympathetic Pain. Considering Word Play, we can not miss that Greek Wedding is a highly verbal film, from Toula’s first voice-over to her last. Gus’s false etymologies as already noted carry important elements of the comedic message. And the Millers are masterful performances of the understated conversation-equivalent of the complaisant classes. At the same time, voice-overs and etymologies contrast with body language for intensely humorous effects, like Toula disappearing behind first the restaurant checkout counter and later behind the travel agency water cooler rather than moving decisively into acquaintance with Ian.
Despite this wide-ranging verbal wittiness and its sharply contrastive body humor, Greek Wedding has little of what has been technically defined as Word Play. Word Play depends upon the clash of two sets of words. The Millers’ highly amusing search for appropriate conversation depends on no such clash between word groups. Gus’s false etymologies are amusing, painful, incongruous, and egregious. At minimum, this means that their Word Play quality overlaps with Incongruity and quite possibly with sympathetic Pain humor.
And all these considerations bring us back to Sympathetic Pain. Pain runs throughout Greek Wedding until it is replaced by joy and wonder in the closing minutes of the film. Like a great deal of the most successful comedic experimentation since Chekhov, Greek Wedding does nothing to conceal the reality or depth of this pain. But it does invite us to find the painful humorous, to substitute comic perception for outright sympathy.
As we consider the frumpy Toula during the initial voice-over monologue, she is indeed a pitiful creature. And yet, exquisite direction, timing, and the quality of the voice-over work together to allow us to start to chuckle. When a bit later Toula as frump is incongruously contrasted with her large-chested, in-your-face cousin, both the pain of it all and the urge to laugh in sympathetic response are almost overwhelming. The moments of sympathetic pain pile on top of each other so swiftly thereafter that only a random assortment can suggest the breadth of the totality: Ian’s pain as the butt of Nick’s practical jokes in Greek; Ian’s wiping his eyes of oil in the baptismal font, only to find out that there’s a third dumping in the Greek name of the Holy Spirit; Ian burning himself because he is urged on to dig right into food that he has just been told is very hot and then having his finger squirted with Windex directly over the food; Toula moving too quickly on becoming acquainted with Ian and finding herself pulled head-above-heels to the floor by her earphone extension; Harriet Miller trying to get the word “Bundt” across to Greeks; Gus feeling that the world and his family are rigged against him; Yiayia, happy in seclusion and escape, chased home by neighbors and an automatic sprinkling system.
The Incongruity lead element of Greek Wedding is typically in gross incongruities like the little Greek Orthodox church seen against Chicago’s skyscrapers or Ian and Toula sharing a ride to Aphrodite’s Palace in the far back of a limousine with evidently three rows of empty seats between them and the chauffeur. Contrastingly, the Sympathetic Pain jokes are often caught in the smallest of dramatic movements, the slightest of body gestures and facial responses or even in the absence of any response at all—Ian’s response to Windex ointment for example and Toula’s response to others’ design of her wedding invitations.
The combination of gross Incongruity humor and often subtle Sympathetic Pain humor yields a Reconciler humor personality for My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Beyond seeing the movie itself as Reconciler, we would argue that Toula as a character is a reconciler, that she is engaged in a deeply painful daily work of reconciliation, that when she is weak, it is Ian who comes through with the reconciliatory plan of action, and that Gus ultimately reconciles himself, his family, and his society to the inevitable process of accommodation which was inherent in the original desire to come to America. It is an unusual immigrant who can cast off the old unhesitatingly and join in the newness of American experience unreservedly. Gus is, if anything, at the opposite, ethno-defensive extreme. But even Gus did not emigrate to America just to remain a Greek island. He fights through, he struggles with himself, and he painfully makes the reconciling decision with his daughter to move forward. We can admire the honest pain of it all, but in Greek Wedding we find it easier on ourselves and more complimentary to Gus and all his “oranges,” just to laugh with them in their perplexities and to feel, even if we don’t say out loud, “That’s okay, buddy, I know exactly how you feel.”
Now it must be admitted that virtually all comedy involves reconciliation of conflict. But not all comedies make a theme of reconciliation. Many hold off reconciliation until the final scene, and some, even some of Shakespeare’s comedies, slap on a deus ex machina ending to create reconciliation where the conflicting forces of the plot are sufficiently constructed to lead naturally to reconciliation. But with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, both the film and the characters are about the business, painful as it is, of reconciling an Old World background and values to the new opportunities and diversities of America available to second-generation immigrants.
We could hope in real life that all ethnic families could derive as much good from the reconciliatory pain of younger-generation attempts to move beyond the ethnic ghetto. There is every evidence that such a hope would have Pollyanna written all over it. In this sense, Greek Wedding would be consistent with Louis Rubin’s contention that American humor is a mechanism for testing our ideals against our realities and our realities against our ideals. But the fact that such a hope is clearly not borne out by all immigrant reality is not to the point. Comedy is a faith, a faith that success or survival can be achieved in such and such a way, perhaps with particular limitations, caveats, or on-going pain. In Greek Wedding, the pain is clearly on-going. It is wonderful to have one’s own house going into marriage. It is clearly somewhat painful that the house has to be right next door to a Windex-toting father-in-law and an innumerably extended kinship group of identically named Nicks and Nikkis. And unto the third generation and maybe beyond, it is painful that everyone can understand that a little girl would rather be a Brownie than to learn to say how many goats someone has in Greek.
The on-going pain of Greek Wedding makes the film not merely a comedy but a modern sombre comedy as defined in Paul’s dissertation and later explicated in Comedy in Space Time and the Imagination. Later on we will more thoroughly explore humor in the sombre comedy Rain Man. But the theme of our present discussion is the Reconciler humor personality of Greek Wedding and its symbiotic relationship to comedic patterning and comedic message. Sticking with this theme, it is well to ask what Greek Wedding would be like without the humor personality it so abundantly displays. What difference does the humor texture make?
Without any humor, of course, there would be a much flatter finish on Toula’s story, and perhaps the story wouldn’t be worth telling at all. But more specifically, without the vast humorous Incongruities, the texture would be altered to make less of the stupendous challenges that face immigrant families. Yiayia’s humorous confrontation with the sprinkler system, dramatizes the extreme trauma of being transplanted old to a new world, a new order, and new-fangled conveniences that challenge almost the essential nature of a traditional world left behind. The texture of Greek Wedding would be immensely impoverished from the omission of this humorous background to Toula’s cogitations.
The Incongruity of Gus’s fractured attempt to unite oranges to apples through etymological mayhem artistically embodies the inner struggles of a man who has depended for decades on his ethnic pride to guide his family through the shoals of a vaguely threatening, unassimilated culture. In the absence of the apples-and-oranges joke with its implied chasms of difference, we would have little sense of the enormous task of painful adaptation that Gus is accepting on behalf of his daughter.
And if the humorous Incongruities make clear the stupendous magnitude of the assimilative undertaking, the humorous Sympathetic Pain makes clear the constancy of that challenge and the constant sensitivity with which the assimilative challenge must be faced and conquered. The Sympathetic Pain of Greek Wedding, to repeat, is found quite pervasively in the small details, down to minute facial expressions and changes in bodily stance. And precisely because it is found in such small nuances, the texture points to unremitting challenges in all the small details of life to a continued positive mindset and to a loving life style.
If Toula’s story had been told with the same Incongruity but with a vastly increased Gotcha compliment, the story would take on a Crusaderish tone. There would have to be a butt to the Gotchas, and the work as a whole would take on a certain combativeness. But the comedic success which Greek Wedding proposes is fundamentally nonviolent. Passively non-resistant, it insists that the problems of immigrant status must be endured long before they can be cured.
If Toula’s story had been told with the same Incongruity but with a vastly increased Word Play compliment, the story would take on an Intellectual tone which might be one of tolerance and understanding but would in all likelihood back off into Word Play and away from active if painful attempts to move forward. Reconcilers are active, throwing themselves into harm’s way precisely because that is the only way to get good results. Sympathetic Pain humor is active, alive humor, alive to the pain and relating to it.
If Toula’s story had been told with the same Incongruity but without Sympathetic Pain humor, it would be painful indeed. The strains would be overwhelming. The practical jokes, the misunderstandings, the cultural gaffs and gaps would be crushing. Sympathetic Pain humor is integral to the practical success both of the film and of the characters. Toula’s voice-over itself conveys to us her ability to laugh in her own pain and vulnerability and thus to move on toward reconciliation.
It is almost impossible to imagine Toula’s story without Incongruity. The immigrant reality is essentially incongruous, and the choices open to the immigrant are without exception incongruous. Those who don’t have a great tolerance for incongruity shouldn’t apply for immigrant status. Given that Incongruity is an inevitable part of the equation, Greek Wedding makes a powerful bid that the hope and faith that are possible lie not with Crusader aggressiveness nor with Intellectual cool detachment but with engaged sensitivity in an attempt to muddle through with half a loaf of what has ethnically been and half a loaf of hope for what a new world might allow.
The Reconciler humor texture of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then, is non-combative, non-violent, and even non-self-protective. It is engaged, sensitive, and vulnerable. It allows for reflection and certainly for a full sense of pain, but it is the opposite of intellectually detached. And in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it is an intense texture, enforced by almost non-stop opportunities for Incongruity and Sympathetic Pain humorous perceptions.
The humor personality of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is close to synonymous with Toula’s personality. She, after all, tells her own story from opening to closing voice-over. And therefore by story’s end, we have a clear sense of Toula the quiet, inward person, perhaps better known to us than to any of the other characters, with the possible exception of Ian, a Reconciler personality who catches and transmits every Incongruity and Sympathetic Pain joke of immigrant life in the shadow of Chicago’s Sears Tower.
◄►◄ Reconciling Comedic Texture and Humor Texture ►◄►
Our eyes are becoming accustomed to the dark room of humor personality and texture. And with that heightened ability to perceive, this is a good time to notice what is not part of the dark room as well as what is. Specifically, there are many textures in literature, only a small percentage of them humor textures. In the next chapter, we will pay some attention to the coordination of textures. But here, let us notice that humor textures are entirely separate from comedic texture.
Comedy itself normally has a certain feel or spirit, a spirit so compelling that many critics have defined comedy by its spirit, and in doing so have generated some of the highest moments of critical insight into comedy in the modern age. Harold Watts points to the “sense of regain,” Northrop Frye to the “mythos of spring,” Suzanne Langer to the “comedic rhythm” of perpetual rebirth and restoration of lost balance, and Albert Cook to “the golden mean.” Christopher Fry, Nathan Scott, Jr., and Nelvin Vos have highly emphasized the relationship of the spirit of comedy to the ultimate metaphysical and religious concerns of humanity. It was in fact the power of these comedic insights that determined Paul’s graduate and scholarly career as fundamentally concerned with the high purposes of comedy.
Extraordinary comedies, especially modern sombre comedies following in the experimental directions of Shakespeare’s romances, Chekhov’s comedies, and Anouilh’s pieces noires, have greatly modified and extended the range of these comedic textures. We will touch at least lightly on sombre comedic experiments late in this volume. But for now, let us consider the primary tones of all comedy both traditional and experimental, both light and dark that proceed directly from our definition of formal comedy itself.
First, comedy is in its main line the hopeful genre. Comedy presents a formula for success and survival. That is centrally hopeful. There is an answer to life. If the answer has been secret, it is a secret now to be shared—at least with those who have ears to hear. So comedy, even with humor entirely absent, would have a typically hopeful texture.
It is equally true that humor also has a central hopefulness about it, if only the hope that we can grin and bear it. In fact, recent empirical testing has scientifically demonstrated the relationship between humor and hope. Vilaythong, et. al. found “a statistically significant increase in [self-reported] state hopefulness after exposure to a humorous video relative to a control group viewing a neutral video” (79). The hope of humor does not contradict what we observed in Chapter 2 about the potential negative impacts of humor. Human beings often derive at least a temporary hope from putting others down. Bergson’s entire theory of laughter is built around the idea that we laugh at death, the mechanical encrusted on the living, and thus defy death. He exemplifies his theory in the joke of an old man slipping on a banana peel, a negative image from which we draw positive life spirit.
And thus if we began with the mystery of formal comedy and humor being entirely separate yet easily confused concepts, of formal comedy and humor being carriage and horse with an inexplicable tendency for people to confuse the carriage for the horse, our senses are now sharpened enough to find a central reason for that confusion: Comedic texture and humor texture are both centrally hopeful. Both can be modified or even perverted away from this central tendency, but successful comedic writers for millennia have seen much greater purpose in intimately relating the two in their central, unmodified tendency. If nothing else, it pays greatly at the box office.
Second, comedic texture is centrally a matter of faith, not a matter of sight. In a good comedy, we are shown a demonstration of how to live successfully or to survive. But ultimately, such demonstrations are just that. They are demonstrations; they are not proofs. If we are philosophically careful, we typically have no difficulty noticing that we are invited by the comedy to share a certain faith that such and such will work. It may easily be that we have found that such and such does not work in our own personal lives. But that comedy asserts a faith of some sort has been argued by many critics, notably Conrad Hyers in The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith and Nathan Scott, Jr. in “The Bias of Comedy and the Narrow Escape in to Faith,”
So a second normal texture of comedy is its faith tone, its feel that we are invited to join in and believe with the presented comedy. Sometimes this texture can be downright annoying if we are being invited to believe in a certain kind of success or survival which by our own experience we are forced to reject. That sometimes annoyance is one of the best proofs of the faith-feel typical of comedy.
And third, comedy normally has a tone of celebration—celebration of the hope, celebration of the faith. The celebratory feel of Shakespearean comedy has been one of the great staples of Shakespearean criticism. However, most of that criticism does not fully appreciate how normal celebratory texture is over millennia of comedic experience. It is fitting, though not necessary, that holidays, weddings, and birthdays are common in comedies.
In a comedy like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, all of these comedic textures— of hope, faith, and celebration—are all strongly present, just as they are all strongly present in Music Man. None of these textures is dependent upon any particular humor-of-the-mind texture of the particular comedy, but humor in general can certainly be used to augment and intensify all three of these comedic qualities.
Finally, not all comedy but certainly the vast majority of Shakespeare’s, Molière’s, Chekhov’s, Shaw’s, and Anouilh’s comedies have an intense feeling not just of success and survival but of success and survival as part of a social interdependence. My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Music Man are both strongly in the same tradition, similarly creating a social tone. This social texture is not inevitable in comedy, and in fact, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is something of a proof text, a comedy built around three super-individual practitioners of the con. It is not clear that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has any society that it celebrates, even a society of thieves.
These contradistinctive comments on comedic as opposed to humor texture would have been well-nigh incomprehensible if attached to an earlier chapter. If they start to make sense and more importantly if we start to feel the textural differences as we remember particular plays and films, that is a strong indicator that our perception has been heightened by our efforts to navigate a dark room of contrastive humors.