Comedy in a New Mood
The Big Chill's Entropic Humor
Presented at the Ninth International Conference on Humor and Laughter
St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada 1991
Edited for web publication
The video dust cover of The Big Chill refers to the movie as a “comedy of values.” The assertion of any kind of comedy is daring. After all, here is a movie about friends getting together at a college classmate’s funeral. Further, the death involved is not merely accidental, tragically painful, or clinically explicable. Instead it has been a coldly calculated and evidently intentionally messy suicide all over the bathroom of the friend who most subsidized him and the friend’s wife who had an affair with him.
Topping all this, the reunion gathers together ‘60’s radicals and flower children, all of whom have found life in the world beyond the University of Michigan to be a long series of exactly those compromises they as college students excoriated in their elders.
Now, the piling of one difficulty on another is itself one of the great dynamic humor techniques of comedy. Recall Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors 400 years ago based on Plautus’ Menaechmi 2200 years ago, and the ancient lineage of the pilling-on technique can scarcely be doubted as a staple of both humor and of the stage. In more modern guise, the Sad Sack cartoons of the post-World War II era showed the humorous appeal of the man of a thousand troubles, the personalized embodiment of the piling-on technique. Chekhov’s Yepikhodov in Cherry Orchard is the Russian variant.
Long comedic pedigrees aside, sophisticated theatre audiences will sense immediate objections to Big Chill’s inclusion in the tradition. After all, Comedy of Errors and Menaechmi may pile on trouble, but the trouble and the humor are safely removed from the real world—in Shakespeare’s case, to fabled Ephesus. Such worlds, far removed from the audience’s own personal histories, social agendas, and lifestyle paradoxes, are vastly unlike The Big Chill.
The safety of imaginative distance is similarly maintained for Sad Sack. His G.I. existence is a world removed, a world escaped, perhaps an Alice in Wonderland world inhabited still by the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts but no longer by Alice or by us.
As for Yepikhodov, if he is not removed from a realistic social context—as Chekhov claimed—he is nevertheless isolated in his eccentricity and easily defined as “not us.”
Traditionally, imaginative distance has allowed comedic humor to beguile us into the belief that incongruities on stage are not ours and can be reacted against with pure intellect. The Big Chill is solidly embedded in a modern theatrical tradition which demolishes that easy belief in our exemption from comic piling on of difficulties on stage and instead with dark humor thoroughly embroils us and forces us to feel for ourselves the dark realities portrayed.
Big Chill revels in that dark tradition. Whether we ourselves were ‘60’s radicals, clearly a substantial part of the American middle-aged audience was—or at least saw such people as some of the role models of their youth. Whether we personally were radical, few of us in college were not at some level appalled by the compromises which the cash nexus and employment for others normally thrust on the adult population of an industrial or post-industrial society, just as all the protagonists in Big Chill were. Unless we are exceedingly rare birds, the real world has also thrust on us more compromises than we were prepared as undergraduates to contemplate.
Big Chill has precisely such an audience in mind. In keeping with pleasing that audience, it explicitly satirizes buffoon figures in terms employed throughout the ‘60’s. Central here is Karen’s husband, Richard, chosen by a flower child precisely for his predictableness and stability—and thus from a ‘60’s perspective, for his staid boringness and cowardly faithfulness—as she says, he’d be afraid of having an affair for fear of herpes.
Less obviously, the cop who stops Nick for running a stoplight opens himself to Weathermen-style stereotyping. He is, after all, a parochial, suspicious, good ole boy who quite easily accommodates legalities as long as Sam (who plays J. T. Lancer on television) is willing to demonstrate how he jumps into sports cars without opening doors or emasculating himself. Sam’s feeble attempt and resulting injury employs a return to pure farce to highlight the shabbiness of his “deal with the Law.” A similar caricature with ‘60’s overtones is reserved for the bombastic minister at Alex’s funeral who couldn’t call a spade a spade if he worked as a gardener.
Through such technical devices and the film’s loving sympathy for the individual protagonists, we are clearly warned away from any interpretation of the film as a satiric expose of the ‘60’s radicalism then and now at the same time that the characters themselves are made to level devastating critiques at themselves and their culture. In this Michael, Nick, Alex, and Sam all share, though Michael is the most eloquent. The radical campus journalist who presumably spent the late ‘60’s reviling Goldwater, Johnson, and the War in Vietnam, Michael has become the author of innumerable pop-psychology tabloids articles written to a length suitable, as he puts it, for reading during a single crap. Nevertheless, when he also describes his writing as “good investigative journalism” as exemplified in his current assignment of interviewing a blind 14-year-old baton twirler, we laugh at his wit and at the savage incongruity and even absurdity of his statement without slowing down to laugh at him. And this latter quality is the key humor clue to the entropic nature of Big Chill’s undertaking.
A side effect of the leveled critiques, however, is to obliterate the possibility of any tragic interpretation of the movie, bemoaning the death of ‘60’s idealism and quasi-indigent solidarity.
The vehicles of anti-tragic warning are many, but Nick predominates. The withdrawn, “intellectual” leader who majored in psychology, dropped out after a sterilizing, enforced tour in Vietnam and ended up as a late-night psycho talk show host before resigning in self-disgust to become a drug-pusher. In short, Nick gives up being a phony help to the psychologically disturbed in order to become an undeluded and unhypocritical seller of delusion and self-destruction.
Like Michael’s career, Nick’s embodies a seemingly untenable incongruity which fully deserves laughter. But again, entropically, Big Chill is at pains to keep Nick sympathetic and beyond disapproving laughter. If we ask how this magic if performed, the obviously central answer is that Nick is shown to be an accepted intellectual leader of the group and thus, by definition, beyond any laughter which challenges the acceptability of his decisions. This allows Nick, like Larry in The Ice man Cometh to act as the great “foolosopher” in the grandstands. The humor here also takes on O’Neill’s emphasis on serious inebriation, with the de rigueur substitution of drugs for alcohol.
The resultant effect of Nick’s cutting wit and acerbic comments is to provide some of the most memorable flashes of heat-lighting laughter that flicker through Kasdan’s script seemingly designed for 5-second attention spans. The bolts devastate any argument for the group’s special rank and character, thus working strongly against any tragedic interpretation.
Light comedy, satire, tragedy all being inadequate to describe the effects of Big Chill’s comedy and humor, there remains what I call the “Ikke sprike” hypothesis. My Norwegian grandmother would say, when we grandkids said something irreverent and brash, “Ikke sprike”—freely and consistently translated: “Don’t joke about serious things.” It is possible that Big Chill was simply written and produced to make money by its daringly scandalous humor goring the sacred cows of post-Peter, Paul, and Mary America. If so, Hollywood almost consistently found it unfunny, and Big Chill appeared only after most Hollywood studios had rejected it as an obvious loser.
I don’t blame Hollywood, however, for a lack of perception, especially about brashness which is normally a Hollywood specialty. The truth is that The Big Chill was something quite new and subtle, though quite natural as an outgrowth of serious humor, comedic theory, and intellectual history over the last 150 years. Big Chill represents the latest chapter in a feud between the direction of comedic theory and practice and embodies a radical stage of sombre comedic experimentation which has dominated the serious theatre throughout our century. Big Chill’s experimentalism asserts the hypothesis that the world is ready to laugh at its own terminal illness with urbane sympathetic self-awareness. This hypothesized new direction I call “entropic humor.”
The feud to which I refer must be understood in light of the long comedic theory tradition after Aristotle’s original deprecation of comedy in his Poetics. Later writers rather routinely praised comedy—perhaps damning it with faint praise—for its vivacity, its ability to lift the human spirit, and for its sanity in seeking, finding, and describing the golden mean. The modern tradition updates these early formulations in Albert Cook’s The Dark Voyage and the Golden Mean and in a host of imitators who set comedy and tragedy as polar opposites and assign comedic humor the role of ultimate rudder working to counter the extreme-seeking foibles of humanity.
To this basic theme, a refreshing descant was added by Henri Bergson, whose claims for laughter, humor, and comedy are not only optimistic but metaphysical, purposive, and quintessential to the human condition. As he argues in his prologue to Le rire (1900):
For the comedic spirit has a logic of its own, even in its wildest eccentricities. It has a method in its madness. It dreams, I admit, but it conjures up in its dreams visions that are at once accepted and understood by the whole of a social group.
Bergson can be annoying to formalists like me in his easy equation of humor with comedy rather than recognizing humor as separate, the long-term right-hand punch of comedic formal design. That disagreement apart, Bergson inaugurates a critical tradition of optimism in the analysis of comedy. For Bergson, the comedic purpose is the ultimate victory of the élan vital, the life spirit so engagingly adopted by George Bernard Shaw.
Bergson’s optimism is anything but simplistic. In his view, there finally exist but two realities: a life force and a death force locked in unending struggle, each passing day yet another demonstration of the life force’s power to remain operative amidst a dead and dreadful universe.
Most dreadful about this dead universe is its nevertheless active and sneaky endeavor to invade, pervade, and pervert the living. This sneaky character of the dead, the creeping coldness of the universe if you will, forces the life force to its own ultimate effort and cleverness. That cleverness is the basic fact of humor. According to Bergson, the life force creates humor to sneak up on the dead in us. Humor and comedy expose this dead encrustation on that which remains alive in us, and such sudden humorous revelations result in our surprised, delighted, revivifying laughter.
Bergson’s optimism, in one form or another, underlies the work of an extensive 20th century school of comedic critics, including notably Christopher Fry, Wylie Sypher, Al Capp, Nelvin Vos, Northrup Frye, Nathan Scott, Jr., Father William Lynch, and Suzanne Langer.
Borrowing much from Langer, the drift of comedic criticism has, in seems to me, been essentially this:
Comedy is like looking at a wounded animal—a fish say, which has lost part of its tail to a larger fish; a bear which has lost a paw to a hunter’s trap. We could take a compassionate, SPCA perspective on such situations. But comedy instead backs away from sentiment in favor of awed admiration for the Creation’s will to survive. The deformed fish learns to swim again, albeit lopsidedly. The maimed bear learns to climb trees and perhaps more amazingly still to use his remaining front paw to raid a bees’ hive without falling. Comedy affirms the wonderfulness of life accommodating to less than the ideal.
The theologically sophisticated will recognize in this the Felix Culpa argument of the Middle Ages—the logical train of thought that Adam‘s fall into sin was nevertheless the start of humanity’s great God-ordained comedic adventure, allowing for redemption and eternal life in Christ—a redeemed life by that fact superior even to angels’. Not surprisingly, most of the modern critics I have mentioned can readily be associated with the long Judeo-Christian tradition of Western academics.
Such criticism grows naturally lyric over comedy. Thus, for example, Robert Corrigan:
The comic spirit: the sense that no matter how many times man is knocked down he somehow manages to pull himself up and keep on going. Thus while tragedy is a celebration of man’s capacity to aspire and suffer, comedy celebrates his capacity to endure.
And thus Christopher Fry:
Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair: a narrow escape into faith . . . . Laughter may seem to be only like an exhalation of air, but out of that air we came; in the beginning we inhaled it; it is a truth not a fantasy, a truth voluble of good which comedy stoutly maintains.
By entitling the humor of Big Chill entropic humor, I am implicitly asserting that its humor is at war with this academic critical tradition. Big Chill’s humor is if anything the clever counter-ploy of the death force which is not prepared to let the life force win through clever humor exposing the dead encrusted on the living. Rather, dedicated to the certainty that humanity cannot and will not endure, will not even endure much longer, entropic humor must of necessity use humor to prove that any narrow escape into faith is indeed escape into fantasy. Ultimately, that means that entropic humor must even disparage the idealistic faith of recent liberal idealism.
However new such an assertion is to theatre, it still grows out of its own long tradition, notably including Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s superman, like Nietzsche himself, finds the chief challenge in life not in confrontation with a deluded moral majority—such people for the supermensch are saps of a lesser God. No, the challenge for the superperson is the challenge to deny all faith and all values beyond power and will while still remaining sane; to deny life while still insisting on living.
Ultimately, Nietzsche found his own life reasoning directed to suicide. With a nod to the existentialist thinkers who tried in the mid-20th century to assert life in the midst of a dreadful and meaningless universe, Big Chill moves on to an entropic humor which readopts the centrality of suicide.
Perhaps Kasdan’s return to suicide reflects the fact that the existentialists like Beckett and Ionesco found that people refused to accept plays like Waiting for Godot and Bald Soprano with a proper degree of helpless despair. Instead, people—like the inmates of San Quentin who formed Beckett’s first appreciative U.S. audience—seemed to take a perverse satisfaction in humanity’s ability to survive. It seemed that the existentialists’ best shots had only served to underline the optimism asserted in the critical tradition of Corrigan, Fry, Langer, et al.
From such a background, Big Chill reenters comedy fully armed and combatant with a pessimism determined to conquer comedy and to assert that the end of history is upon us, the proper response to which being an urbane and self-contemplating, terminal humor.
To get back into the comedic ballgame, Big Chill gladly adheres to a host of long comedic traditions: the sense of reunion and new life celebrated by Harold H. Watts, a society rather than an individual as hero, banquet scenes and ritual sharing, a hip-grinding dance to golden oldies, and sexual consummations both serious and farcical: serious in Meg’s securing Harold’s services to sire her child, awkwardly comic and farcical in Karen’s seduction of Sam whose aw-shucks innocence sharply diverges from his J. T. Lancer billing.
This comedic equipment clearly marks Big Chill’s intent on a comedic assertion, though not an optimistic assertion of the vitalist tradition. Instead, comedy is appropriated in Big Chill to assert that the ultimate and pessimistic triumph of life is the will to look its own hypocrisy, anti-idealism, and un-viability self-consciously in the face: for Michael to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his investigative journalism is appropriately housed next to the toilet paper; for Harold to know that he has become the quintessential successful American businessman down to knowing which SEC regulations he is violating; for Nick to squarely recognize his choice of drug-pushing over therapy-pushing; and for everyone to narcissistically preserve their self-knowledge in witty videos to be played back for all their friends.
Instead of asserting the survivability of the human race, Big Chill makes a bold attempt to transform comedy and its humor into an awed viewing of humanity repeatedly torpedoing itself but taking a long time to sink.
The vision so expressed is not that far from the fatalistic Greek worldview with its Odysseus, also a man of a thousand troubles, but not a man of any particularly notable comedic future, a man who takes a very long time to sink despite his encounters with Scylla, Charybdis, and even with hell itself.
Big Chill’s choice of character names seems to recognize this affinity: Alex, Nick, Meg, Karen, and Chloe all deriving from Greek. These are the very characters most associated with sterility and the general entropic import of the movie. Take Meg, for example. Meg had an abortion while an undergraduate even though having a child was the one thing she knew she wanted to do. Now approaching menopause, she is determined, having never found an available man worth sharing genes with, to have one final shot at baby-making. If this sounds sterile, I think that is the point.
Or take Alex, the suicide we never see, and Nick who we do. They are virtually indistinguishable as characters. At final curtain, Nick is about to take Alex’s place with Chloe in what could be called Suicide Cottage. His death soon after the final curtain is predictable in the same sense that babies are predictable for Cinderella and Prince Charming, and as indolent life in the Briar Patch is predictable for Br’er Rabbit.
Greek etymologies here become important for refining artistic meaning. Alex was originally Alexandros—“the defender of men." Nick was originally Nickolas—the descendant of all Hemingway’s Nicks, particularly those who got nicked in a crucial lower extremity as in the present case. But Nick is also nike laos, the Victory of the People. When Karen announces the “certain symmetry” between Alex and Nick at Suicide Cottage, her announcement becomes Big Chill’s most ironic and pessimistic comment not just on the ‘60’s generation but on all the hope of Jeffersonian democracy and of de Tocqueville democracy in America as well.
Time does not permit me here to explore in detail the various humor techniques which most enforce these pessimistic messages. But humor is as much the right-hand punch of this new entropic humor as it was of traditional comedy anytime after Plautus.
As the merest sketch, the new entropic humor is heavily based on incongruity, but the incongruity is an acidic perceptive, witty, ironic, hard-surfaced, au courrant, fragmented, and urbane ability to be on both sides of every issue, whether the issue at stake is kids, drugs, sex, athletics, or the left’s moral agenda in the’60’s. Michael is the chief expounder of this entropic vision, and his dry, easily backed-off and easily balked wit is probably the key direction for such humor. Incidentally, Michael is named for the angel militant, an ironic sidelight on his role as expounder and seducer to the new humor.
Michael can’t expect to succeed in this conceptual seduction this week or next, any more than he can expect to succeed soon in his sexual seductions. But like Bergson’s unrelenting death force, Michael has the creeping cold confidence of eventual success. And we are made to laugh with and at Michael as our assent to his eventual “muscle” in dictating worldview.
These are fairly new lines for humor. Much older is entropic humor’s reliance on inebriation, a particular debt to O’Neill. And something of a new-old twist, entropic humor is fixated on sex but always moving to assert sex without fertility where traditional comedy normally assumes the equation of sex and fecundity.
Chloe is the ideal embodiment of this strident anti-fertilism—especially since her name is the summer manifestation of Demeter, the fertility goddess. Chloe’s sexuality throughout is seen as death-oriented in the same tradition as Abishag lending warmth to the impotent David’s deathbed.
With such humor as its propelling power, can I seriously propose that The Big Chill makes sense as comedy? Perhaps in the final analysis it can’t But it is giving it a good college try. The Big Chill is determined to be the new social comedy, the new comedy of manners, the new comedy of values as its dust cover affirms.
Having been propositioned by Karen, Sam (who is the conscience of the group and thus an inevitably endangered species) goes off with Harold and comments, “I don’t think I could live down here all the time.” His line announces the social and at least quasi-comedic survival test proposed by Big Chill. In this new pessimistic, entropic comedy, survival is the ability to stick with the group, self-awarely condemning its life realities while never operatively condemning it or its members even in the face of their suicide.
The Big Chill proposes such a test recognizing that Alex has already flunked it and that Nick “symmetrically” must flunk it as well; recognizing that Sam, if he survives, will survive by separating himself and living outside the walls of the charmed group.
A similarly self-destroying reality and loyalty test for survivability was proposed in English Restoration comedy. Like Restoration Comedy, The Big Chill is comedy going down with the sinking ship—and, the in the words of Maxwell Smart, “loving it.”
As such, The Big Chill’s comedic vision and humor is particularly appropriate to a time in which in sophisticated and academic circles, “the end of history” is discussed as the evidently preferred next chapter in the human epic.
 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. (1983).
 Corrigan, Robert W., ed., Comedy: Meaning and Form (San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company. 1965), p. 472. Reprinted from "Laughter" , Fred Rothwell, tr. Comedy, Wylie Sypher, ed. Doubleday & Company, 1956.
 “Comedy and the Comic Spirit,” Comedy: Meaning and Form, ed. Robert W. Corrigan, (San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company. 1965), p. 3.
 Fry Comedy, Corrigan, Robert W., ed., Comedy: Meaning and Form (San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company. 1965), p. 15.