Four Seasons: Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2018
Vitalist Comedy: Expectations
It is well over a century since French philosopher Henri Bergson introduced vitalism as an important consideration in literary studies. And while Bergson himself was evidently interested in laughter (not necessarily comedy), since publication of his seminal work Le rire, a number of the great 20th century critics of comedy—Northrop Frye and Suzanne Langer in particular—have essentially put in vitalist oars toward the understanding of comedy.
Despite the work of such giants, much remains undone for a vitalist understanding of comedy and of humor. Bergson is repeatedly quoted, but he is much more likely to be quoted for “the mechanical encrusted on the living” than for the vitalist import that guides that humorous attention. Langer’s work generally is far less quoted, and when it is quoted, the attention seems to reside in her insistence on the relationship between audience feeling and form—certainly one of the most important concepts in practical aesthetics—to the exclusion of any development of her vitalist interest in comedy.
Northrop Frye’s “the Mythos of Spring” interpretation of comedy is certainly one of the great ideas of 20th century criticism. But it doesn’t seem to ever find strong representation in practical criticism of comedy and is in some ways easy to pass by as “having said it all” without ever recognizing that the vitalism of Frye’s argument needs further reconciliation with other insights of the vitalist tradition.
We, therefore, propose for this volume to make an attempt, to write an extended essay on literary vitalism, starting in literary criticism and moving to the practical criticism of comedic screenplays which have had altogether disproportionate influence on the development of comedic drama and on our sense of ourselves as an American culture producing classics of comedic literature throughout an American century.
It should be made clear from the start that we are trying to define an unrecognized sub-genre of comedy, vitalist comedy.
We recognize, of course, that liveliness in comedy is as old as comedy itself. At least back to Plautus, there have always been lively comedies, but lively comedy is not even closely synonymous with vitalist comedy. Sprightly comedy, often satiric, has existed for centuries. Molière provides multiple classic examples, but more recently, we can look to Gilbert and Sullivan, to Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Ernest, and to Hollywood’s Arsenic and Old Lace. But sprightly comedy is no more vitalist comedy than is lively comedy.
Similarly, there have been extremely vital characters in comedy, some of whom have become household names for centuries. Such is the case for Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, for Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing, and for Touchstone in As You Like It. As recent examples, we would suggest two Audrey Hepburn roles, Sabrina in Sabrina and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as not only establishing a major Hollywood career and reputation but also etching in American cinematic memory two of the most vitally alive characters in 20th century drama. Infant television comedy specialized in vivacious characters from Lucille Ball to Jackie Gleason. But particularly-alive characters either in main or in supporting roles do not define vitalist comedy either.
Neither are particularly-alive performers. It is easy to think of Robin Williams, John Belushi, and John Candy in more recent decades as ably carrying on a vitalist tradition in the performing arts in one successful comedy after another, typically dependent on their extreme, personally vital talents. Honoring them as proponents of the vitalist tradition is mandatory, but their personal acting vitalism is not inherently associated with screenplays that define the vitalist comedy we are pursuing here.
The vitalist comedy we are defining, instead, focuses on screenplays like the Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof. These are all musicals, and musical theatre, as we will see, has certain advantages in creating vitalist comedy. But what makes these three musicals vitalist also made Pygmalion vitalist before My Fair Lady was built upon it. It makes Steel Magnolias vitalist, Forrest Gump vitalist, On Golden Pond vitalist. Ultimately, what makes such disparate plays vitalist—plays that range in subject matter from the king of Siam to a mentally challenged army private—is not their subject matter nor the vitality of major or supporting figures, nor the presence of musical elements.
Ultimately what makes vitalist comedy vital is that it has a new kind of power over us, a dynamic seldom felt in literature before the 20th century.
At a formal level, all these plays make use of humor components which are seldom appreciated even in discussions of the humorous. We will be explicating and elaborating on these humor components and their accompanying dynamis in eight essay-length examples from modern American film theatre. We will also be considering key aspects of My Fair Lady, which though an American production, is clearly a close imitation of a British model by George Bernard Shaw, who deserves very special mention in the development of this new genre. There is some reason to think that French playwrights including Jean Anouilh and Jean Giraudoux have had seminal influences. Since the great successes in the genre, however, have been primarily American, we will define the genre through American examples, leaving the question of seminal influence to other studies.
In imitation of the best of deconstructive criticism, it is perhaps well here to tell a story, create a myth, that at least starts to suggest what this dynamic or dynamis is like that creates a new comedic sub-genre:
A Tale of Two Lawn Mowers
Somewhere in Southeast Minnesota live two lawn mowers. Fred owns quite a spread and has to use his tractor mower to get the job done. And the job is always perfectly done in an argyle pattern of diamonds created by precision tractor cuts and crosscuts. Fred worked the pattern out as an engineering blueprint 20 years ago. He always starts at exactly the same spot, and he always exits the lawn at exactly the same spot. His neighbors are very proud of him and his lawn, frequently calling visitors’ attention to its geometric perfection.
Charlie lives in much more modest circumstances on what Fred calls a “postage-stamp lot.” The lot may be small, but Charlie gets a full work out with his electric lawn mower. This is largely due to the fact that he cannot cut ten feet in any direction without running square into a tree or large bush. These include a snowball bush (you’d think a Minnesota winter would provide enough of that), a serviceberry (which is more a tree than a bush), a no-name red-leaf bush recovering from an abused childhood, several lilacs, and a forsythia which was on the edge of death for years but then threatened to take over a good part of the yard without in any year offering more than three or four of its first-in-spring flowers. Then there are the trees: maples, birches, Chinese elm, and cherry. Charlie says trees spring up in his lawn by themselves and he is not the type to cut down a tree without a good reason. So each time Charlie comes to a tree or bush, there is a fairly extensive ballet step of redirecting the mower and repositioning the electric cord. Charlie is proud of never having cut a cord; it is less clear if neighbors are proud of his lawn efforts.
Now depending on our own lawn proclivities, we may want to disparage either Fred or Charlie or both. And, of course, humor allows us to disparage either with a number of different techniques. Please don’t think about disparagement here. If we simply recall Fred’s work and Charlie’s, with no intent at all to ridicule, deride, or the like, which of the two is more likely in an average audience to engender at least inward smiles?
We submit that it is Charlie who will be per se humorous. What makes him humorous isn’t that he is so bright, clever, or intelligent, nor is it that he is clumsy, silly, or stupid.
When we get to the point of having robots cut our lawns, a robot will be fairly easily programed to replace Fred on the mower. (And thus, Fred can be seen as mechanical encrusted on the living and, therefore, in a Bergsonian way funny.)
But what makes Charlie humorous is neither his intelligence nor his lack thereof, his civic-mindedness nor lack thereof, his artistry nor lack thereof. What makes him inherently humorous is that he is so alive out there avoiding this bush and saving that sapling tree. His decisions are sometimes good and sometimes bad, but he is always thinking, always calculating just to avoid cutting his power cord. The Bergsonian joke against Fred is soon told, almost in a snapshot. The Charlie joke keeps coming back in one new form of aliveness after another.
As we will have occasion to repeat many times, life responds to life. We respond to Charlie, and the response centers on something like an inward smile. The vitalist comedy we are talking about in this book is comedy which similarly forces a dynamic response in us, a response of life to life, based in an inward smile.
When we talk about a dynamic, we mean a thought/feeling (normally a combination of these) which the dramatic work as a whole engenders, that the dramatic work enforces on us, not that we enforce on it. And it is a thought-feeling about the work as a whole, and, therefore, the dynamic of the play or film cannot be apprehended until we have seen the entire work.
Let us shift then from a mythic example of vitally contrastive lifestyles to two short examples from extraordinary vitalist comedies. First, consider the opening scenes of Sound of Music, after Maria’s opening song-dance on the mountain singing the title song and after the spectacularly artful photographic background sweeps behind the credits. The next scene is of entirely decorous nuns discussing the problem of Maria, a discussion which oscillates between disparaging her as a “clown” and wondering “How can you hold a moonbeam in your hand.” Into this scene runs a distraught and clumsy Maria late again for vespers as, evidently, for every canonical hour.
Maria is told in the following scene that she must go into the world as a governess to the Von Trapp family, and we then see her, in a bizarre and ugly costume carrying valise and guitar case, bursting into a singularly unmemorable song with the improbable conclusion that she has confidence in confidence.
Consider the feel we have as audience at the end of these scenes as this at-risk novice confronts the Von Trapp mansion through its iron gate. Then try to recreate, to recall, the final, over-all feel of Sound of Music.
The two feels have nothing in common.
The feeling of awed grandeur caught in the final scene, the feeling of indomitable human will caught in a family of nine climbing the Alps, the sense of the world being all before them, the sense that it all has something to do with a Spirit and a Sound of Music, and a feeling which is different from any of these thoughts but grows out of an appreciation of all of them, is a vitalist feeling almost never experienced in theatre before the twentieth century.
Or as a second example of the dynamic of vitalist film comedy, let us consider the opening scene of My Fair Lady, as a perfectly groomed upper-class audience is pouring out of London’s theatre. Rain starts falling, people rush to engage what cabs are available, vendors in the square hastily cover up their new blooms. And an altercation breaks out between a flower girl and an ill-manner linguist who has been making a phonetic transcript of her comments to herself and to passers-by.
Slightly later, Eliza having received a “small fortune” in change which Higgins contemptuously leaves for her in recompense for having dashed to the ground her flowers, we witness an early morning street scene among flower and grocery vendors and share with Eliza and with all of these working-class poor the shimmering vision of “a room somewhere far away from the cold night air.”
Contrast the feel of these scenes to the feel of the close of My Fair Lady. There is something very alive in Eliza’s “All I Want is a Room Somewhere.” And that aliveness will be part of the final feel of the work as a whole. But so far, the scene is pedestrian otherwise, and for all the rancor of the Higgins-Eliza face-off, there is no sense that this is something more than the ordinary well-made play, whereas the final, overall feel is of an unending confrontation between giants of the will who together hold the secret to an entirely revolutionized and revivified England (stodgy old England having been unforgettably portrayed at Ascot).
In both cases, the opening scenes are scenes of the world as we know it, particularly in theatre but to some extent in life as well. Contrastingly, the final over-all dynamic is a response to a world transformed by extraordinary aliveness, value, and drive.
What this dynamic is and how it gets constructed are the subjects of this study and ultimately define a new comedic sub-genre, vitalist comedy.
In this attempt, we will be building on many concepts which we have developed over better than four decades. Foundational among them is that comedy—formal comedy—and humor are distinct entities. We acknowledge that it has become popular to use the word “comedy” to refer to humor and a variety of humorous forms, evidently because of the often-monetary bias in favor of words of Greek derivation. However, formal comedy as a form of drama—which as super-genre has invaded other literary fields such as the novel, the short story, journalistic accounts, and even narrative poetry—is entirely distinct from humor.
That humor and comedy are highly symbiotic in art goes without saying, just as horses and carriages were highly symbiotic in pre-modern transportation. That they are symbiotic is no reason at all for confusing a horse with a carriage or comedy with humor.
Both comedy and humor come in a variety of forms and sub-forms, and distinguishing between those sub-forms is highly useful in fruitful literary criticism. Humor of the Mind, for example, explored by George Meredith 150 years ago, can be divided into four distinct though often overlapping sub-forms. The preference among such sub-forms is a key to our personal sense of humor, our humor personality, a sense which may be almost as individual in the final analysis as our fingerprints. Furthermore, a work of art can also be said to have a humor personality of its own on the basis of the types of humor that predominate in it.
Not only can a work of art have a humor personality. That personality, created by the combination of dominant humor sub-forms, produces a “feel” or “texture” which is instrumental to our literary and aesthetic appreciation of the work as a whole. We explicated the creation of humor texture for four types of Humor of the Mind in representative major American films in Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle: Humor in American Film Comedy as well as for some of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies in A Cheshire Smile: Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare’s Comedies.
Behind both these discussions was better than a decade and a half of empirical research demonstrating that such humor distinctions did indeed exist and that preference for one type of humor over another is related to a great variety of sociological and psychological variables. For these demonstrations with respect to humor-of-the-mind sub-forms, we are indebted to going on 4000 associates in the Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies who have taken the Classical Humor Test in association with a large array of side tests in a host of experiments whose results have been shared in the Humor Quotient Newsletter (HQN) and in better than a score of formal academic conference papers.
Humor of the Mind, however, is not intrinsic to vitalist comedy. Bergson’s and Langer’s work point to two major joke forms, the Bergsonian negative vitalist joke that laughs off the mechanical encrusted on the living in all of us and the Langerian positive vitalist joke that laughs with extraordinary life. These two joke forms are quintessentially vitalist as opposed to the sometimes accidental vitalism portrayed in humor-of-the mind jokes.
Thus this current volume, while building on the previously stated principles, will add additional principles to its foundations. Chief among them is the assertion that, while Henri Bergson claimed to be writing about laughter and Suzanne Langer claimed to be writing about comedy, their theories represent two sides to the same coin, a negative and a positive literary, artistic vitalism that has much to say both about humor-and-laughter and about comedy-and-the-comedic.
A second major concept throughout this essay is the subdivision of literary vitalist forms: like formal comedy and like humor, “literary vitalism” can be profitably broken down into subordinate sub-forms.
Thanks to the wonderful cooperation of faculty staff, and most of all students at Winona State University, thanks to Bush Foundation support, and thanks to a host of social and religious organizations first in Winona and then throughout Winona and Minnesota and on to Wisconsin, we have been able to test participant response to vitalist jokes in two related vitalist tests, again in association with a variety of side tests. As with results from humor-of-the-mind testing, results of this vitalist testing program, which now includes better than 1000 individuals, have been frequently reported in academic papers and in HQN, and these results provide important counter-checks for critical assertions made throughout this text.
Thus building on the foundation of well-developed theories of both comedy and humor, fortified with extensive empirical testing of participant response to various forms and sub-forms of humor, we move forward to consider what techniques go into making these vitalist productions so compellingly alive.
We will be first concerned with joke structures, with Bergson and Langer, and particularly with Langerian affirmational vitalism.
Our second interest will be in Frye’s contribution, essentially derivative from his assertion that comedy is the Mythos of Spring. Inherent in that concept is the idea that comedy exhibits a rhythm of “re-,” essentially a matter of renewed life, returned life and rebirth, revitalized life epitomized in our perception of the spring of the year.
It is only fair to mention that Frye’s perception of “re-” comedy was heavily reinforced by Harold Watts’ “Sense of Regain: A Theory of Comedy.” If Frye routinely attempts to be not just cosmopolitan but universal in his critical appraisals, Watts effectively limits the range of his consideration to Comedy of Manners from Restoration comedy to probably low levels of what we would now call situation comedy. Nevertheless, his phrases, “regain” and “rebalance” are haunting in any comedic discussion, and we have often more than alluded to him in forming our own comedic criticism of comedic sub-genres which Watts might find entirely outside his realm of discussion.
Centrally important to our consideration of Frye and Watts is that they agree on the sense of “re-,” which turns out to be a very vitalist sense. It is not fundamentally a concept applicable to jokes á là Bergson or à la Langer. Instead, Frye and Watts are both taking very philosophic and general views of comedy as a form of drama. So our second step in writing this general synthesis is to propose a somewhat analogous way of handling Frye’s and Watts’ conceptions of comedic form as sub-dividable, like Bergsonian and Langerian vitalist humor, into sub-forms. But in Frye and Watts, these sub-forms typically appear not in individual moments and jokes but rather embodied in comedic form throughout whole scenes and perhaps throughout whole works.
Reconciling Bergson, Langer, Frye, and Watts into a unified vitalist conception for use in dramatic criticism may be work enough. But in thinking through these issues over decades, we have, in fact, come up with a third approach to literary vitalism, a vitalist approach to the spirit of the work as a whole, an approach which, being our own and evidently never discussed previously, we will with humility call Gravian Vitalism, Gladness Vitalism, or Impulse Vitalism. Generally, we will refer to it as Gladness-Impulse.
Gladness-Impulse Vitalism essentially points to a very old recognition that vital feelings “break out,” or “overflow” or “shine forth.” These are standard conceptions in ancient documents like the Bible, and they account for the fact that the Bible seldom uses the word laughter—other than in the name Isaac, which is exception enough—and never to our knowledge uses the word comedy or the comedic. The typical biblical word in the area of humor is “gladness,” and gladness is this overflowing shining frothiness. (Pioneer societies, at least as exemplified in Willa Cather and in repeated critical emphases on “earthy” humor of pioneering colonial New England, seem much more instinctively attuned to gladness humor than do more settled, later generations (Grawe, P “Pioneer Humor in O Pioneers).
The fundamental humorous response, evident long before speech in human babies, is the shining forth of the open-mouth smile—of course, for infants they don’t have the teeth yet to make the shining forth quite so shining to others. But throughout life, the shining forth of smiles in gladness is matched with other vitalist acts.
Inherent to our argument is that there are two voices of vitalism, the Bergsonian and the Langerian. This is true of course for momentary humor which in many studies we have labeled either Bergsonian or Langerian and which we have shown empirically to relate to many social and psychological variables. But beyond that, there are two voices, a Bergsonian and a Langerian voice, to re-forms of comedic action. And there are two voices, Bergsonian and Langerian, to Impulse or Gladness Spirit.
The vitalist comedy sub-genre which we are defining, however, is only incidentally focused on Bergsonian forms. Centrally, vitalist comedy is defined by the combination of Langerian forms of momentary humor, Regain comedic form, and Gladness-Impulse spirit. Perhaps a very different sub-genre can be defined centering on Bergsonian forms.
Langerian momentary humor vitalism, Regain vitalism, and Gladness-Impulse vitalism are each philosophically dividable into four vitalist sub-types. Having distinguished then twelve vitalist sub-types from one another, we will be prepared to say something about the dynamis of vitalist comedy (dynamis or the dynamic by which a dramatic work presses us to a definite thought-feeling of the work of art as a whole has a distinguished history going back to Aristotle’s Poetics.)
We will be presenting these conclusions about variations of vitalist dynamis as four “seasons.” In theory, there are possible forms of vitalist dynamis beyond these four seasons, and occasionally we will approximate some of those in phrases like “late summer” or “early winter.”
All of these concepts concerning vitalist humor and dynamis will be further explicated in examples from practical criticism, and thus we will move to eight essay-length analyses of highly successful vitalist comedy. As we have always found to be the case, basic theory can be adequately handled abstractly. But the deeper aspects of any literary theory are likely to only manifest themselves in the consideration of individual works of artistic genius.
As we begin this study, two powerful caveats are in order. First, vitality is a high-level autonomous concept. It is not a warmed-over version of something else. Most pointedly, vitality is not a code word for intelligence. It is not a code word for wit. It is not a code word for erudition. It is not a code word for talent. It is not a code word for what we admire or what is good or what is wise. Vitality is vitality; it is aliveness.
Second, vitalist perception is subtle—after all, it hadn’t really been introduced to literary analysis until 1900 with Bergson’s Le rire. We therefore ask readers to consider vitalist theory and most especially vitalist practice with a strong introspective sense of their own reactions to seeing these films. Our greatest hope is not that we will say the final word about any of these masterpieces, but that we will say the first word that allows readers to find the vitalist component in their aesthetic appreciation of these great works.