by Clark Hulse
1. Monty Python tells us that as long as there is pain and suffering in the world, there will always be something to laugh at. In comedy, people fall down and it's funny. People get hit and it's funny. People make total fools of themselves and it's funny. People you wouldn't like in real life are humiliated and it's funny. But comedy based on the suffering of others is closely related to some things that aren't so funny: racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism. Shakespeare makes that pretty clear in The Merchant of Venice.
Nonetheless, the violence and suffering in comedy can be redeeming. Shakespeare and Monty Python were wise enough to see that the people who inflict suffering can themselves be made ridiculous, or worse. And sometimes, when we see the sort of ridiculous violence inflicted in cartoons—pow! bam! splat!—and we then see the characters bounce back up again, it helps us think that we can live through our own fear of violence, our fear that we will be the ones to suffer, the ones to be humiliated.
2. Theater is like dreaming. It has good dreams and it has nightmares. In tragedy, you have to wake up during the best part of the good dream, confess that it was only a dream, and go back to your crummy life. In comedy, you get to wake up from the nightmare.
3. Aristotle said that tragedy showed people better than they are in real life, and comedy shows people worse than they are in real life. But at the end of a tragedy, the people end up dead, and at the end of a comedy, they have a party. What does that teach you?
4. Comedy is the older generation letting go. It's about parents realizing that when their kids ask for triple allowance and the keys to the car and insist on staying out all night, they (the parents) should say yes, because the kids are really okay even thought they act crazy, and they will get home safely even if we do worry about them all night, and when they're our age they'll be too tired to have so much fun so they should enjoy themselves now.
5. Comedy is the ritual of nature for people who have moved to cities. Comedy is about the turning of the seasons from winter to spring, the return of the leaves to the trees, the energy of youth, the renewal of communal bonds, the setting aside of misunderstanding and prejudice, the cessation of crime and fear, the acceptance of old age as the crown of life, and the renewal of the hope that children will create a better world than their parents have left them.
6. Hamlet is a natural comedian. (That's why he's so angry to find himself caught in a tragedy.) When Polonius says he will treat the actors according to their deserts, Hamlet tells him to treat them much better. "Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" Comedy enacts the forgiveness we don't deserve. It's the second chance we don't usually get in life.
7. Comedy is the purest theater. In the end, it doesn't rely on social relevance or deep thoughts. It is all about timing. Timing the punchline. Timing the pratfall. Timing the exit of the lover out of the back door a half-second before the entrance of the husband through the front door. Timing the discovery of the true lover or the identical twin or the long-lost child. In comedy, there is no room for error.
8. Especially in The Comedy of Errors.