When I was in college one of my friends told me a story about her younger brother. He was a typical high school boy in many ways: excitable, impetuous, demanding, hungry, pungent, psyched, and yet strangely indolent and dim at times of rest; depending on dinner—whether he’d had it yet; whether it was what he’d wanted—he could be enormously proud, kingly even, towering and solid in his person, or else morose, Jobian, hyper-sensitive, and easily cut to the quick. But one of the most unique particulars to my friend’s brother was his logical-linguistic faculty, his individual reason in his individual language. His own personal left side of the brain. How he expressed his opinion on something often had the subtlety of an errant anvil. “Hammer and tongs” is supposed to imply rigorous, constructive, usually dialogical debate or conversation. His was the surprise singular dropping of cold hard dumbness on nothing. That was my impression at the time of my hearing this story, anyway.
It happened one Saturday afternoon that my friend and her family were out running errands. At one of their stops, my friend’s brother came across a bag of assorted candies. The candies reminded him of candy. Candy reminded him of other times he had had candy. Those remembered times reminded him that he liked candy. The memory of liking reminded him that he liked liking. It was only a short neurological distance before the connection was made: thought became want, want became desire, desire became need. He bought the bag of candies—that is, he put the bag in his parents’ basket.
But somewhere along the way home the assorted candies remained unopened, even in the brightness of their colorful wrappers. Maybe they drove through some place on the way home. Maybe his digestion caught up with him sitting in the van.
Whatever the reason, desire had subsided somehow. Driving back, my friend’s brother asked their dad if he wanted to have the candy instead. Their dad, busy doing the actual driving, muttered an affirmative commonplace: Sure, I’ll eat anything, you know.
When they got home, after the usual bland shuffling and settling, my friend’s mother began preparing that ever-promised meal, covenanted daily since childhood, dinner. My friend’s brother, seeing these preparations, asked what it was supposed to be—a question freighted with sphinxlike gravity. I do not remember what it was, or what he was expecting, but the brother did not like the answer. He bemoaned his mother’s choice. He decried the item’s very existence. He cried violence against his hankerings. In his lamentations he opened the bag of candies and began unwrapping and eating them, one solitary piece at a time.
Just then my friend’s dad, coming through the sliding glass door from the backyard, gave out a more neutral, dadly bark at the brother.
“Why didn’t you clean the backyard? You said you were going to. You didn’t do it.”
“What? I can do it later.”
“I told you to do it before we left. Actually I told you to do it last night.
“I wasn’t home last night.”
“You were before you left. You were home this morning. You didn’t do it either of those times.”
“I will in a minute, okay? God.”
“Don’t swear that at me. You said you were going to. It’s a mess out there.”
“It’s not God’s fault it looks like a goddamned warzone out there . . .”
“Well it’s not my fault that dinner’s gonna suck.”
“. . . piles of poop everywhere out there. What did you say?”
“That’s why I’m being a jerk.”
Tempers grew higher, and voices grew louder. Feelings were hurt, faces were fuming. At some point my friend joined the cause of her parents, and then the whole family was gathered in the dispute. Or rather, father, mother, and sister united against brother. They got to a point where they had each chimed in some death-knell against his callow moral rectitude. At first, he took these rebukes harder and harder, and grew more blockheaded against them. But soon their steady words had the effect of erosion. Looking around him, his conviction softening, he issued one last defense at the head of his accusers. He looked with dread seriousness at his dad and said:
“Well at least I got you candy!”
They all stared wide-eyed at him. They looked at each other, gasping for words, only to look back at him in utter dumbfoundedness.
They stood shocked as if a boulder had rolled through the living room.
Finally the dad’s stern, straight face cracked a slow grin, and he broke into a laugh. The sister and the mother soon followed, and even the brother began to smile uncertainly. It wasn’t long before the whole tense body of the family relaxed in laughter, the kind of just-pent-up, now-released laughter so much like hard-earned tears.
My friend shook with laughter as she recounted this story to me. Approaching the climactic words, she had to stop and catch her breath. She made many false starts, having to smooth the smile from her cheeks so that she could speak. But the smile stayed there because the surprise of her brother still stood in her mind.
I had seen her annoyed with him many times. I myself had been more than annoyed with him many times. I thought him the worst kind of fool: proud, with big shoulders. Certainly my friend had plenty of reason to complain about her baby brother. On the worst of days, his seat of reason was a highchair from which he tossed a mess of clanging slop around her, not even aware of her trying to pick it up. But at that moment, still reliving his utterly unique response, her face showed the exact opposite of annoyance. Even as she had cringed and frowned before when telling of his churlishness, my friend now smiled with lucid joy when clumsiness. But she wasn’t laughing at him, she was laughing because of him, and the smile lasted far longer than the laughter. It was the facial expression of that good old English word, so underused nowadays, mirth.
* * *
What my friend experienced with her brother is a kind of comedy I have come to admire, cherish, and even rely on. It is a comedy that encompasses the heights of joy and mirth, but it also includes their quieter siblings like delight, amusement, and affection. If some of these words sound precious and quaint, they may, as I said, be underused—but hopefully not outmoded—in common currency. Perhaps it is because these words are so lacking in referents nowadays. Again, hopefully not. Whatever the case, these are at least my words for describing the kind of response I have to a special form of comedy: the comedy of acceptance.
At least that is what I will call it. By “acceptance” I intend the most positive meaning of the word, as in the willing reception of someone’s existence. It is what happens when one person, fictional or otherwise, finds another person humorous because of who they are—specifically, because of who they most singularly, and usually pretty startlingly, are in a given situation. They surprise reductive expectations by their fuller individuality. In this kind of comedy, a person can go from being an object of a joke to being the subject of enjoyment. In finding another humorous, the beholder validates the other.
In his essay, “Comedy and the Irresponsible Self,” the literary critic James Wood delineates what he deems to be the two major strands of comedy in Western culture. The first and oldest he terms the “comedy of correction,” in which the folly of a person is shown to be absurd and highly risible. This is the person-as-butt (of a joke) view of humanity. It is very much alive and kicking today, but it goes back well before slapstick to its heydays in the jesters and fools of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The flaws and faults of the fool are put on bright display for the audience; this individual is a passive but fallible object on which others may toss scorn and derision.
This view of comedy has been called “superiority theory,” and it goes all the way back to Aristotle. In his Poetics, Aristotle states that in order for something to be funny, there must be just enough blemish or injury on (or inflicted onto) a character as to inspire a sense of advantage or arrogance and avoid a feeling of sympathy or loss in the audience. It is the difference between a missing hairpiece and a missing limb. (Unless the character or world of the story is completely devoid of human soulishness, as is the case in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in which a fully quartered Black Knight is hilarious only because he is a perseverating severed stump of a prig.) As Wood points out, the morality of this kind of humor lies in the correcting of obvious errors of the fool and how they are set up specifically for a corrective fall: “hypocrisy, misanthropy, pomposity, foolishness, clerical dereliction of duty, and so on. In such comedy there is frequently the stability of allegory or fable, whereby a decoding of the story is implicitly promised; or there is the guarantee of retribution and formal closure” (8-9). In other words, the comedic person is a plot device, a good and perfect thing for comeuppance. This kind of comedy is “a way of laughing at” someone (6). It is also, more subconsciously, a way for the audience to gain both negative social ascendancy and momentary cosmic tidiness. The world is fair because the buffoons and blowhards have been baffled—and because it wasn’t me this time. The whole audience guffaws, but each heart sniggers.
It’s no surprise that this kind of humor focuses on the physical. What can better turn us into objects than our bodies? The comedy of correction and its descendants love to locate human faultiness in unwitting clumsiness and helpless defects. A prideful person is often intimidating—until they have crossed eyes. It’s hard to take anyone seriously whose nose dangles.
But of course this kind of comedy can be incredibly mean-spirited, even cruel, and verging on the brutal. I am one of unmerciful millions who reveled in the “Jackass” hijinks. I am also guilty of having turned friends and family into foolish-compounded clay—a likeness to myself. I molded them momentarily to witlessness. It is the easiest to indulge in when you don’t know the person; but it has all the thrill of transgression when you do.
One of my friends in high school suffered from mild vasovagle and something like near-narcolepsy, both symptoms of a chronic low blood pressure. The moment he sat in the seat of any car he fell limp with sleep. The next moment we had goaded the driver into swerving him into a crash-test dummy. It was funny to see his nostrils staring at you in the rearview mirror. It was outrageous to see his head roll like a watermelon, his face flap like a windsock.
One time at the beach we were roasting hot dogs. My friend’s girlfriend wanted a hotdog. We offered to get her one. We filled the bun with a hotdog, and covered the hot dog with sand, and then covered the sand with ketchup. His girlfriend loved lots of ketchup. It was one of her many little quirks. But the face we saw when she bit into it—the openmouthed dumbness we gleefully felt we’d inspired—was beyond recognition.
I have stuffed my share of ice cubes into the underpants of sleeping friends—to see them hurdle like Jesus lizards on the carpet.
I know the comedy of correction. I have practiced it to take my friends down a peg. It has been practiced on me since I first dropped my pocket. My socks have often been untied, to the enjoyment of others.
But the other strain of comedy that Wood describes, which he terms “the comedy of forgiveness” or “tragicomedy,” is much more understanding in its regard for human imperfection. This is in large part because it strives to portray human beings realistically, usually through the complicated verisimilitude of prose fiction; Wood cites the novel as the prime artistic example of this view of convoluted but intensely inward characters: “The novelistic idea that we have bottomless interiors which may only be partially disclosed to us must create a new form of comedy, based on the management of our incomprehension rather than on the victory of our complete knowledge” (10). The comedy of forgiveness, then, strives for accurate interpretation of another human being; it is forgiving of its characters because of its inherent acknowledgment of its own shortcomings. No person is ever purely funny or absolutely fatuous. They may stray into appearing so at times, but they never stay pinned inside that perception for long. In the comedy of forgiveness, a character surpasses their own faults, even if only by virtue of their complexities.
Look at any major character in Tolstoy—and many a minor one as well—and you will find an individual who is plenty made a fool of by life, whose expectations are near-constantly thwarted by fate, but who is ever cognizant of their shortcomings, often intending to correct themselves. Think of Stiva and the way he smiles, of all things, when he is caught in adultery red-handed—and of the way he reflects on it with some vague sense of shame. Think of the way he enjoys his fine aristocratic meal almost like a beast, but never with anything getting on his face. (His signature physical trait is his large, hearty chest—one that often rules him more than he it—but it is always a human apparatus, with its own strange admirability.) Or think of Levin just across the table from Stiva, with his bucolic taciturnity and stubborn traditionalism—who gives it all up and becomes absorbed in almost universal affection for all things the moment he finds requited love. We see what a fool love has made him—he thinks everyone, even the impecunious flunkies, are smiling because of his fortune—but we also swim alongside him as he passes through a stream of bright new emotions brought about by unforeseen possibility. Or think of the eponymous character herself, whose conceit is real, whose infractions against her husband are harmful, whose inconstancy with her child is almost ruinous—and whose beauty is undeniable, whose bearing his magisterial, whose dignity is embattled, and whose conscience is so full of ambivalence and self-wondering that she seems to transcend a simple moral verdict.
There are, thankfully, a multitude of examples of the comedy of forgiveness, and Wood is an extremely learned and trenchant commentator on many. But I find, at least at this juncture in my life, that his second category of humor is too colored by the negativity of the first. Perhaps both entail a slightly hostile or pessimistic view of history (specifically religious tradition as it occurs in medieval and Renaissance “correction” comedies), as well as a tacitly moribund outlook on life. People were the wretches of the universe and God for centuries, until Shakespeare and the novel delivered them with soliloquies and stream of consciousness. Forgiveness in the form of comedy is a truly wonderful notion—and a true one, I think—but it implies that there is always something to forgive. It seems to me that this articulation of comedy, as a critical framing device, constrains the character in wretchedness even as it grants them a soul. Moreover—and more to my point—I find that Wood’s second category of comedy lacks an aspect of humor that I very much experience in real life: joy.
Maybe I am being too nitpicky with Wood, and I don’t mean at all to detract (because I am sure he could correct me with a hard-hitting precision that I would love to see on somebody else). And certainly “the comedy of acceptance” can connote a modern, pseudo-psychological scheme of merited injured merit as well. Nevertheless, I would like to add joy to the human mixture, whatever the most appropriate terms may be. This kind of comic happiness is a positive, affirming kind of perception of a person. It is not just a feeling: it is a realization. It is not just in spite of; it is because of. In it, the human being is at the very least a semi-pleasant surprise. At best, it is a thankfulness that the source of humor is the exact person they are. Because of the augmenting presence of the comical other, the comedy of acceptance does not come from or ultimately serve a self-conscious need for superiority. It is the fool who gains ascendancy here.
To my lights, the comedy of acceptance occurs most often between real-life friends and family members. I would wager that most people, like my friend from college, have stories from their own lives about a close relation so sparkling full of quirks, so fresh with strangeness, that they make correctness seem bland. With even one sentence they can flip propriety on its head. These people’s faults become a welcome change to social norms. The joy we get at these people’s characters is seemingly impossible to convey to people who do not also know them personally. There is a particular inner circle that requires admittance.
There are, however, some portrayals of the comedy of acceptance that we can be audience to. The ones I remember most will be particular to me but hopefully somewhat communicable to others. (As works of art they imply that intention.) I find that much of the humor in the movie “Sideways” is comprised of the comedy of acceptance. After all, how many times does Miles smile bemusedly at Jack after some of his ridiculousness? How many of Jack’s foolhardy effusions does Miles give a wry response to? Much of the pleasure of the film for me is waiting for Jack to be Jack, and watching for Miles to acknowledge it—grudgingly, reluctantly, and at the end, willingly. There is that moment, the climax really, when Jack thumps Miles awake to let him into their hotel room, and he comes in wearing nothing but his hands on his privates and the bandage on his nose, and explains to him that the husband of his latest impulsive sexual adventure found him right in the middle of things—this moment I think epitomizes the comedy of acceptance. At this point in the movie, Miles has had quite enough of Jack’s horn-doggishness. His ideas of their last bachelor week together, of all the quaint, tasteful things he would do to send Jack off “in style” toward marriage—really his very notions about who they were together as friends—have all been thwarted by Jack’s characteristic good-natured debauchery. But now Jack’s actions have reached their denouement: just when Miles thinks his friend cannot debase himself any further, Jack surprises him in all his broken nakedness. Seeing his friend in all of his truth, and hearing the story of his misadventure slide even further down into an abject admittance of personal despair, Miles goes through the motions of exasperated, bewildered, hysterical laughter, utter disbelief, flat refusal to help, and finally acceptance of who his friend really is and what he requests. It would take me forever to describe the whole arc of this scene—especially for those who have not seen the film—but suffice it to say that this moment alone is a prime example of a character laughing not at someone, but because of them. Miles has no choice about who Jack is. Morally speaking, Jack is reprehensible. But personally, Miles is surprised, his attention is taken—the word comes from the Latin for “seize.” Held by Jack’s true nature, something in Miles’ own makes a shift, and he lets his friend in.
As with Woods’ comedy of forgiveness, there are plentiful literary examples of the comedy of acceptance, and quite a few of them comprise some of my favorite fictional moments. One that comes readily to my mind is from the character of Toots in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. Toots is not a young man: he is a bashful overgrown boy quietly playing at being a young man. He is an amateur gentleman with a fiercely mawkish love for a young woman who will never feel the same for him—as, indeed, who of the world’s women could seal a love so stamped with Toots? As G.K. Chesterton points out, Toots is just the kind of person that we would loathe having even an acquaintance with in our real lives—who would want to be around, and God forbid pursued by, someone who is so stumbling a poser and so painfully awkward, as the common phrase goes; but he is, through the miracle of comedy, turned into the exact kind of person we gladly pay all our attention to. Throughout the book Toots has (or finds) interactions with Florence Dombey, the object of his love (but really the symbol of his peculiar passion), and every time he evinces the most unpredictable, bizarre, and downright outlandish behavior—indeed, he seems almost to come from a different planet. And yet, as we learn toward the end of the novel, his intentions in and of themselves are so honorable that they manage to shine through his actual fumblings. In fact, it is his fumblings that embody his extraordinary psychology and serve to redeem otherwise trite situations.
This brings me to my favorite moment. It is in the church where the bann of marriage—or customary Anglican wedding announcement—of Florence and her fiancé Walter Gay is being made. The event itself is a mundane procession, and Dickens knows this full well. Florence and Walter are but one couple among a list of many, and their relationship, fictionally speaking, is a fairly conventional and unaffecting romance (being two iterations of Dickens’ more basic stock characters, damsel-heroine and flat hero). But we never actually hear the bann: we do, however, see Mr. Toots. As he toils through the service, which he himself has insisted on witnessing as a show of chivalrous support of his one true love, Toots begins to shift nervously in the solemn sanctuary of the church, changing his pew for a seat in the aisle, between two now-unnerved women and at the center of the whole distracted congregation. We know Toots’ internal reality, but we witness the external incongruity. In his heroic torment, he wanders the church like a madman. Finally, in a rush of emotion, he flees the church and escapes to the churchyard. But it is here that he most takes the stage:
Not venturing to trust himself in the church any more, and yet wishing to have some social participation in what was going on there, Mr Toots was, after this, seen from time to time, looking in, with a lorn aspect, at one or other of the windows; and as there were several windows accessible to him from without, and as his restlessness was very great, it not only became difficult to conceive at which window he would appear next, but likewise became necessary, as it were, for the whole congregation to speculate upon the chances of the different windows, during the comparative leisure afforded them by the sermon. Mr Toots’s movements in the churchyard were so eccentric, that he seemed generally to defeat all calculation, and to appear, like the conjuror’s figure, where he was least expected; and the effect of these mysterious presentations was much increased by its being difficult to him to see in, and easy to everybody else to see out: which occasioned his remaining, every time, longer than might have been expected, with his face close to the glass, until he all at once became aware that all eye were upon him, and vanished. (Dombey and Son, 857)
Literarily speaking, the character of Toots becomes the focal point of this domestic type-scene. His comical behavior, having long trumped the purpose of the young couple, totally outdoes the sermon, and with the aid of the windows his uncommon personality goes on full display. We now see not only his overpowering feelings for Florence, but also his equally compelling attachment to people: he may be lovelorn, but he is full of “wishing to have some social participation.” As to why this is funny, some explanation can be made—and I hope I have somewhat approached that goal—but as for why Dickens makes a fool, and not the promise of marriage, the most important figure in this scene, I believe the answer lies beyond words, in our (or at least my) pure emotional response to the reality that is Toots.Literarily speaking, the character of Toots becomes the focal point of this domestic type-scene. His comical behavior, having long trumped the purpose of the young couple, totally outdoes the sermon, and with the aid of the windows his uncommon personality goes on full display. We now see not only his overpowering feelings for Florence, but also his equally compelling attachment to people: he may be lovelorn, but he is full of “wishing to have some social participation.” As to why this is funny, some explanation can be made—and I hope I have somewhat approached that goal—but as for why Dickens makes a fool, and not the promise of marriage, the most important figure in this scene, I believe the answer lies beyond words, in our (or at least my) pure emotional response to the reality that is Toots.Literarily speaking, the character of Toots becomes the focal point of this domestic type-scene. His comical behavior, having long trumped the purpose of the young couple, totally outdoes the sermon, and with the aid of the windows his uncommon personality goes on full display. We now see not only his overpowering feelings for Florence, but also his equally compelling attachment to people: he may be lovelorn, but he is full of “wishing to have some social participation.” As to why this is funny, some explanation can be made—and I hope I have somewhat approached that goal—but as for why Dickens makes a fool, and not the promise of marriage, the most important figure in this scene, I believe the answer lies beyond words, in our (or at least my) pure emotional response to the reality that is Toots.
Literarily speaking, the character of Toots becomes the focal point of this domestic type-scene. His comical behavior, having long trumped the purpose of the young couple, totally outdoes the sermon, and with the aid of the windows his uncommon personality goes on full display. We now see not only his overpowering feelings for Florence, but also his equally compelling attachment to people: he may be lovelorn, but he is full of “wishing to have some social participation.” As to why this is funny, some explanation can be made—and I hope I have somewhat approached that goal—but as for why Dickens makes a fool, and not the promise of marriage, the most important figure in this scene, I believe the answer lies beyond words, in our (or at least my) pure emotional response to the reality that is Toots.
Because who can explain an emotion? At bottom, how do we account for our gladness in something? We love certain people, but why them? Even the reason of family is an arbitrary one: why should a family inspire affection? (Of course, not all do.) Some might say, because they are close to us, because they know us best. Even these answers beg further questions. Why this way, the way it really is, and not some other way? Why should a hand have five fingers and not fifteen? (Because the laws of nature, physics and so on. But then why should they be thus and not so?) We cannot grasp the answer that we feel and see and know to be true. It is a mystery. It is simply given to us to delight in them.
The comedy of acceptance, then, evokes a sense beyond enjoyment. It is the tacit acknowledgement of the fact that we did not make the world—and the happy implicit acceptance of a part of that world into our lives. Laughter is an outward show of an inner opening. By laughing because of a person’s existence, we grant their grantedness into our own. They gain admittance into our memory, and from our memory into our selves. It is a communing, uniting comedy. Perhaps it should be called the comedy of Grace. Society may have its intransigent norms, but we see what lies on the periphery. It is because of the fact that we do not always see that I believe certain stories and characters are written. A secret goal of humor, as a human art, may be to make us see ourselves more like the audience of our own lives. It gets us to imagine happy flaws. What we might rather ignore startles us at the center. Of course, this happens only rarely. But just imagine how much we are missing.