One of the less hefty thoughts I had after September 11, 2001, was whether the show Friends would continue to air. I assumed that since the show took place in New York City, and that it was funny, NBC executives would choose to stop running it. When the show returned to the Thursday night line-up, I felt guilty laughing along with six of the coolest twenty- and thirty-year-olds I knew. I was also ashamed that I was expecting—almost craving—a laugh. Was this the time for comedy? Shouldn’t I be praying or donating money to some sort of relief fund? What good would a chuckle do now?
Folly, Erasmus’ narrator in In Praise of Folly, says comedy does a lot, including but not limited to, making us laugh. What’s more, Desiderius Erasmus argues (albeit humorously) that comedy is vital.
One of the first things Folly points out about comedy is that it brings about change. “…[W]hen you laid eyes on me, you were quite transfigured” (7). Folly takes note of the adjustment in the audience when they realized that she was the one who would speak to them. She compares their reaction to feeling the signs of spring for the first time after a cold winter, and as though the audience was feeling the sun for the first time. The use of the word transfigured here also suggests that comedy not only lightens a mood, but it can transform us.
Throughout the book, Folly sheds comedic light on otherwise serious subjects. For example, she suggests the body part that a man uses in hopes to become a father is “so stupid and even ridiculous that it can’t be named without raising a snicker” (12). This is the organ that creates a human, “the sacred fount from which all things draw their existence.” In another example, Folly wonders what woman would ever have sex again after going through childbirth. Not only does she have to endure contractions, labor, and the ordeal of having various liquids pouring out of her body parts, but she must rear the child as well. Having gone through a miscarriage, the delivery of a ten-pound baby, and another somewhat high-risk pregnancy, knowing what I know about the miracle of life isn’t exactly foreplay. However, I also know the joy in first holding my daughters, watching them take their first steps, and listening to their voices. Folly’s question affirms the pains of childbirth and rearing, but her use of comedy here (I imagine her shaking her hands above her head in mock exasperation) lightens the situation as well. Bringing anything to life—a story, a recipe, a skyscraper, a human being—hurts. It is nice to laugh at the difficulty in it, whether it is a snicker or a howl. Laughing about the seriousness in life brings relief, and this is what Folly is doing here.
Comedy is a great leveler in the book. Folly makes fun of everyone, even Erasmus. She describes a wise man (Erasmus) as “always sparing, saving, sad, solemn, severe, and strict on himself…” (38) (The use of onomatopoeia here is humorous as well, in the sense that one could draw out the “s” in each word adding sarcasm and melodrama). Folly then asks, who cares if someone like this dies, “since he can’t properly be said ever to have lived?” (38) Women, apostles, writers, those who memorize Psalms, are among the groups that Folly makes fun of. Being in on the joke shows we are all included. When we are included in the comedy, it means we have been observed; that there is something intriguing about us that deserves enough attention to make a joke. In this respect, comedy can also be looked at as a form of grace: we are all, in our strange, serious, silly make-ups, included in on the joke.
At the end of the book, Folly argues that practicing comedy is a form of piety. When we laugh at ourselves, we become like the pious man who, “shrinks as far as he can from the concerns of the body, and allows himself to be lifted to the realm of eternal, invisible, and spiritual things”(85). The more we lose ourselves in the joke, the closer we grow to God, and therefore closer to the way he created us to be. In this sense, comedy restores a new order.
It is probably folly to compare Desiderius Erasmus to the likes of Joey, Chandler, Ross, Phoebe, Rachel, and Monica. However, on a basic level they do the same thing Folly does: that is make us laugh, relieve us from our serious situations, include us all, and maybe, when we turn the TV off or when Folly leaves the stage, these offerings will stay with us prompting us to forget ourselves and become the people God created us to be.