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Filtering by Tag: comedy

In Praise of Folly

Callie Feyen

Photo: Warner Bros. / Courtesy: Everett Collection 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.

Advent and Godot (Part Two: Delivering The Comedy)

Tom Sturch


I will anoint them with oil to give them gladness instead of sorrow. ~ Isaiah 61:3

 With bleakness as its backdrop, the absurdity of Waiting For Godot exists in its dialog riddled with non sequitur and its circular structure where almost nothing changes though time appears to pass. Those are the fixed elements. But as with any production the pathos, or meaning, has to be communicated through the performances of the actors. And while actors do not manifest meaning, they are nevertheless its agents and must be strong enough in character to deliver the play's potential.

Beckett was famous for not saying what Godot was about. The New Yorker printed two of his letters in response to producers' queries you can read here (if you have a NY account). By not doing so, he created a space for libraries of commentary on the play that might never have been ventured if he'd said anything definitive. It allows its mysterious questions to be newly engaged with each viewing.

But actors need a little more help.

Director Stephanie Courtney: “Mostly I invoke the removal of the observer in my student's pretty little heads. They are in love with observation—and judgment—rather than being in love with action. They want to be the object and the observer.”

Director David Fox: “In working with actors, I do try to be specific with what they're playing and why. Actors need some concrete answers to questions. Ambiguity, however, is part of the Beckett experience, so telling an audience what the play is ‘about’ is far less important to me than saturating them with a deeply felt experience. Perfectly appropriate for spectators to emerge from Beckett with more questions than answers.”

And then, there's the comedy. Once, in a kind of type-casting for the Theater of the Absurd, Steve Martin and Robin Williams starred together in a production of Waiting For Godot. Martin, who trained in theater and philosophy in his earlier years, sagely said, “The language of the play takes care of itself. The structure of the play takes care of itself. But the comedy must be delivered.”

Comedy is the stealth cloak. It is the spoonful of sugar. And sometimes it is the message, all by itself. David Misch (his bio is a gut buster) was a writer for Mork and Mindy and many other projects. In his book Funny: The Book is a chapter titled “Comedy vs. The Universe:

If you don't think the bleakness of life can be funny, talk to Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. (Beckett got the name Godot from a Keaton movie). Or Laurel and Hardy—actor Michael McKean points out that all their films are about them failing: “We know they're doomed, and that's why they're we're laughing.”

Are we cruel to laugh? No. We relive, and relieve, the delightful horror, the agonizing hilarity of being in a similar fix.

It's Advent. For Christians, it is the time between God's first and second coming during which He is withholding judgment and watching the play. In Waiting For Godot, Godot never comes. Is this the ultimate joke? Is it the exclamation point on a life sentence of misery? Or is it something else—a clue to life staged in the only way we could see it—life as a kind of tragic drama replete with absurdity in which our part is to deliver the comedy?

Whether one's worldview affirms the existentialism of Godot or rejects it from rationalism, it is impossible to ignore the richness portrayed in lives of little means. The players make something practiced of the dust. A craft that arrives on its own terms as laughter through tears.

Merry Christmas.