*This is the first post of “So Funny it Doesn’t Hurt:” a series regarding the healing nature of comedy.
Laughing at Another’s (Mis)Fortune
There’s a scene in the Mike Judges classic movie Office Space that seems appropriate as we begin to look at comedy and its effect on pain. A character in the movie, Dom Portwood, is one of those office workers who seemingly does nothing, and is in serious danger of being fired. In fact, the consultants hired by the company find his position “expendable,” and mean to do just that: get rid of the position, or: Dom. But something happens. While backing out of his house on his way to his job, Dom gets into a car crash and is severely wounded. As a result, Don collects a bunch of money and doesn’t have to return to work.
When our protagonist Peter Gibbons, as played by the Ron Livingston, visits his bedridden co-worker – Dom wears a cast covering his entire body from head to toe – Peter finds him beaming. Why? With the workers compensation rewarded Dom, this was the best thing to happen to him. No, he cant move, and yes, he is in a lot of pain, but we as the audience know he will heal. And in fact, the scene is played so outlandishly we also know the actor isn’t “really” in pain. Dom will soon heal, live off his money, and start work on his dream project: a Jump To Conclusion mat. It’s a literal shoe mat with a number of CONCLUSIONS you can jump on. It’s a terrible idea. Everyone in the office thinks so. Most likely we do, too. Everyone, that is, except for Dom.
Dom’s idea that will never work, and his accident, are very funny. But why? Why are we laughing at someones tragic incident and their awful idea that means the world to them?
What’s the Difference Between Tragedy and Comedy?
Comedy shares a razor-thin reality to tragedy. Traditionally, in Greek theater, the protagonist can actually the same “kind” of character in each. However, the protagonist in a comedy is blown up to absurd proportions, does not usually die, and allows the audience to laugh. In tragedy, the protagonist, so full of pride and arrogance that they commit a tragic act, and their fate usually ends with death. These are very broadly drawn definitions, but essentially the differences.
Disclaimer and When it’s Too Close to Home
Through this series, bear in mind that we are not minimizing your situation in any way, nor suggesting your suffering is funny.
We, as suffering individuals, do find different things funny, it’s true. Sometimes things meant to be funny are very close to our experience for us to laugh at it, and we’re unable to. However, finding the absurd in our situations can be a healthy way of dealing with them. If we, in reality, were in a full-body cast, chances are we wouldn’t find it so funny. But looking at it another way, if our pain eventually WILL heal, the situation IS rather absurd!
It’s this absurdity that can both be tragic or comic. It depends on how it’s told.
Two Elements of Comedy: Obsession and Distortion
- Obsession: Obsession is when we as people want something so badly, we can’t think of anything else (almost). If the obsession is great enough, we’ll do whatever it takes to get it. By itself, obsession is a quality both comedy and tragedy have. In tragedy, for example, it’s the obsession of a woman with revenge to such a point she sacrifices her children (The Greek play Medea), or a man prone to jealousy and becomes so obsessed with jealousy – believing anything to fuel it – it leads to him taking the life of his innocent wife (Shakespeares play Othello). Now think about all the things youve found funny. Almost all, I bet, involved characters who wanted something so badly theyre fully obsessed by it, even if their obsession is far greater than the thing itself (obsessed with being credited for buying the “big salad,” to use an example from Seinfeld, even though another character carries it in and gets thanked for it. A whole episode is built around this “big salad”). Obsession is also there. So what separates the two? Distortion.
- Distortion: If a comic actor is obsessed, their actions to get the thing their obsessed with takes on ridiculous proportions. Their logic is completely irrational. But it’s all in good fun. An obsessed character jumping over a sofa to try and grab something is funnier than going around it. No one is hurt, but the outrageous ways and means the character takes to feed their obsession is what distinguishes the two. Take Office Space again. Dom is not into his dull job. He’s obsessed to create his “Jump To Conclusion” mat and to not get fired. When he gets into a car crash, his body is covered in plaster, and yet not tragic. Why? Because a) the obsession to not get fired, plus b) the distortion of the body cast is such that, when seen how happy Dom is, we know it’s a gag and is funny.
Other Benefits Comedy Brings the Healing Self
But there’s another reason why comedy may help when feeling very real pain. Laughing at comic characters and their ridiculousness may also help relieve your mind from focusing on your pain, and letting it focus on something less real, more safe, yet containing the obsessions and distortions of life that are part of who we are.
Let’s, then, explore comedy through a series of posts. We’ll give recommendations of shows and movies, provide a bit more of what makes something funny, and suggest ways you can make comic projects for yourself.
Life can be ridiculous. Life can be cruel. But life can also be very funny. So while in recovery, lets laugh until it hurts. Whoops! I mean: lets laugh until it doesnt hurt. At least hopefully, for a while