Why we should take comedy seriously

‘Even on the highest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our ass’

Michel de Montaigne, ‘De l’experience,’ 1580-88

I recently listened to the audiobooks by Terry Pratchett. The Colour of Magic, Light Fanastic, Small Gods and Pyramids.

I’ve never been interested in this sort of fiction before. What tickled me the most was the absurdity.

Colour of Magic Audiobook Cover
The Colour of Magic, and ‘The Luggage’

There’s ‘The Luggage’, a chest that has its own set of legs and walks by itself. Such an off the wall idea.

Then there’s Two Flower, the Discworlds first tourist who seeks adventure. Who hires the Magician Rincewind to act as a guide.

It’s wonderfully offbeat, surreal, and comical. It so unusual because it takes the more common High Fantasy genre. With his big important events and a serious tone, then pokes fun at it.

This book, Terry Pratchett’s other writings are part of the genre of Comical Fantasy/Low Fantasy genre.

In Comic Fantasy, there are odd characters and gods, unusual worlds and general physics-defying, commonsense-defying weirdness.

As Terry Pratchett said of his work, ‘It was an attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for westerns.’ 

Blazings saddles was the same, a comic send-up of the western genre.
I bring it up because the book reminded me of how I lived in my youth.

Why so Serious

“Smile, because it confuses people. Smile, because it’s easier than explaining what is killing you inside.” ― The Joker – Heath Ledger

The books I read back then were of the High Fantasy type. The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Fiest, David Eddings. (In Sci-FI it was Star Wars, Star Trek types of Space opera).

I reread and watched them again recently which make for an interesting contrast with The Colour of Magic.

Take Star Trek, for example, one of my favourites. One of the problems I have with it now is just how utopian it is.

The crewmembers of the Enterprise, DS9, Voyager are all so ‘well adjusted’ and The Federation is the idealistic future we imagine. Sure some characters are misfits, and some turn out to be villains, but that’s very few.

In this type of Sci-Fi and fantasy there’s a clear distinction between the good guys and the bad. The main heroes display all the values and characteristics that we expect from a chivalric hero.

Contrasting these stories with my life and my past comes into focus.

I was so nieve, so serious and so unhappy when I was younger. Serious because I thought that’s what I needed to be like. Just like the heroes in the stories. I suffered from a joy-sucking pensiveness. Because I wanted to be better than average, perfect.

I see now the folly of that attitude.

The role of comedy

‘Their morals, their code; it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see- I’ll show you. When the chips are down these, uh, civilized people? They’ll eat each other. See I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.’

The Joker – Heath Ledger

My youth wasn’t all serious I admit. I did read and watch comedy. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf etc. The Colour of Magic is the latest.

Thinking back to my youth I do remember seeing Prachett’s novels in the bookstore. But my mistake was not to take such stories seriously. Back then they seemed too silly, farcical and inconsequential. They didn’t take life seriously. Therein lies my mistake.

Comedy has a lesson to offer us which we often forget in the struggle to be better and live better.

Looking at my own past I see the need for comedy acting as a counter to the seriousness we need to have. A comic foil to keep us grounded in the reality. It’s why there is the archetype of the Joker. The one who doesn’t take things seriously and helps the hero relax, and have fun. The Joker, the comic helps keep it real. (Think Dory in Finding Nemo)

Rincewind in the Colour of Magic is a coward and a failure as a magician. For how can a coward be a hero? How can fools and cheats be successful?

Comedy is the admission that things aren’t perfect and neither are we.
Another example is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Knights, who are supposed to be exemplars of Knightly virtue. Honourable, self-sacrificing heroes, standing for truth, justice and protecting the weak.

Instead, such ideals are mocked and ridiculed as the knights are revealed to be far less than what they claim.

It’s a commentary on the ideas we have about ourselves. That we are not as good, and noble, altruistic, or compassionate as we like to think we are.

We have lofty aspirations but we often fail to live up to them, sometimes ending up looking like a fool.

It’s in our desperate desire to avoid such failure and indignity, we become so afraid to try new adventures, and so anxious when we do. It can suck the joy out of living. Those types of people are no fun to be around.

Which is why becoming older I’ve learned to appreciate the absurd a little more. The Discworld novels are a reminder of the truth that I keep forgetting.

We need a comedy like this. Films and books, also stand up comedy, sketch shows, theatre. Don’t forget your friends who joke around a lot. Questioning the idea that we’re noble individuals by satirising and parodying the heroes we look towards.

Comedy brings us back to reality. Take us down a peg. It’s relaxing as we belly laugh, and unburden ourselves with the heavy weight of being perfect and successful all the time.

When we’re young we have such high expectations and idealsof ourselves. If we don’t take things with enough sobriety we run the risk of never finding success and happiness at all. At least that’s what we beleive.

We think we have to implausibly brave, overly smart to succeed and never make a mistake or look like a fool. Our fear is never realising our potential, but the result is a Malaise of Over-seriousness. Lacking the vibrancy a zest for life.

I didn’t think or see that imperfection and laughter, especially at myself was the way to find it.

Balance

Joking aside. Despite all this, there’s always the danger of going too far.

Taking nothing seriously and just cynically laughing at each other for their naivety. Society would descend into to superficial nonsense. Deadpool style. 
Making comedy and criticism the norm.

If all that’s is left is to make fun of each other, crack jokes then who will take the problem seriously enough to fix it? It’s obvious that either taking it all too seriously or not at all can’t work.

The middle way reveals itself again to be the best path.


We often take ourselves too seriously. It’s the overzealous who become extremists and fundamentalists. They become the hate peddlers and trolls, unwilling to compromise. They are the resentful, embittered and even violent individuals we see on the news.

So wrapped in their own ego, so convinced they are in the right, and so desperate to be taken seriously. It’s a malaise where comedy is the antidote.

Comedy like the Colour of Magic is a reminder that our lives are somewhat farcical. We are absurd creatures, who have fallen for their own lofty ideas.

It’s a the sign of maturity when you temper idealism and noble values with a realism that accepts, alternatives, imperfection, and the absurd.

It’s also partly the joy in seeing how a bunch of misfits, idiots or losers can manage to accomplish anything. (Like the parody of Star Trek, Galaxy Quest). A reminder that success doesn’t require perfection.

Life is tragedy and we’re comically inept at it.

Realise that you are not as noble, skilled or infallible as you think you are, and that’s okay.

We all need to see the comical in the world, and in ourselves. Because sometimes the best thing to do is just laugh it off. Because without comedy we can’t blow of steam, and life really will become a tragedy.