One of the most vibrant art forms of today is also one of the most overlooked. Comedy, as a performance art, a writing style and a genre, is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, comedy has returned to its roots.
Renowned young adult novelist Richard Peck once said, “Humor is anger that was sent to finishing school.” Indeed much of the best comedy is rooted in a sort of righteous outrage against the status quo.
Mark Twain, reviled in some circles today for his use of provocative language, was writing “Huckleberry Finn” as an accusation. He used humor as a weapon against the ignorance and hypocrisy he saw in the world around him.
I sometimes think of comedians kind of like Old Testament prophets.
Comedians like Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor and Sam Kinisin channeled anger into their work. Sometimes the anger was personal and visceral, like Kinisin’s trademark scream. Often the anger came from observing a world where common people find themselves nameless and faceless before powerful and unfeeling corporations and governments.
More recently, television programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have engaged current events — especially politics and it’s attendant television news coverage — with as much pointedness and scathing wit as you might find in Twain’s work.
I sometimes think of comedians kind of like Old Testament prophets. Seems like prophets show up when a society needs a kick in the pants. In the Old Testament stories, the prophets would call for a return to truth and justice. The word of the Lord would, more often than not, be a reminder that society has a responsibility to the “least of these.”
More intimately, there’s been a spate of movies in the last few years from the stable of director/producer Judd Apatow that deal with family and relationship issues. The films are gentle, but provocative. They are often vulgar and at times profane (they certainly aren’t made for children), but they get to the heart of human relationships.
A film like “40 Year Old Virgin” may seem like a screwball, vulgar comedy on its surface. But as you watch the story unfold, and you meet the central characters, you begin to understand that, fundamentally, this is a movie about family. It’s a movie that offers a hope that even unconventional people and broken families can find peace and acceptance in the arms of love.
Even more to that point, “Knocked Up” tells two stories. One is the story of a new relationship, born (if you’ll pardon the pun) of an unplanned pregnancy; the other is a decade-long marriage, sliding into decay.
The movie traces the problems both couples face, and deftly intertwines the stories until we see that the fix for both relationships is one and the same. All these people need love and forgiveness.
These comedies, above all else, tell the truth. And that’s what comedy is best at. In medieval times, the court jester could say things about the king that would win anyone else a one-way ticket to the chopping block. Modern day comedy does the same thing for us. Comedy can tell us things about ourselves that we’d never hear if we weren’t tricked into listening through our laughter.
Art is a looking glass that shows us our world both as it is and as it ought to be.
Comedy is art because, like all great art, it teaches us how to be human.
I believe that John Keats was right when he wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Comedy tells the truth, and that’s why it’s so beautiful.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Times Weekend, Maryville, Tennessee.