A Terry Teachout Reader, my self-anthology, came out sixteen years ago. I’ve published hundreds of pieces on various subjects since then, and I have no plans to put together a sequel to the Teachout Reader, so I thought I might instead launch a series of occasional posts drawn from my fugitive essays, articles, and reviews. I hope you like this one, which came from “Trapped in Eden,” a review of Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind.
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We are never so funny to others as when we are least funny to ourselves. This seeming paradox is the piston that drives the engine of comedy. In the greatest of all comedies—the Shakespearean tales of romantic reconciliation and their operatic counterparts, Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte—a pompous man’s thick carapace of earnestness is penetrated by humiliation. All at once, the unwitting butt of the joke realizes that he, too, partakes of the human condition, and is thereby made whole. It is in these transformative moments that the moral force of comedy is most evident, for it reminds us that we are not gods, merely men.
That’s one way to be funny. Another is to show us serious people who not only don’t realize how funny they are but never acquire any insight into their condition, wrapped as they are in their own bulletproof dignity. This sheer obliviousness is what makes them funny to us—but it also tempts us to feel superior to them, and that is a dangerous business, an invitation to vanity. This, I think, is the reason why women as a group tend to squirm at pure farce, for it outrages their protective instincts. Farce, after all, is a peculiarly hopeless kind of comedy, one in which the dignified boob learns nothing from his elaborately prepared Calvary of embarrassment. Instead, he is utterly vanquished by the other characters—and by the audience. Men naturally think in such triumphalist terms, but most women don’t. They want the victim (if he is a man) to learn from his misfortune, and be the better for it.