There’s an article by Julian Gough (who just won Britain’s National Short Story Prize for his work “The Orphan and the Mob” which he described as being like Star Wars, but set in Tipperary) in this month’s Prospect, about the importance of comedy and the West’s overbearing preference for tragedy. He draws a straight line from the uneven survival of classical tragedies v. comedies and the dourness of the Middle Ages to Granta’s gloomy 2nd list of “Best Young American Novelists,” via novelists’ twentieth-century move to the universities. His conclusion is interesting:
The literary novel, by accepting the embrace of the universities, has moved inside the establishment and lost contact with what made it vital. It has, as a result, also lost the mass audience enjoyed by Twain and Dickens. The literary novel—born in Cervantes’s prison cell, continued in cellars, bars and rented rooms by Dostoevsky, Joyce and Beckett—is now being written from on high. Not the useful height of the gods, with its sharp, gods’-eye view of all human classes, all human folly, but the distancing, merely human height of the ruling elite, just too high up to see what’s happening on the street below.
I don’t think anyone will argue with me when I say that we all ought to laugh at ourselves a little bit more. It’s very easy to take all this Harvard business very seriously; and of course we should be fairly serious about getting a good education. But I think we also ought to remember the radical power of poking fun. The Daily Show? Frankly, in my opinion, kind of a profound–and profoundly silly–enterprise.
Finally, in an effort to put something actually funny in this post: from 1951’s Singing in the Rain, Donald O’Connor explaining this better than I ever could.