Hegel’s Theory in Modern Comedy

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      Hegel’s theory of comedy has a good applicability in the modern context of comedy. For at least four fundamental reasons, this theory attracts the attention of contemporary critics. For example, Hegel offers two major insights into comedy - the importance of subjectivity and particularity as the dominant categories of the genre and the recognition of comedy as the negation of negativity or the mockery of an untenable position. Second, unlike his theory of tragedy, this offers a historical division into ancient and modern comedy. Hegel presents a trans-historical, discussion of types of comedy. His typology, though suggestive, offers us an example of the tension that sometimes surfaces in Hegel between macro and microstructures. Third, comedy occupies a central position in Hegel’s Aesthetics. In all the lecture notes on Hegel’s Aesthetics, comedy has the last word. With comedy only the discussion of art concludes. Moreover, two of the most important aesthetic categories in the immediate post-Hegelian period were the ugly and the comic. Hegel’s immediate successors, attuned to systematic aspects of the Hegelian system, knew the centrality of these concepts both for Hegel’s system and for the viability of idealist aesthetics in modernity. Finally, Hegel’s theory can be productively related to modern reflections on comedy. Hegel elevates a moment of comedy that seems to be lost in much of modern comedy, lightness of spirit. Either Hegel’s theory did not keep pace with the times, or modern comedy does not satisfy certain ingredients of outstanding comedy. Nonetheless, Hegel’s discussion of comedy, with its stress on subjectivity and the negation of negativity, has particular resonance for our age. The greatest strength of Hegel’s discussion of comedy is his insight into subjectivity and particularity as the distinguishing features of the genre: “What is comical....is the subjectivity that makes its own actions contradictory and so brings them to nothing”. By subjectivity, Hegel means an elevation of the self and of self-consciousness in contradistinction to objectivity (or naive adherence to the traditional norms of society) and to inter-subjectivity (or the spheres of friendship, love, and community).

      However, in modernity, there is a development that does not surface with Hegel, but which contains a moment of truth. In modernity, comedy is viewed as liberation from an oppressive objectivity, as we see in Henri Bergson and above all in Mikhail Bakhtin. Hegel, who prefers Aristophanes, elevates the restoration of a traditional objectivity, but we cannot forget that comedy can also free us from the constraints of a false objectivity — and not only a false subjectivity. What is traditional and common may be further removed from truth than the creative imagination of the individual subject. The target of comedy will differ by time and place. In his theory of comedy Hegel offers many insights that are superior to the competing claims of the present. Modern comedies have paid much attention to the origin both of laughter and of smiling, as well as the development of the ‘play instinct’ and its emotional expression. George Meredith said that “One excellent test of the civilization of a country ... I take to be the flourishing of the Comic idea and Comedy; and the test of true Comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter”. Laughter is said to be the cure to being sick. Studies show that people who laugh more often get sick less.

      The advent of cinema in the late 19th century, and later radio and television in the 20th century broadened the access of comedians to the general public. Charlie Chaplin, through silent film, became one of the best known faces on earth. The silent tradition lived on well into the 20th century through mime artists like Marcel Marceau, and the physical comedy of artists like Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean. The tradition of the circus clown also continued, with such as Bozo the Clown in the United States and Oleg Popov in Russia. Radio provided new possibilities with Britain producing the influential Goon Show after the Second World War. American cinema has produced a great number of globally renowned comedy artists, from Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, as well as Bob Hope during the mid-20th century, to performers like George Carlin, Robin Williams, and Eddie Murphy at the end of the century. Hollywood attracted many international talents like the British comics Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen, Canadian comics Dan Aykroyd, Jim Carrey, and Mike Myers, and the Australian comedian Paul Hogan, famous for Crocodile Dundee. Other centers of creative comic activity have been the cinema of Hong Kong, Bollywood, and French farce. American television has also been an influential force in world comedy. British television comedy also remains influential, with quintessential works including Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, Dad’s Army, Blackadder, and The Office. Australian satirist Barry Humphries’ comic creations include the Housewife, Gigastar and Dame Edna Ever age. For his delivery of Dadaist and absurdist humor to millions, Anne Pender (2010) was not only “the most significant theatrical figure of our time ... but the most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin”.

      American literary theorist Kenneth Burke writes that the ‘comic frame’ in rhetoric is “neither wholly euphemistic, nor wholly debunking — hence it provides the charitable attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation, but at the same time maintains our shrewdness concerning the simplicities of ‘cashing in.’ The purpose of the comic frame is to satirize a given circumstance and promote change by doing so. The comic frame makes fun of situations and people, while simultaneously provoking thought. The comic frame does not aim to vilify in its analysis, but rather, rebuke the stupidity and foolery of those involved in the circumstances. For example, on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart uses the ‘comic frame’ to intervene in political arguments, one such way is his sudden contrast of serious news with crude humor.

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