Comedy and Tragedy

Recently, I was introduced to a new species of humor. Take any famous line from a movie, song, poem, book or play, then replace key words with the word “pants”. It makes everything funny. Examples:

Star Wars: “I find your lack of pants disturbing.”

It’s a Wonderful Life: “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his pants.”

Lord of the Rings: “Gondor has no pants. Gondor needs no pants.”

Pop music: “What the world needs now is pants, sweet pants.”

Hamlet: To pants or not to pants, that is the question.

Braveheart: “PAAAAAAAAAANTS!”

“Pants” is a funny word. But that’s not why we laugh. We laugh because we perceive the dissonance between something serious and something silly. That’s why it’s futile for scolds to say “Serious things are not a matter for humor.” On the contrary, serious things are the only matter for humor. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of “funny” is not “serious”. The opposite of funny is “not funny”. It is not, in fact, possible to be funny about things that don’t really matter. It is only possible to be funny about things that do. So, for instance, in the gag lines above, what makes them funny is not so much the word “pants” as the fact that the trivial subject of trousers is being overlaid on the desperately important matters of faith, angels, kingship, love, suicide, and freedom.

By themselves, pants aren’t funny. Walk into your local K-Mart and stand contemplating a rack of jeans for an hour, and chances are they will not elicit the smallest chuckle. But juxtapose those pants with something serious like Honor and cry, “With great pants comes great responsibility!”? Comedy gold.

The point is this: both comedy and tragedy depend on the seriousness of the human condition. Comedy is funny because we are serious. And comedy is funny precisely because there is something wrong with us—and we know it. C.S. Lewis once remarked that much of Christian theology could be deduced from the fact that we laugh at dirty jokes and feel the dead to be uncanny. These facts of human nature reflect something at the roots of both comedy and tragedy: namely, our sense that there is something deeply unnatural about the present (fallen) relationship between body and soul. Our soul is related to our appetite-driven body as a rodeo rider is related to his bronco. We find ourselves half-terrified and half-tickled to death with this absurd, out-of-control bag of bones that St. Francis nicknamed “Brother Ass”. Dogs don’t see anything funny about being dogs and reproducing as dogs do. They are entirely businesslike. But we find endless amusement and amazement at sex and make jokes about it constantly. It’s as if we are not at home in our bodies, as if we fell and lost control of them.

The same thing is seen in our fear of the dead (surely, says Lewis, the least dangerous of all our dangerous species). What do we fear? We fear the mere fact of them, because the dead too show us something that ought not to be: that the dislocation and estrangement of body and soul to which our crazy sex lives bear witness in comedy is headed for total dissolution into the corpse and ghost seen in tragedy. In comedy, we see the crazy jalopy of the body being badly driven by the hapless motorist of the soul. In tragedy, we see the jalopy and the driver finally destroy each other in a fiery crash that expels the soul from the body completely.

The gospel says that comedy and tragedy are right: human beings are desperately important. Otherwise, we would be neither comic nor tragic. But the gospel goes further and insists that, in the Resurrection, body and soul will be knit back together and rightly ordered again, thanks be to God.

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