Why It’s Funny When Comedy Fails

Lots of comics enjoy watching comics bomb. The funniest part of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the audience’s response to the awful play performed at the duke’s wedding. This scene is funny because of the irony. We have watched these passionate but unexperienced actors preparing for this night throughout the play and it is exactly how wrong they were that makes it so funny. 

When we first meet these aspiring thespians, they are gathered in the woods to rehearse and from the very first moment they get it wrong. It is a failure of leadership, due to a lack of experience that summons the fearful critic among them to point the ship in the opposite direction. They start out concerned that the subject matter is too disturbing for the women in the audience, showing a double misunderstanding: they don’t get theater and they have a false idea of women.

This concern over the violence leads them to horrible stylistic decisions that then shape the rest of the play. To avoid offending the ladies, they invent a prologue to explain that the violence is only symbolic and that nobody is going to be hurt during the play and that the lion is not a lion, etc. To work, a play must create the tension needed to get people’s full attention so that it can then reverse their expectations and surprise, delight, or otherwise entertain. Afraid that the ladies in the audience would not understand how to suspend their disbelief, these actors choose to violate the 4th wall and bring the audience into the show.

This device makes it impossible for the audience to take it seriously, though, and so they are left to critique the choices and to laugh at their unintended buffoonery. The players lack of understanding how they are perceived causes them to botch their shot, and this flat-footed clumsiness makes it even funnier when Bottom is turned into an ass by Puck at the service of Oberon to trick Titania, queen of the fairies. They turn bottom into an ass and give Titania a potion so that she falls in love with him.

To take the stage, in order to win the affection of a fairy goddess you have to have some belief in self, and it is Bottom wrestling with his insecurities and his delusions of grandeur that is so similar to what the path of an aspiring comic likely entails. Bottom is a phase, a stage that must be overcome grown through.

The process of finding out just how funny you are, of seeing an audience respond to you in real time makes for some vicious therapy and it is no wonder that actors and comics have a hard time sometimes making sense of where their act begins and ends. You must love anyone who attempts the feat and give thanks to those who succeed, because it makes our world a much more pleasant place to live. Long live the failure of comedy.

Stoners Only: Jakespeare’s Rule

I am studying Shakespeare to become a better writer. Being a writer is great because you get to make your own rules. You can process your own thoughts and feelings and share what you want and edit out the rest. The better you are at writing, the more control you have over how you tell your story.

The point of humor is to make people laugh, to release some tension, and to lighten the mood and to inspire hope. The point of tragedy is to provide us with an outlet for our tears. If you want to help people, if you want to entertain or inspire them, then you must learn how to do that.

When I become Jakespeare, I’m going to have one rule: you must be a stoner. If you want to be a part of what I dream up, you must consume cannabis daily. I will not tolerate failure in this department. This is a cannabis fueled operation and non-stoniness will not be permitted. 

Cannabis only makes you paranoid if you’re being a jerk. If you aren’t smoking often enough, you might have developed some real POS habits and then when you do finally smoke it will all come crashing in on you. It’s not the cannabis, though; it’s the stupid things you did when you weren’t stoned. 

Smoking weed regularly ensures that you won’t walk around unaware of your bad vibes. If you don’t consume cannabis and you don’t think that you are a real jerk, then smoke a little cannabis and see what you think. Cannabis reveals us to ourselves. It points to the work we have to do. 

Cannabis, Comedy and Caliban: The Tempest and Magical Racism

The Tempest is a very strange play. It’s best to consume some quality cannabis when you set about solving the puzzle of its meaning. You must have the right mindset to understand what is going on in this play and the psychoactive effects of a fire sativa will get you on the level where you can begin to try to understand the character Caliban. The son of a witch, slave to a wizard, attempted and unrepentant rapist: he’s the Luis J. Gomez of Shakespearean characters.

If Luis J. Gomez were to play Caliban, it would only make sense for Big Jay Oakerson to be Prospero and Dave Smith would be Ferdinand. Nobody does moral ambivalence better in comedy right now than the Legion of Skanks and this play is very evenly fucked up. There is nothing about it that is unequivocally good.

Cannabis can help us to suspend our disbelief. In fact, it’s so effective at allowing us to believe in metaphysical things that the stoner has a bad reputation for being gullible. The stereotype of the stoner is that they are dumb to the world and therefore able to be duped. Find us in the woods looking for Bigfoot or watching the stars hunting for UFOs. It’s the goofier side of cannabis, but it’s good innocent fun. 

Why does food taste better, why are jokes funnier, why do you get in the zone easier when you are stoned? I don’t know, but I practice what works and for me being stoned enhances my experiences across the board. There’s almost nothing that I don’t enjoy more doing stoned. 

Cannabis is the comedy of drugs. It is the drug with the most positive benefits. It alters your mind in pleasurable ways and the side effects are minimal. Of all the drugs, it is the only one I want to do because it is overall uplifting and beneficial to the things I love to do. The fact that it does alter your mind, change your mood, enhance your performance, etc. makes it easy to see it as a kind of magical thing.

The Tempest is full of literal magic. Prospero creates a windstorm with his powers and uses it to cause a fleet of ships to wreck on his island. He controls the spirit Ariel and his slave Caliban with spells. He threatens Ariel to keep them confined to an oak tree and he constantly hounds Caliban with physical ailments and pains. Prospero is a jerk, but he is powerful at manipulating people with his magic that he derives from his studies, from his books.

Prospero is part nerd, part wizard, part victim, and part weirdo. If this is a self-portrait of Shakespeare as many people think, then it is a brilliantly self-deprecating one. Because Prospero is a racist, a manipulator, a power tripping bully. He’s an outcast, an outlaw but the little bit of power he acquires he uses to control everyone around him. Let’s face it: Prospero is a DICK!

He calls his daughter a wench, does some bizarre shit to set her up to fall in love with an heir to the throne of Milan. He’s a manipulative bastard. He’s a victim of his brother’s ambition but he leaves a lot of bodies in his wake. Even though he was betrayed by his family, sent to his death only to escape with his daughter by the kindness of strangers, he has no gratitude for life, only disdain for the people he interacts with. Prospero is fucked up.

It’s easier to empathize with Caliban. He was born on the island. His mother was exiled there, and she was a witch. Sycorax had enslaved the spirit Ariel prior to Prospero. She had set a precedent on the island for being banished and then taking it out on the innocent. Still, she was his mother. Caliban is the most clearly victimized by others in the play and his response to his abuse is malevolent hatred. He tries to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter and declares that he wishes he had succeeded. 

You kind of get Prospero’s anger towards Caliban once you understand that Caliban tried to rape his daughter. It’s not clear if that is a result of rebelling against Prospero’s rule, or if that is just Caliban’s way. How is this a comedy?

Of all the plays categorized as comedies, this one lacks a strong female character. Miranda is the ultimate fantasy of the virgin. She has been raised on an island with no other people besides her father and their slave Caliban. Until she meets Ferdinand, she has only ever seen two men. Ferdinand immediately sees the freakish value of this uber virgin and is ready to marry her from the first moment.

The Tempest is a thought experiment dramatized. Even though there are weirdos power tripping everything works out in the end because the magic is overall good. Comedy is like cannabis because even though it is not going to solve the problems of a world set in motion by betrayal and narcissistic violence, it’s at least going to give us some respite.

Responsibility of Speech

One of the most important debates taking place in our culture today is about the 1st amendment. The so-called Freedom of Speech is being reconfigured and reconsidered in a digital context. What exactly does our constitution protect? When does speech become criminal? The power of speech creates its limits. A responsible use of speech is the only way to protect and preserve the first amendment rights pertaining to speech, but what exactly does that mean?

Comedians have been caught up in the center of this debate and for good reason. They work at the extreme edge of the acceptable. Comedians like Andrew Schulz with the Flagrant Podcast are self-consciously pushing back against Woke Culture’s tendency to censor honest opinion. Luis J. Gomez, Big Jay Oakerson, and Dave Smith all push way past the accepted norms for speech and they live or die based upon their ability to use offensive speech responsibly. Is this simply a niche in comedy or is this the battlegrounds of our free speech debate?

If we think about the Freedom of Speech along the lines of our consideration of the Right to Bear Arms, then the idea of the responsibility of speech becomes clearer. The right to own a handgun doesn’t give you the right to rob a liquor store. It gives you the power to, but not the right. You have the right to bear the arms but using them in a violent way requires very specific conditions. The same is true with speech. For example, if someone were to use their words to get someone else to do something illegal, then they are also breaking the law and are subject to the penalties. Charles Manson didn’t use his hands to murder; he used his words.

The classic example is that you can’t yell “bomb” in a crowded airport. Other examples include sexual harassment, terroristic threats, or hate crimes. Racially motivated harassment is not protected speech. Inciting violence of any kind is not protected speech. Yes, you can buy and own a .45 revolver but if you shoot your neighbor’s dog, you are going to jail. There are so many examples of speech that are not allowed, it is curious what exactly the first amendment protects. Or what is it supposed to protect? It is the entire basis for dissent. It is supposed to protect a responsible critique of the government, but not a call to arms to show up and murder the congress.

The context of comedy is supposed to provide an outlet for the responsible expression of unacceptable ideas and beliefs. Just like when we watch a play or a movie and we suspend our disbelief and go along with the make believe of the show for the sake of entertainment, when we consume comedic content, we do so with the understanding that it is not to be taken seriously. Back to the analogy with guns, comedians are performing trick shots at a shooting range. If the comic respects the context of comedy, they remain responsible with their speech.

Probably the riskiest thing that comics do is roast people. Think of a circus act where an archer shoots an apple off the top of someone’s head, or they throw knives at someone standing against a wooden wall getting as close to flesh as possible. This is also target practice. The intention is not to hurt the person, but to come as close as possible. Because the chance of hurting the person is so high, the tension it creates is also elevated and when the person leaves the scene unscathed the sigh of relief is that much more fulfilling. This kind of act takes us on a thrill ride of almost experiencing something violent happen, but because that was never the intention, and the weapons are used with such precision and skill there is not a drop of blood shed.

This type of act also requires active participation between both the knife thrower and the person standing against the wall. If that person moves unexpectedly, the act could end disastrously. Good performers will play with this by pretending as though the person is uncomfortable standing there and they will move around, but in a choreographed way. Both actors must be perfectly attuned. This happens all the time in comedy when people successfully roast each other, and it is funny.

I agree with comics who are fighting to protect the freedom of speech within the context of comedy. This also means having a conversation about how the whole thing works. You know, like letting people know that they shouldn’t try this knife throwing act at home. Unskillful comics can hurt people inadvertently. You see it all the time on Twitter. Without the context of an agreement that we are trying to entertain the public a joke can easily become an attack. We need to be smart enough to protect the sphere of comedy as a place where target practice is happening. It is a danger zone, and you should proceed accordingly.

Words are powerful in a different way than weapons. Language can influence people to do all kinds of different things, including to act violently. Comedy is a risky business. Andrew Schulz compared it to bullfighting. It requires skill and steadiness of nerves to be able to perform comedic material. It is a highwire act, a slackline adventure in speech, and we don’t want to witness a tragedy go down. We go to comedy for many reasons, but is it to witness people being hurt? 

Responsible speech is the way to increase our ability to explore risky subjects. Through the discipline of our considerations, we will build a trust that will allow people to relax and to trust both our intention and our skillfulness to follow through. I don’t have the answers, but I am pursuing the questions about free speech and its limits and how to responsibly engage in this debate. 

All’s Well that Sends Well

If you are looking for stories from Literature with strong women characters, Shakespeare’s Comedies are driven by them. The heroine of All’s Well That Ends Well is named Helena and she is the opposite of Helen of Troy, the face that sent a thousand ships sailing. Helena does not get kidnapped; she isn’t a passive character at all. To the contrary, she is the one who sends the plot into motion and drives it to the outcome.

In today’s context, Helena would be considered a #bossbitch, a common way to refer to alpha females. I would say she’s a strong woman, a strong character, generally. The comedian who immediately comes to mind is Kerryn Feehan. She could bring this role to life and there’s no question that Luis J. Gomez could destroy the part of Bertram. I’m trying not to force the casting of any of these plays. I know that when I study them all enough, the right people will click into place in my mind. People think that they know Shakespeare, but I’m not so sure they do. I keep learning wild new things every play I study. This one has some out-there ideas.

The thing about Shakespeare is that most people read a few plays at most. They are always selected from the same list of greatest hits. A lot of the more obscure plays, like All’s Well, are full of interesting details. For example, the heroine in this play uses sexual deceit to rape her husband to get pregnant by him. If that sounds weird, it is. Her hubby, Bertram, is an infamous fuck-boi who abandons his newly married wife to go to war in Italy so he can sleep around with other women. She infiltrates his plan, uses a woman to seduce him into a sexual encounter and then switches places with her to be impregnated. Now, this is an aggressive strategy, but it works.

She also trapped him into marriage in the first place, which is why he is so eager to leave. How? She cured the king of his hemorrhoids. He had an anal fissure and she pushed that prolapse back in place. She probably pegged the king if we’re being honest. The result? She gets to marry whomever she wants, and she chooses Bertram.

Luis J. Gomez would be so funny as Bertram because he embodies the “real ass dude” side of comedy. Gomez understands implicitly how this kind of comedy works. His instinct for absurd self-assertion would energize the role with the kind of tension necessary to empathize with the character. That’s Gomez’s great gift: getting you to like him despite his tendency to offend because he’s unafraid to be vulnerable. He’s a punk rock entrepreneur and comic, a free speech advocate, and someone who finds humor in the least acceptable places.

That’s the trick of playing Bertram. You must get the audience to like him despite the shady things he does. Why is Helena willing to go to such extreme lengths to have him for herself? There must be something magnetizing about the actor who plays Bertram and Luis’s attitude would translate well. I don’t know Luis J. Gomez, but I’m a fan of his comedy and I think that his matter-of-fact straightforward I-am-who-I-am energy would absolutely send this role into the ether.

Kerryn Feehan started an Only Fans account and named her podcast Only Feehans. Not only is that funny, but it’s also smart and that’s why she would make such a good Helena. Instead of worrying about what people might think, she chose a path to self-empowerment and that is exactly what Helena does in the play. She uses sex and manipulates men to get what she wants, and we love her for it. 

This play has been the hardest to listen to, by far, mainly because the plot is so confusing, and it is hard to keep track of the language. I know that by the end of the week after listening to it at least seven times I will know it well. Studying Shakespeare enriches how you see the world around you because the plays are such fun and artful illustrations of how social dynamics work. They remind you that you are part of this bigger picture, and if you can learn how the chess board works, then you can make moves to your advantage. They can teach you how to send well. 

Keeping it Comedy: As You Like it, Dave Chapelle, and Joe Rogan

Listening to Dave Chapelle on the Joe Rogan podcast was more awesome than I had even hoped. Chapelle articulates his thoughts with such clarity and precision it is amazing to follow his stream of consciousness as he enjoys a conversation with one of the best talkers in history. He is self-aware and grounded in his craft, in his identity as a comic. 

There is something Shakespearean about Dave Chapelle and Joe Rogan. I realized what it is this past weekend. I was also listening to As You Like it and an Oxford University produced lecture on the play. One of the interesting things about this comedy is that it compares the countryside, specifically the forest, to the court. Chapelle was talking to Rogan about his experience having moved to Austin from Los Angeles, and the parallels couldn’t be more obvious.

Chapelle lives in Ohio. He figured out this trick of comedy a long time ago. Ohio is the Forest of Arden. Austin is too. What is most important, however, is the intention to exist in a way that fits the comedic genre. This might be easier to do in a rural setting if you didn’t need to be in a cosmopolitan metropolis to get work. With podcasting, you could theoretically achieve success from anywhere with Internet access. While most comics live in Los Angeles or New York, Chapelle and now Rogan have been preaching the virtue of living outside the pressurized bubble of the industry.

To best enjoy listening to As You Like It, you need to understand the plot and the relationship of the various characters. There are parallel happenings and characters take on different names as they disguise themselves. It can be confusing if you don’t know who the characters are. For the sake of this short essay, you only need to understand that all the main characters of the play have been banished from the court to the forest.

Rogan and Chapelle relate to each other because they are members of the tribe of comedy, but also because they have chosen to live rural lifestyles. There is a freedom in the countryside that they enjoy and that shows up in their work. Part of what the rural context provides is a lack of things happening. In that quiet space civil conversations or imaginative ramblings are given space to roam. It becomes more about dialogue and philosophical comparisons than an attempt to resolve a problem.

In the play, there are philosophical theories laid out in verse. We have the famous “all the world’s a stage” speech that outlines the seven stages of life. This has nothing to do with a plot, but that’s the point. The emptiness provided by the countryside creates the space for poetry and philosophy. 

There are different metaphors available in a rural setting. Being connected to hunting, agriculture, livestock, and fundamental human resources creates a kind of competency and confidence in relation to the world. Knowing where food comes from, being close to the supply chain is a smart idea if you want to focus on making people laugh.

Podcasting itself is a Forest of Arden. In many ways, Joe Rogan left Los Angeles a long time before he moved to Austin. By creating his own show and relentlessly innovating and improving his ability to engage in interesting conversations, Rogan became one of the first great developers of this wild alternative to the culture industry. He recently described it as having made it out past the gates and he is now swimming in open waters, but he could have also described it as having escaped court to live in the country.

As You Like It shows us how a rural setting can create a space for music, philosophy and most importantly comedy. There is something about certain natural settings that proves conducive to everything working out in the end. That is after all the spirit of comedy. Things may go differently than planned, but when there is enough space for reflection, thought, and expression, then comedy is given what it needs to flourish.

Benedick’s Double: Much Ado as Meta-Comedy

Hero may be the protagonist of Much Ado, but her cousin Beatrice is the funniest, the most insightful and comical character in Shakespeare’s play. The only other character who even comes close is Benedick. The series of transformations Benedick undergoes through the course of the play makes for a hilarious portrait of a jester. Through the portrait of Benedict as a comical character, Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy about comedy.

Benedick begins as a mega-bro, a boy’s boy. He is a turn of the 17th century fuck boi. If he were alive today, there’s no doubt that he would be down to shotgun beers on the weekend. He’s Claudio’s homeboy, someone who helps to keep the mood light and to joke about the condition of being a man. Together they are bachelors enjoying their military tour.

It is their fateful visit to Aragon that initiates their transformation through love. It is the ways in which they change that make for such a hilarious portrayal of how people are altered by the experience of romance. Benedick is deceived into thinking that Beatrice is interested in him and that is all it takes for him to begin the process of turning into a whole other human.

Beatrice and Benedick have a famous ongoing battle of wits between them, and Beatrice always has the upper hand. It is less a battle and more of a dance, a game of cat and mouse. She toys with him and absolutely shreds his ego. The setting of the play is an island in Italy where a small militia lands to recover from their recent battles. As a part of their recreation, they have a masquerade ball. Beatrice takes advantage of this occasion to dance with Benedick and to pretend she doesn’t know it is him. She then proceeds to tell him about this fool named Benedick and negs him hard.

This begins the opening of Benedick. Truly, he has been a dick and he is finally starting to see it. Through her portrait of him as someone unworthy of respect, he begins to question himself. Because she fools him into thinking that he is receiving this description anonymously, he believes her. It hurts him even more.

The idea of Benedick and Beatrice as a couple is so ridiculous that their friends on both sides conspire to trick them into a romantic misunderstanding. As soon as they begin to believe that the other person loves them, they start to change how they feel altogether. Benedick, the lifelong bachelor, suddenly is catching all kinds of feelings. When they finally come together to confess their feelings to each other, Hero’s crisis has already gone down, and she is supposed to be dead. Beatrice is less transformed by love and in the first moment that Benedick swears he loves her and will do anything for her she asks him to kill Claudio to avenge her friend. He immediately responds that he can’t. She goads him into it, using the act as a way of verifying his love for her.

What a trick! It is another example of how shame is leveraged to manipulate action in the context of the play. She has broken him down, shown him a version of himself that is shameful. Then, when he has disintegrated to the point that he is ready to do anything, she gives him the command to murder. This is a remarkably dark moment in a comedy, but it is the counterpoint to the comic’s role. The comic kills with laughter, his double just kills.

When Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel, he takes on a ridiculously masculine role. He is transformed by his mission. He becomes militant in his devotion to Beatrice. He is ready to kill his best friend. Bros before hoes no more.

Suddenly, he is not himself, and in this process of existential opening he attempts to write a love poem to Beatrice, with hilarious results. Shakespeare’s portrait of a man inspired to write poetry without any skill for crafting lines of verse is an amazing parody. He is having a good laugh at his competition and maybe at himself. There is nothing funnier than bad poetry.

Of all the characters in the play, Benedick changes the most. He is the most dynamic because he falls in love with a woman who dominates him intellectually. His experience of love makes him believe in himself in ways he had never had the courage to before. As an image of transformation, Benedick serves as a mirror giving us the ability to see how funny it is when we fall in love.

Monsters in Much Ado: Analyzing Deception in Comedy

I discovered a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to get to know the plays of Shakespeare better. The BBC produced four volumes in 2020 with great actors voicing the parts of the various plays. They divided the canon up into: Comedies, Tragedies, Histories and Roman Plays. The British have been studying and performing Shakespeare religiously for hundreds of years, and there is something oddly satisfying about this contemporary audio collection produced during a pandemic. For an important chunk of Shakespeare’s career, the theater in London had to close due to the plague. 

The plays make for good listening in today’s world. Each play is only a couple of hours. Many audiobooks can be upwards of twenty hours. Being able to consume an entire play in one go works well for today’s high paced multi layered culture. You could listen to a Joe Rogan podcast or one and a half plays. I recommend both. Rogan is undoubtedly one of the great literary figures of our day. We just don’t have the language and the context of understanding to voice his importance.  I believe he is a truly important US American voice, along the lines of Emerson, Twain, Hemingway, Lenny Bruce. One thing about Rogan that you can’t deny is that he is multi-genre, multidimensional and a multimillionaire. Rogan’s work shows us a depth of character and content that we are simply not used to, so it is hard for people to accept or believe.

Listening to Shakespeare is a satisfying experience for anyone familiar with the plays. If you are new to the Bard, you might want to read some synopses online to help you to follow the story, but the best way to figure it out is by listening to the same play a few times. Even though it is English, there is a degree of challenge in understanding the language of Shakespeare’s day. Lots of the inside cultural jokes will be lost on us. Still, there are moments when the language shifts into verse and the beauty of English blooms into being in pure streams of sound like some magical fountain in the wilderness.

It’s worth listening just for those moments, alone. Shakespeare is also central to English identity, and English culture is fundamental to US culture, so by listening you are also studying something that has had a huge impact on how we live. Many of the values, including the problematic ones, we still debate about today are portrayed in a way that gives us the opportunity to analyze things about the culture. This is one of the great values of comedy especially. It provides a way of finding the flaws in our cultural logic without promoting fear and despair.

One of the smartest theories of comedy I have heard is Andrew Schulz talking about how comedy hits on this unconscious level, he calls it reptilian, that is not something that we would or should be ok with, but we are. The joke, he says, aims at something that we know is true in our gut but that is unacceptable in official culture. In his conversation with Jordan Peterson, he elaborates further suggesting that it is by attacking the institutions that are repressing those ideas that comedy shows the absurdity of most conventions and frees up that repressed unconscious energy in the form of laughter. Comedy searches for the edge and plays with the limits of the acceptable.

In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing we have a comedy that has some very serious topics. There is a common way of misunderstanding the title as meaning something similar to making mountains out of mole hills. It suggests that there has been an exaggeration, some tendency to hyperbolize the problem when in fact it is based on nothing. When you listen to the play, though, you realize that the much ado is actually very monstrous. 

It is a comedic illustration of how we rush to judgment in a culture based on shame and purity. The premise of the play is that there is to be a marriage between two respected members of society, a man and woman of value. Before the ceremony, however, someone intervenes and tricks the groom to be into believing that his fiancé has been unfaithful and has been having sex with another man. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, there are plays within the play at work.

In this case, Don Julio stages a fake scene of romance to convince the duke that he is being duped. This leads Claudio to show up to the wedding ceremony, but with the false intentions of exposing Hero, his would be bride. The fragility of a woman’s reputation is given full display in the hysterical reaction the men have to the thought that Hero has been sexually active. Their response to this false accusation of impropriety with a death sentence. She must be killed for this offense. The extreme misogyny of the response is only made more horrific by the fact that she is innocent and has been framed.

These are all of the ingredients of a tragedy. We have an Iago figure who is creating chaos by provoking jealousy with false narratives. The death sentence is given. What prevents this story from ending in a bloodbath is the intervention of a priest who suggests that they have some patience and wait to make sure that the truth is known before such a harsh sentence is executed. Instead, he suggests that they pretend that she has been killed to see how people respond.

In Hamlet, the play within the play is used by Hamlet to reveal the guilt of his uncle. In Much Ado About Nothing a kind of fictional performance is used to reveal the innocence of the accused. The direction of the play moves from corruption and dishonesty to justice and truthfulness. 

There are many more ideas to analyze and conclusions to draw about this fun and philosophical play. One of the great things that Shakespeare does is to show us how fictions can be used to get at the truth or they can be used to change reality. The tendency of the character in Shakespeare is to be deceived, to not understand something critical about reality. In the tragedies, these misconceptions fuel action that leads to violent ends. In the comedies, the characters exercise enough patience to allow the truth to eventually come to light before any irrevocable actions have been taken. 

How can we use these plays to help us to think about media in the contemporary moment? Is there some connection between how fictions are used in Shakespeare and current cultural trends, including the prevalence of editorial journalism (fake news) and the rise of stand-up comedy as defenders of the freedom of speech? 

How Comedy Works

“Although most people value humor, philosophers have said little about it, and what they have said is largely critical.” This is how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins its article on the Philosophy of Humor. Academics have traditionally looked down on comedy as an inferior genre.

I am a fan of comedy. When I was in graduate school in literature I tried to write about comedic works, but I found it hard to get professors to take the value of comedic literature seriously. There’s a really fun conspiracy theory as to why that tendency persists. It comes from a postmodern novel.

Umberto Eco wrote the novel that later was translated as a film, entitled The Name of the Rose. The premise shared by novel and film is that there is a missing text from Aristotle’s poetics and in this text describes how comedy works. It is undeniable that Aristotle’s influence over the development of philosophy and science in Europe has been huge, and that historical anomaly is even stranger considering we only have a tiny fragment of his works.

According to Christopher Shields’ article on Aristotle in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Aristotle’s extant works read like what they very probably are: lecture notes, drafts first written and then reworked.” In other words, we are missing a lot more than just his thinking about comedy. Of 200 works he composed, we have 30 volumes and they are in draft form.

What does it say about our culture that such a limited sample of a philosopher’s work could have such a big impact on cultural history? It speaks to the limited capacity of literacy in ancient times and even now. It took a couple of centuries for people to edit the work of Aristotle. To live, he had to teach. I wasn’t like there was a publishing industry. The learning happened through teaching students like Alexander the Great. If teaching was the important thing, then why did they write? Writing was about thinking, and thinking is such a rare thing in human history that works usually build on other works and are rarely foundational, so a missing treatise On Comedy could actually stunt the development of human research.

The best book I did find that described how comedy works is Freud’s book, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious. Freud’s great discovery in psychology was the existence of the unconscious, the shadowy nebulous life that lies beneath the surface of our awareness and translates itself surreptitiously at night through our dreams. The unconscious is not good or bad but simply the things that have been blocked from being expressed due to social constructs of what is or is not acceptable. The unconscious develops as a response to repression, to prohibition, but it also creates an internal conflict and pressure. 

The tension between what a person wants to do and what they are allowed to do creates energy that can cause internal friction if not expressed. Humor plays off of this tendency to repress, this hidden store of energy. The way it works is not that complicated. The comic’s joke leads us in one direction as a narrative. We are introduced to a serious topic that has serious consequences for people in the real world. Immediately we begin to prepare ourselves to respond appropriately. We are going to have to be good listeners, to empathize with someone’s pain, to struggle over tough questions with no good answers. We brace ourselves to deal with this rant. Suddenly, though, the story takes a turn and we are aware that we have been misled. We have been tricked into preparing both to repress our feelings and to deal with someone else’s difficult situation and then all of the sudden the true nature of the reality is revealed to us: the story is not serious, it is just for fun. 

That is the nature of the laugh. It’s our response to fake weights. It is a strongman lifting a barbell with one hand. It is a kook taking a slam. In the case of the kook slam we have this situation where we see a person who looks like they know what they are doing with the ocean. They have shown up with gear ready to get the wave of the day but then they are so entirely without experience that they get their lunch handed to them. We thought we were going to have to feel respect or reverence for someone doing something we might not be able to do ourselves and then we are rewarded with a laugh for realizing that the kook knows even less than you. They look expert and then are shown to be a fool. 

People talk about comedy punching up or punching down and that usually has to do with who is the subject of ridicule and their relation to the comic in terms of power dynamics. In the context of the joke, who gets to feel superior to whom? If you make a joke about someone with less privilege than you then it is called punching down. I don’t have any rules for what makes comedy good or bad, but there are some mechanics of how it works. Punching down can be funny but it can also backfire. It all depends on how much the comic can get the audience to go along with the premise and tap into the energy of the reversal of expectations.

Advertisers attempt to use comedy, but it is a tricky thing for marketers to pull off. This is due to people’s skepticism about marketing already. There is a common idea that marketing is manipulating people through lies and false promises, so when a brand presents the public with a joke it is trusting that they will understand the humor and it won’t discredit the seriousness of their other communications. The thing about jokes is they are dishonest, but with good intention. 

Because brands feel a tremendous amount of pressure to be creating content and when they run out of ideas the calendar always presents the easiest way to predict what people will be doing and thinking at a certain point in time it is almost irresistible for a brand to not try to do an April Fools’ joke. Because April Fools’ Day is a day when tons of people who don’t understand comedy attempt to be funny it is a great source of negative examples of how comedy works.

This year, I saw three examples of ads that played a prank on their audience in a way that I view as very counterproductive. They promised their fans something great and then revealed that it was a joke. Instead of causing you to feel like something bad is happening and then feeling super relieved when it isn’t true, these brands created the opposite experience. Instead they created a good dream, a better dream, and then waking up sucks. The successful joke is like a nightmare and the waking up from the nightmare is the laugh.