Category Archives: Comedy


Today is Stendhal‘s birthday (1783-1842).

From “Towards a Theory of Cultural History”:

The chief difference between the comedy of the Renaissance and the realistic period is that the resolution of the latter more frequently involves a social promotion, and, like pathos, tends to be an individual achievement.  More sophisticated writers of low mimetic comedy often present the same success story with the moral ambiguities that we have found in Aristophanes.  In Balzac or Stendhal a clever and ruthless scoundrel may achieve the same kind of success as the virtuous heroes of Samuel Smiles and Horatio Alger.  Thus the comic counterpart of the alazon seems to be the clever, likable, unprincipled picaro of the picaresque novel.  (CW 21, 161)

Earlier posts on Frye and Alger here and here.

The Mikado


The closing sequence of Mike Leigh’s masterpiece, Topsy-Turvy, about the writing, development and first performance of The Mikado, including the beautiful “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze”

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado premiered on this date in 1885.

Frye in one of those extraordinary lucid moments that send a shiver up the spine:

The element of play is the barrier that separates art from savagery, and playing at human sacrifice seems to be an important theme of ironic comedy.  Even in laughter itself some kind of deliverance from the unpleasant, even the horrible, seems to be important.  We notice this particularly in all forms of art in which a large number of auditors are simultaneously present, as in drama and, still more obviously, in games.  We notice too that playing at sacrifice has nothing to do with any historical descent from sacrificial ritual, such as been suggested for Old Comedy.  All the features of such ritual, the king’s son, the mimic death, the executioner, the substituted victim, are far more explicit in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado than they are in Aristophanes. (CW 21, 162)

“Three Little Maids from School” after the jump.

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Zero Mostel and Tricky Slaves


New Comedy in a nutshell — including a brother and sister kidnapped in infancy by pirates — from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  This clip includes Mostel as Pseudolus (right), Jack Gilford as Hysterium (left) and Buster Keaton (centre) as Erroneous.  (Michael Hordern makes a brief appearance as Senex.)

Today is the great comic actor Zero Mostel‘s birthday (1915-1977). His performance as Pseudolus in Richard Lester’s 1966 film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum nicely represents the eiron character Frye in Anatomy calls the “tricky slave.” Then again, the plot of A Funny Thing is a playbook for the formulaic conventions of New Comedy, to the extent that two of the characters bear the names of the types Frye identifies them by: Senex and Miles Gloriosus.

From the “The Mythos of Spring” section of “Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths”:

Another central eiron figure is the type entrusted with hatching the schemes which bring about the hero’s victory.  This character in Roman comedy is almost always a tricky slave (dolosus servus). . . . The vice, to give him that name, is very useful to a comic dramatist because he acts from pure love of mischief, and he can set a comic action going with the minimum of motivation. . . One of the tricky slaves in Plautus, in a soliloquy, boasts that he is the architectus of the comic action: such a character carries out the will of the author to reach a happy ending.  He is in fact the spirit of comedy itself. . . . (CW 22, 161)

Charles Dickens


The opening sequence of David Lean’s film adaptation of Great Expectations

Today is Charles Dickens‘s birthday (1812-1870).

Frye’s plangent account of the creative absurdity of literature in “Dickens and the Comedy of Humours” — this is an extraordinary paragraph, even for him:

I used the word “absurd” earlier about Dickens’s melodramatic plots, suggesting that they were creatively and not incompetently absurd.  In our day the word “absurd” usually refers to the absence of purpose or meaning in life and experience, the so-called metaphysical absurd.  But for literary criticism the formulating of the theory of the absurd should not be left entirely to disillusioned theologians.  In literature it is design, the forming and shaping power, that is absurd.  Real life does not start nor stop; it never ties up loose ends; it never manifests meaning or purpose except by blind accident; it is never comic or tragic, ironic or romantic, or anything else that has shape.  Whatever gives form and pattern to fiction, whatever technical skill keeps us turning the pages to get to the end, is absurd, and contradicts our sense of reality.  The great Victorian realists subordinate their story-telling skill to their representative skill.  Theirs is a dignified, leisurely vehicle that gives us time to look at the scenery.  They have formed our stock responses to fiction, so that even when travelling at the much higher speed of drama, romance, or epic we still keep trying to focus our eyes on the incidental and transient.  Most of us feel that there is something else in Dickens, something elemental, yet unconnected with either realistic clarity or philosophical profundity.  What it is connected with is a kind of story that fully gratifies the hope expressed, according to Lewis Carroll, by the original Alice, that “there will be some nonsense in it.”  The silliest character in Nicholas Nickleby is the hero’s mother, a romancer who keeps dreaming of impossible happy endings for her children.  But the story itself follows her specifications and not those of the sensible people.  The obstructing humours in Dickens are absurd because they have overdesigned their lives.  But the kind of design that they parody is produced by another kind of energy, and one which insists, absurdly and irresistibly, that what is must never take precedence over what ought to be.  (CW 17, 307-8)

TGIF: “The worst penis, probably, in the world”


Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. — together at last.  (Video not embedded: click on the image and then hit the YouTube link)

My previous posts on “Andy Warhol” and on “Frye and Obscenity” are good preparation for this master class in the liberatingly obscene element in comedy: Ricky Gervais here makes an appearance on Louis C.K‘s new show on HBO. (Ricky’s father was a Canadian veteran of the Second World War, if an appeal to patriotism might help.)

And, of course, I come armed with a relevant quote from Frye:

Comedy is moral insofar as it expands the range of response; obscenity, for instance, is profoundly moral. (CW 15, 28)

Obscenity is profoundly moral.”  So that’s that, then.

After the jump, a clip from Ricky’s show, Extras, in which Kate Winslet, playing herself playing a nun, provides some sound advice on playing with oneself during phone sex.

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Mature Content


Tomorrow is Andy Warhol’s birthday, and last week I started putting together a post to commemorate it.  People tend to forget that Warhol for five whole years made nothing but movies, which, even today are exhilerating in their wonder and freshness and the challenge they offer.  One critic has noted that, for the first time, thanks to Warhol’s films, we, the viewers of art, are allowed to see as a painter sees, in real time.

Their subject matter, of course, is often iconoclastic.  The clip I opted to post is from the starkly titled Blow Job, which does not really capture the actual experience of the film, even if it accurately describes what is being very cleverly depicted without actually showing it.

That got me thinking about Frye and the issue of obscenity and — coincidentally coming across a clip I wanted to post in our regular TGIF comedy slot that is as obscene as it is hilarious — that led to a series of related posts on the subject of the artistic relevance of obscenity with Frye acting as our guide the entire time.

All that tomorrow.