The Clouds by the fifth century BCE Athenian playwright Aristophanes is the only comedy (officially) included in the Literature Humanities syllabus for the fall semester. Other texts like Plato’s Symposium and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which we concluded last Wednesday are not comedies themselves but include comedic elements by way of satirizing a historical narrative or parodying a literary convention, popular figure, or well-established genre.
With regards to my own teaching objectives, I wanted my students to think through the seriousness of comedy in terms of both craft and content particularly since this was the first and only comedy we would read together for the fall.
Writing and performing comedy is difficult. Eliciting and understanding laughter as a form of audience reception and subject of analysis is complicated. I know this as an academic and an artist.
Based on our previous discussions, I’m certain each one of my students has personal experience with some form of comedy — as a reader, listener, viewer, audience member. Before asking the students to collectively analyze the specific text which many of them conveyed was not particularly funny (i.e., engaging) to them, I invited them to theorize about comedy (without telling them they were theorizing) for the first 15-20 minutes of class. In order to have a shared experience of one contemporary iteration, I showed my college section three minutes of Larry Wilmore’s remarks at the Correspondent’s Dinner of 2016 with former President Obama present on stage.
For my General Studies section, I showed three minutes of Michelle Wolf’s remarks at the Correspondent’s Dinner of 2018 in which the current president of the United States was absent from the event.
I selected clips from the Correspondent’s Dinners to preface our discussion on The Clouds for the following reasons:
- The subject matter is recent.
- The self-identification of the platform is transparently not universal or universalizing. That is, its United Statesian-ness, temporality, and immediate target audience composition of presidents, the president’s administration, journalists and other high profile figures including politicians and celebrities is a crucial part of the branding of the event.
- The cameras periodically show the audience in the room. Specifically, a camera will pan and often zoom in on the audience member who is the subject of the joke.
- There are clear moments of pleasure and discomfort.
- There are different kinds of laughter in each clip.
After viewing the clips, I asked my students the following three questions:
What is the purpose of comedy?
We identified many. Comedy, students said, is a means of entertainment; a way for both the comedian and audience to cope with reality and find comfort; and a method of truth-telling that offers social and political critique that is uncomfortable but also offers a rhetorically protective shield from culpability in a context in which critique could be dangerous. Others noted that dark humor, in particular, has the ability to amplify discomfort. I noticed that the students, for the most part, saw comedy as a progressive and even radical (always in the positive sense) form of speech.
Considering that the ideologues of the white supremacist alt-right stress the importance of comedy as a medium by which they can introduce and normalize racist language in the broader culture, I asked the class to push further and consider what comedy can do for an offensive, distasteful, or violent politics. They then noted comedy could also function to make the distasteful more palatable and vice versa; to uncover affirmation of an idea believed to be unpopular; and to provoke and instigate rage. Although it is debatable whether The Clouds was instrumental in instigating the rage against Socrates that ultimately led to his trial and state execution, the idea that comedy has affective power, cultural significance, and political impact stands in the very consideration of its historical possibility.
What are the tools of comedy?
The first tool of comedy — and perhaps the most legible — is the body. One student mentioned that the most accessible jokes in The Clouds are the ancient farting and phallus jokes. Although several students articulated they were above and beyond that or found the humor of a particular kind of masculinity alienating, we considered how amazing it was to be able to recognize as legible an ancient fart joke. Beyond the body, students identified other tools of comedy such as the use of comedic timing in performance; irony, parody, and satire to poke fun at recent and/or well-known human events; embellishment and exaggeration in order to highlight contrasting points of view and illuminate the absurd; establishing expectations and then overturning them; shared knowledge, language, and/or experience between the audience and writer/performer; and the invocation of generalizations such as stereotypes and caricatures of popular figures and institutions like Aristophanes’ characterization of Socrates, his students, and the Thinkery.
Thinking further about the notion of shared experience and knowledge, students discussed why jokes “fall on deaf ears” without it. Without shared knowledge, the audience may either receive the joke as a truth or reject it as an offensive lie. With too much time lapsed, the possibility of the event already being discussed in every possible way is higher. This makes the overturning of expectations and introducing the novelty of an idea in relation to that event far more difficult. Moreover, if the event is particularly traumatic, with too much time lapsed, the possibility of trauma taking root also makes it a much more difficult subject of comedy.
What does laughter mean?
When I asked this question, students asked me what I meant. So I asked them to consider the ways in which people laughed in the clip we watched together such as the way Obama uncomfortably responded to Wilmore’s joke about the president’s similarity with Steven Curry dropping bombs or the way Wolf Blitzer did not laugh at Wilmore’s joke about the Situation Room.
I asked if the comedian’s or audience’s laughter was consistent throughout the three minutes. They responded that it was not. There were moments the collective laughter of the audience was louder than others; there were moments when a singular individual’s laughter could be identified; and there were moments when the comedian laughed while the audience was relatively quiet.
I then asked the class to imagine that in single moment, I self-deprecatingly referred to myself in class as a rag head or a terrorist and a single student laughed immediately and loudly while the other students remained silent. “What could the immediacy of that singular laughter possibly mean? In that context, what would collective laughter possibly mean?” I also mentioned that scholars indicate that The Clouds was not well-received by Aristophanes’ contemporaries in the way his other comedies were.
That’s when they understood the question, “What does laughter mean?” One student noted it could possibly mean that the person laughing shared a similar experience of being addressed in such a derogatory way. Another student noted it could also mean that the person laughing thinks the use of that term is funny and acceptable. A third student pointed out that audience laughter could also be a means of defense against discomfort. The silence could indicate an uncertainty of boundaries based on unshared identities. The idea of laughter as a defense mechanism could also be relevant in the case of a comedian laughing with a mostly silent audience.
Laughter indicates who is in the room. It’s possible the subject of a joke is in the room and signals either permission to laugh and cautions against laughter. Laughter communicates pleasure, access, relatability, shared experience, distance and alienation, affirmation, and/or rejection. Laughter reifies or transforms boundaries, miscommunication, or unintended consequences. For the comedian, audience laughter can highlight their positionality. When making jokes about race, there is a fine line between the use of irony to critique racism and a racist joke. In the case of Dave Chapelle walking away from the stage, for example, heckling amidst the laughter of a largely middle and upper class white audience conveys that his work was not doing the critical work and being received in the way the artist intended. It was “the wrong kind of laugh.”
I wrapped up the discussion about the meaning of laughter and transitioned to closely read and analyze the play. The framing discussion that preceded our collective analysis proved to be important for my students’ engagement with the text. It did the kind of good, satisfying work that makes an alienating, distant, and/or ancient text relevant without prohibiting them from expressing and maintaining their varied reception and opinions on Aristophanes’ comedy as a particular audience in their specific contemporary contexts.