What is the point of narrative comedy: A reply to Ugo Bardi

Recently, Ugo Bardi wrote a fine review of my second novel, The Order of the Secret Chiefs. There was one criticism Ugo made that I thought was unjustified but in an interesting way. Ugo made the point that the characters in the novel do not evolve but remain static. This would normally be a valid criticism. Any story which follows the Hero’s Journey pattern should have a denouement at the end where the protagonist transcends their old self and transforms into something new. However, comedy is the one genre where this is not true. To understand why, let’s first define some terms. I define a comedy as follows:

A story where the protagonist wins in spite of, or even because of, their vices.

We can contrast this with a tragedy:

A story where the protagonist loses in spite of, or even because of, their virtues.

The ur-novel of the modern West is also the ur-comedy of the modern West: Don Quixote. The protagonist, Alonso Quixano, is a fifty year old low level noble who is married and lives a comfortable life for the time. He decides to drop everything, call himself Don Quixote and go off on a grand adventure as a knight-errant. I hope it’s not a spoiler alert to say that Quixano “wins” in the end. Despite his vice – insanity – he makes it home safe and sound. What’s important to note is that Quixano has not evolved in any way. At the end of the story he is right back where he started and, although he renounces his previous actions, this is more of a social commentary on the part of Cervantes than a great revelation for the character.

Given that comedy is the genre where the protagonist wins in spite of their faults, it makes sense that the protagonist does not evolve. They have no need to. When things go well in life, we tend not to learn much. It’s mostly through pain and suffering that lessons get learned. This is one of the reasons why protagonists in comedy stories tend to finish where they started.

We see a similar pattern in what I consider to be the greatest comedic novels in the English language: the Jeeves books by P G Wodehouse. The protagonist, Bertie Wooster, is as clueless as Quixote. He is an inversion of the stereotypical English gentleman of the 1800s. Not for Bertie the gallant adventures of a Richard Francis Burton or squandering the family fortune on coke and hookers (I guess it was opium and hookers at that time) like many other young “gentlemen” of the age. Bertie is a wealthy man in his early twenties who could be playing the field, travelling or involved in affairs of state. Instead, he is wound up in trifling domestic disputes that get blown out of proportion through his own bungling. Fortunately, his trusty butler, Jeeves, is there to save the day. Jeeves must solve the problem while keeping the solution secret from Bertie who will only mess things up if he gets involved.

Like Quixote, what is going on in Bertie’s mind and what is actually happening in the real world are very different things and this drives the comedy in both books. There is nothing for Bertie to learn because he completely misunderstands what is going on. Because he doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t evolve either. Again, we find that the protagonist in the comedy stays the same. The formula is neatly summed up in a line from another great comedy, The Big Lebowski: the Dude abides.

There is something else going on in Quixote and the Jeeves books that I think is interesting and relevant to larger social issues at the moment. Both Quixote and Bertie Wooster are anachronisms. Quixote has been reading too many old books and got himself riled up over a mythology about knights errant that was out of date even at that time. Wooster is an English gentleman of the old school at the time when that stereotype was fast going out of date and would be completely extinct after WW2. The fact that both characters are anachronisms is part of their charm. Both men are not just unwilling to conform to social expectations, they are completely unaware of them. The result is that they are not fitted for their world and must continually be rescued giving both of them an eternal childlike quality; two grown men who still believe in fairy tales. Another way to think about it is that they are out there in the real world acting as if the ideal in their mind were true and consistently ignoring all the feedback that it is not. This is in contrast to most of us who give up on whatever ideals we had in order to get by in society. There are strong parallels with Christ which Dostoevsky captured quite precisely in his fittingly-titled book, The Idiot.

What happens when we apply a standard comedic technique and invert this configuration? Instead of individuals who are running on an outdated social script, we make society the one which is running on an outdated social script. Then we change the individual from an idealist into a realist. Now it’s society forcing the individual to conform to an outdated, often absurd, social script. This is still a source for comedy. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where George is forced to eat a poisoned pie by his co-workers: “If you’re one of us, you’ll take a bite.” It’s also an excellent description of where our society is at right now. On a daily basis, we are expected to believe all kinds of outright nonsense; to eat all kinds of poisoned pie. The process was in place before corona and has only gone into hyperdrive since.

As I’m sure Ugo would agree, we are coming to the end of the line of our current social arrangements. The story could be a tragedy and there are plenty of people who want to view it as such. That is the driver of many of the apocalypse fantasies that float around these days. There are a lot of people who want to heroically go down with the ship. However, societies, like most things in nature, operate in cycles. The end of one cycle is also the beginning of another. So, another way to think about where we are right now is the beginning of a new cycle. That is where the protagonist of the comedy, the Fool, comes into the picture.

It is not without good reason that the Fool card is the first in the tarot deck. It symbolises among other things the beginning of a journey. Quixote was a fool. So was Bertie Wooster. We are all now fools in that we belong to a society running on an outdated script. We must search for a new script but this mission is also foolish. We can expect many failures so we’ll need our Sancho Panza to keep our spirits up and our Jeeves to keep us from our worst mistakes. Like Quixote, we have to metaphorically leave our comfortable home where everything is still functioning more or less and go out into the world looking for adventure. We have to do that knowing full well that most of what we try won’t succeed but with the fool’s assurance that it will be alright in the end and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

24 thoughts on “What is the point of narrative comedy: A reply to Ugo Bardi”

  1. How about variation beyond even those you mentioned – an unfunny comedy. Where one’s own life presents itself as a joke, one neither oneself nor anyone else will laugh about.

    I just read a public post by a friend saying how stupid she was to be taking a long walk whilst suffering from myokarditis.
    No instance, not society and not an individual set of convictions, is left; the frame of what constitutes a genre itself has gone awol.
    Our parents and grandparents successfully removed any ability of their offspring to even develop the desire needed to search for a new script; we were born into a world where the old saying finds its fullest expression: When everything is allowed, everything’s taboo.
    (The PMC members imagining themselves to be playing their own life as a comedy don’t realize that canned laughter means there’s no audience.)
    Not rules in film to distinguish between obscene and non-obscene kissing, just no kissing at all. And no end, just endless sequels.

    The only way a frame of reference is going to come back is through hardship. Luckily, there’s enough of that in the offing.

  2. Michael – there was a “comedian” going around in Melbourne some years ago called Neil Hamburger who would get up for 40 minutes and tell one-liner jokes that weren’t funny. It was a bit like that song that didn’t have any notes; funny for about 5 minutes and then really bad.

    Culture requires limits. We have no culture left cos nobody can bear to recognise even the most basic of limits. There’s probably going to be a lot of hardship to get the point where limits are recognised again. Most of it will be self-inflicted. What about life for those who can make the switch early and recognise limits? That’s the interesting question, I think.

  3. Interesting discussion, Simon. For some miracle, we find ourselves discussing about literature as if we were still living in the 1950s, the last great period of Western literature. Then, everything went down the drain, unfortunately. Or perhaps it was written in sympathetic ink on all the book covers of all novels. I discuss this point in a previous post of mine https://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2015/01/where-have-our-dreams-gone-death-of.html

    Anyway, yes, you have an excellent point: comedy is a different genre than tragedy, and your novel falls straight in the former category. I must say that I have a personal penchant for the latter. As an example, I never liked the “Quixote” — I read it, but it seemed to me completely pointless. Jorge Luis Borges (whom I immensely admire) criticized it in the same way I could have criticized it: the protagonist goes through the story experiencing all sorts of disasters, never learning anything from them!

    But I also understand your point on how the Quixote needs to be read as a piece of societal criticism, just like your novel does. Here, we go into a fundamental point: societies are all based on stories. For a certain time, our society (broadly defined as the “Western” one, including the USSR) expressed its story lines in the form of novels. And novels could be a powerful force for social change, think of “The Catcher in the rye” Or of “The Gulag Archipelago”And now?

    We seem to have run out of stories, but I think we just ran out of a certain format of stories. We are still telling stories to each other but in a much more compact form — they have become the memes that move through the internet. In large part, they are generated by governments as propaganda. Think of the epic story of the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq! It was a complete saga, including heroes battling and defeating a dragon called “Saddam.” Then, there were no WMDs, but who ever saw the treasure that the dragon Fafnir was said to keep in its cave? Nothing new, here, after all, the “Aeneid” that we rightly consider as a masterpiece of literature, was commissioned to Virgil by Octavianus as a piece of propaganda for his imperial rule.

    And we move along. We’ll never stop dreaming, sagas or comedies, our dreams are our life.

  4. The thing I’m finding the hardest at this very moment in time is to hold back. With the rollercoaster just starting to gain speed, everyone (in my country) still well seated, engaged in yesterday’s OMG convos and not paying much attention to what’s right in front.
    Talking to them now about limits would still release a wave of righteous furor; catching the ones who’re waving to be rescued later on in the quickening descent has at least some chance of succeeding.
    Luckily, holding back is not more than an exercise. I’ll try to catch me some fools for gardening together. Garden’s ready.

  5. Ugo – Hollywood and television took over, I’m afraid. Film is now our main storytelling medium. What also happened was that much of literature stopped telling stories. The genre of “literary fiction” was born which deliberately has no plot and no characters. Then you can factor in the falling literacy rates among students. It’s a tough time for literature. But it’s a tough time for art in general. You have to do it for the love of it.

    Michael – gardening is a good idea. Life goes on and the birds and the bees are blissfully unaware of the cares of a bunch of oversized chimps.

  6. @Ugo – fascinating piece on the death of literature. It seems to me that when anything – a species, artform, cultural artefact – becomes abundant enough, it loses depth &/or complexity & becomes degraded through lack of whatever diverse factors enabled its emergence. Anything written today can only be derivative now that so many possibilities have already been explored & exploited, hence we have fanfic & gaming & collaborative stories etc., & studios market-researching the endings of their movies, & editors advising authors to rewrite stories to suit the supposed expectations of their audience. As if most readers’ imaginations, or capacity to dream, have been colonised by what Debord called the spectacle.

    I’d also say that a lot of novels since the 1950s have changed the lives & ignited the visions of a lot of women as well as people unused to seeing their experience represented.

    Anyway, this overabundance connects for me w/ Michael’s mention of limits. It’s easier to agree on what constitutes a canon when there’s a limit to how many books are available for literate people.

    @Simon – it seems significant that consumption of film/TV, our main storytelling medium, is, for most viewers, so passive – & is meant to be – compared to reading a novel or story; though these, even ‘literary’ fiction, have become increasingly cinematic in technique. The audience are the static characters who don’t change: their tastes conditioned, predictable, projecting their unlived potential or inferior functions onto the characters/actors on the page/screen.

    As long as readers have a sense of humour, there’ll be demand for comedies: the satirical kind are such great vehicles for critiquing one’s culture etc. w/o having to pull one’s punches.

  7. Shane – it’s noteworthy that comedy, in particular stand up comedy, has come under attack in recent years. The inability to laugh at yourself and your beliefs reveals a lack of true conviction to my mind so fits with the general cultural trend.

  8. In that recent article many people will have read by now, N.S. Lyons distinguishes between men who like to work with things and women who like to work with people.

    And I’m quite sure his other distinction, Virtuals vs. Physicals, cuts across that. Physical boundaries are a mere obstacle to the surgeon using the lastest gadget at the operating table, but a immoveable fact to the lady cleaning the floor outside the door.

    The hospital heaves battered bodies onto beds while the doctor’s offices receive the patched-up “products” a month later.
    (And degrees of opposition against mandates also divide these parts of the medical sector.)

    The cares of birds and bees are concrete and have to be included into planning; it is the landscape where control via abstraction layers becomes impossible, and where abstention from shaping it is the domain of the Virtuals.

    Of course we, whose distinguished Leader has just decreed that we will punish Evil by punishing ourselves through abstention from heating our homes, can probably also get by without interfering in the physical world altogether.

  9. @Simon
    I agree that film is now our primary story telling medium but even this medium seems to run out of ideas if I look at the number of prequels, sequels and (soft) reboots of successful movies. When I was younger, I would consider myself a movie fan. This has shifted in the last few years to an attitude of avoidance, as the ratio of interesting movies to uninteresting movies is just bad.

  10. Michael – somewhat ironically, “Virtual” includes the latin prefix vir : man. Thus, vir-tual is related to vir-ile and originally had connotations of manliness and physical strength.

    Secretface – is that true in general or just for Hollywood? Netflix seems to be going strong. I’ve never watched it myself, but others seem to like it. And this raises the further question of where will the stories be told now if the movies have run out of steam? Maybe that’s why the public discourse is one giant fiction story now and politicians like Trudeau are literally actors.

  11. I wonder how the NeVirtuals will take today’s news.
    There he is, the Evil Leader, demanding the Neonazis hand over their weapons.
    And Faustian leaders responding by insisting on…sleeping in.
    No upstanding citizen wants an adversary who can actually fight.

    Hopefully we’ll get a repeat of 2020 – great spring weather, tree planting season, and almost everyone shitting their pants.

  12. Michael – well, the Virtuals are certainly screeching about it. Good time to go and sit in the garden and read a book.

  13. I was mainly talking about Hollywood, since I am also not very informed about the Netflix concent as I don’t like the concept of series instead of movies as they take a much larger amount of time to watch.

    I also think that going strong is not an indicator of quality. If I look at the most successful movies, in the top 10 alone are so many prequels, sequels and reboots. Worst offender in the top 10 is „The Force Awakens“. I made the error to watch the movie in the cinema. During the whole movie, I had the feeling of a deja-vu. Surprisingly, all my friends liked the movie even though it was a bad rehash of the old trilogy.

  14. Secretface – exactly. And this brings us back to oversupply and over-consumption. How long should you spend watching stories on screens every week? Arguably, the Saturday night cinema was better and it was an occasion where you’d meet friends and go out and have fun.

  15. @Secretface2097: The thing about series – at least the better ones – is their structure more closely resembles a novel; feature-length films tend to be too short to do justice to more than a long short story, & people lack the time or concentration for reading novels, so they watch series instead.

    @Simon: Love the point re ‘vir’. How easy is it to do great PC stand-up? That’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? The inability to laugh at one’s beliefs seems to me synonymous w/ religious fanaticism. Which is where the culture of political correctness finds itself today.

  16. Shane – my working hypothesis is that religious fanaticism only comes in once the religion has stopped “working”. Hence, deep down there is a lack of faith which drives it.

    In other news, I just remembered the President of Ukraine was a professional comedian prior to his political career. That’s a bit synchronistic. I may have to meditate on that one.

  17. One of the Ukrainian bigwigs just called Russian forces ‘infidels’; we are indeed both in fanaticism and absurd comedy territory.

    Maybe this is the sequel mania fizzling out in the field of sectarianism, with one Orthodox church being pitted against the other; icons doing battle?

  18. @Simon
    I agree. Binge-watching is not a social experience; it is most of the time done alone. This seems to broader tendency that hobbies are undergoing an isolating transition (at least spatially, e.g. not being in the same area/room). I was once an avid boardgamer. The number of solo board games is rising fast. Playing a board game alone, never came to my mind, as it is the social experience which makes board games interesting. Otherwise, I can just play a computer game, which is also mainly isolating you from other humans (except online gaming, but there you also have human contact reduced to voice and maybe a moving 2D picture). Due to the pandemic, it seems that fitness is also done more at home, as I was bombarded with this Peloton bike commercial on YouTube for months. This also applies to some workplaces, as I have been in the company office for maybe one week in total in the last two years. I already had a lot of colleagues who I saw only at the regular corporate events (like Christmas party).
    I also agree with your hypothesis on religious fanaticism. This seems to be a widespread human problem, that if something does not work anymore, you double down doing what does not work.
    @Shane
    I agree with your assessment of series. I have watched quite a few series, Breaking Bad being my favorite so far. The problem I have with them is that the story arc is often overextended that some episodes really feel like filler material to maximize viewing time. In addition, if the series is successful, additional seasons are added, which often further water down the content. Therefore, I would say that a series with a planned ending after x seasons is something, which I can appreciate, but a series that is extended based on the success often isn´t worth the time to watch whole (I gave up on Walking Dead and GoT due to this issue).

  19. Michael – this presentation from about seven years ago predicts very accurately what is happening now and why. It’s not surprising – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrMiSQAGOS4

    Secretface – There is a reason why the book mentioned in this post – The Order of the Secret Chiefs – has masturbation as its main gimmick 😉

  20. Excellent, thanks; I didn’t know that talk was available in full.

    A propos your subject of meditation:
    A Jewish comedian as Head of State, surrounded by Neonazi advisers – is that a Mel Brooks or a Billy Wilder?

  21. So if public figures like Trudeau are our actors now, what does that make our story in the west – tragedy or comedy?

    To continue with Trudeau as an example, the Canadian national story seems to fit into your definition of a comedy. However, for so many living through this drama teacher’s narrative, it feels like a complete tragedy. Perhaps because our main character is no longer a protagonist but rather an antagonist and so the whole framework becomes inverted?

    At any rate current social reality does feel like one of those endless series that has run out of ideas but just keeps chugging on season after season or sequel after sequel…

  22. To add a note from “The Seven Basic Plots” by Chistopher Booker:

    “We have now seen how the psychological root of all tragedy, the ‘fatal flaw’ in all tragic heroes and heroines, is ultimately the same. They are stuck at a certain stage in the unfolding of the archetypal drama, in such a way that they cannot move forward to the point of Self-realization. All of them are in some way held back by the dark feminine,” – Devouring Mother, anyone? – “so that they cannot grow up… And the more the dark feminine asserts it’s hold over them, the more they are drawn into conflict with the world of ‘Father’, the masculine values of strength, discipline, firmness and self-control which they cannot develop in themselves…”

    Sovthis appears to me to be the basic plot: government leaders (perfectly represented by Trudeau) acting out the dark feminine while simultaneously exhibiting a sort of twisted version of the masculine values outlined above (just substitute “self-control” for a more Devouring Mother relevant “other-control”). Hence the growing resistance (exemplified by the Canadian truckers) who wish to self-realize as the empowered masculine archetype their image portrays, are held back by the establishment’s “woke” ideology and thus find themselves “in conflict with the world of Father.”

  23. Cub – that’s an excellent way to frame it. This also fits with underlying “masculine” and “feminine” concepts on the Cabalastic Tree of Life. The feminine nodes constrain and give form. That is a necessary thing. But it must be balanced by the release of energy to create anew. When that doesn’t happen, you are preventing the new from coming into existence or, in literary terms, preventing the protagonist from evolving and transcending to the next level. That is exactly where we are now. Our leaders cannot allow a release of new energy as they are terrified it will break down existing structures. Thus, they smother society. Trudeau’s overreaction, if we assume good intentions on his part, betrays the lack of trust he has in the system.

    As for whether it’s a comedy or tragedy, we don’t know yet. If they continue to smother, eventually society just dies and it’s a tragedy. If the human spirit can break through and we can keep the whole thing going, it’s a comedy i.e. a victory. Of course, that’s at the aggregate level. At the individual level, it may be a comedy for some, tragedy for others.

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