Tuesday, April 10, 2018

`A Secret, a Loose Word, a Wanton Jest'

“You cannot force people to laugh: you cannot give a reason why they should laugh; — they must laugh of themselves, or not at all.”

And that’s the beauty of laughter. It can’t be regulated, sanctioned, market-tested or convincingly feigned. It’s impolite, subversive, celebratory, cruel and as distinctive as DNA. It’s also mercifully resistant to theorizing. Vivisectionists kill it.

“As we laugh from a spontaneous impulse, we laugh the more at any restraint upon this impulse. We laugh at a thing merely because we ought not. If we think we must not laugh, this perverse impediment makes our temptation to laugh the greater; for by endeavouring to keep the obnoxious image out of sight, it comes upon us more irresistibly and repeatedly, and the inclination to indulge our mirth, the longer it is held back, collects its force, and breaks out the more violently in peals of laughter. In like manner anything we must not think of makes us laugh, by its coming upon us by stealth and unawares, and from the very efforts we make to exclude it. A secret, a loose word, a wanton jest, makes people laugh.”

My oldest son gave me Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection, a set of ten DVDs that includes most of the talkie shorts and features produced by Hal Roach between 1929 and 1940 – more than thirty-two hours of comedy. No one in film except W.C. Fields is funnier than Laurel and Hardy, whose art is nuanced and elegant. When I hear someone say, “Oh, that’s just slapstick,” I leave the room. Beckett loved them. One night last week I came home tired and cranky and watched Hog Wild, a 1930 short in which Stan helps Oliver install a radio antenna on the roof: “Mrs. Hardy wants to get Japan.” It’s the small things: Oliver daintily flicking water from his eyes. Mrs. Hardy, after the chimney collapses on the boys, admonishing: “Will you stop your playing?” Oliver, at the top of the ladder, tipping his hat to the screaming bus passengers. They reprise the concluding crash scene in County Hospital. The Depression-era views of Los Angeles are a bonus.

“The consciousness, however it may arise, that there is something that we ought to look grave at, is almost always a signal for laughter outright: we can hardly keep our countenance at a sermon, a funeral, or a wedding.”

The quoted passages are from William Hazlitt’s “On Wit and Humour” (Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1818). Hazlitt was born on this date, April 10, in 1778.

[After writing this post I came across a 2016 paper published in the Scottish Medical Journal titled “Eye trauma in Laurel and Hardy movies - another nice mess.” It documents eighty-eight instances of “eye trauma” in their films. Now that’s funny.] 

1 comment:

mike zim said...

Studying Three Stooges movies would have surely given a higher count of eye traumas, but who'd want to watch all those?!