Comedies—Screwball & Divine
Chronic pain can be treated by opiates, but laughter is often the best medicine. During a period of chronic pain (the result of a body on the downhill side of 50), I was depressed, which only made the pain worse. I dislike painkillers, because our family makes pharmaceuticals, and I have an inkling of how many people are killed by drug interactions and reactions. My wife decided to try drastic methods on my mopes: a Katharine Hepburn film festival. It helped a great deal; the brain cannot laugh and feel pain at the same time.
Goethe observes, “Sometimes we can watch a comedy for a stretch without laughing at the comic antics, but in a tragedy we immediately laugh uproariously at something inappropriate; it is the same in the real world, where some ludicrous aspect of a terrible misfortune may make us burst out laughing.” He has in mind the gravedigger in Hamlet, or the porter in Macbeth.
On the Day of Endless Tears, September 11, 2001, several hundred million people were plunged into horror and despair at what was coming upon the world. About two weeks later, as I obsessed over the unending newspaper accounts of the devastation, I came across a news item that in Scotland someone had been charged with a hate crime: He had thrown a haggis through a neighbor’s window. I laughed, and realized it was the first time I had laughed since September 11.
In New York a few days after the attack, actors gathered to rehearse the comedies that were scheduled to open; the actors had trouble concentrating a mile from Ground Zero. But when the shows opened, the audiences roared and roared at the jokes. The actors were taken aback, because they didn’t think the plays were that funny, but the audiences needed to laugh. Although there was hysteria in the laughter, it was laughter.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood produced a crop of screwball comedies to take Americans’ minds off the depression and war. Katharine Hepburn’s Bringing Up Baby is the best, but the lesser-known The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek gets laughs both uproarious and sympathetic over the delicate matter of teenage pregnancy during wartime, when fathers tend to disappear overnight.
Berlin also distracted Germans from their problems with screwball comedies. Germans didn’t want to be propagandized but entertained, especially with American bombs falling and Russians advancing in the East. The Nazis let the people have this outlet, and produced films like Allotria (“Shenanigans”) and Die Feuerzangenbowle, in which a Till Eulenspiegel-like professor pretends to be a Gymnasium student and overturns the educational apple cart.
Germans oscillate between authoritarianism and anarchy. It keeps the world entertained, or at least on its toes.
The darker life is, the more we need to laugh. I think we overlook this element in the Scriptures—translating humor is very difficult. But we see Jonah protesting to God that he knows that by sparing Nineveh, God is going to make him look like a fool. Jonah then feels sorry for the vine that grows and withers in a day. The Jerusalem Bible’s translation of Esther brings out the farcical elements. When Jews read Esther at Purim, children shake their rattles, lest anyone hear Haman’s name. The apostles argue about who is top dog, but become speechless when Jesus asks them what they are talking about. Paul realizes that he is made a spectacle to angels and men—as are all Christians.
We have our treasure in earthy vessels. A temple of the Holy Spirit with gross bodily functions must startle the unincarnate spirits. To the incongruity of a being whose nature is shared with angels and monkeys we add the incongruity of our behavior, which makes the heavenly court alternately weep and roar with laughter.
The supernaturally catastrophic events of September 11 had their comic or ironic sidelights. The terrorists were filmed mugging at an ATM camera, and they prepared to die by praying and entertaining lap dancers. Father Mychal Judge, killed by a rain of rubble from the collapsing towers as he ministered to firemen, turns out to have been a gay activist who funded the Gay St. Patrick’s Day parade and defended priests accused of too great an interest in 14-year-old boys.
In The Lord of the Rings, in a world teetering on the edge of utter destruction, the hobbits are, well, hobbits. They are interested in tobacco and three (or more) meals a day and the doings of their distant cousins. But in the end, they do not so much rise as are raised to the occasion. The mysterious force that directs Middle-earth uses humble and imperfect instruments to accomplish its will, lest any flesh should glory in God’s sight.
It is hard to be vainglorious when you’ve slipped on a banana peel.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Comedies—Screwball & Divine” first appeared in the June 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.