Written by Josh Orlando
Aristotle wrote one of the earliest works of dramatic theory during Ancient Greek’s classical period in 350 B.C.E. Poetics outlines a model for dramatic literature that follows a formula. It proposes that a good drama has exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. This model becomes known as Aristotelian drama and has been followed by scholars and writers for centuries. It is even taught in high school English curriculum around the world today. But Poetics says nothing about comedy. In fact, historians have speculated that Aristotle specifically never wrote down anything about comedy. Likely because comedy is really hard to do. Even today, good comedies are few and far between. I mean, how could Aristotle have written a rule book for something so fickle?
We live in a diverse society with an ever-changing notion of popular culture. Something as fluid as comedy must constantly evolve and adapt to the sociopolitical climate in order to stay relevant. That is, in order to be “funny”. Yet comedy is widely regarded as one of the most subjective forms of art. It is true that everyone has unique differences that inform their own sense of humor. But there is so much more at play here. What we find comedic is actually much more relational than it is personal. By which I mean that comedy is inherently political. And it always has been.
What we find “funny” is inextricably linked to our political position in this world. Different people have lived through different experiences that have shaped the person that they are. This means that comedy, just like any other form of art must be handled with care, it must be thoughtful and methodically executed. If comedy is to adapt with a diverse and multi-cultural society, then it must stay informed. It’s not that we should be afraid of offending people, it’s that we should be so self-critical as comedians that we have forethought when it comes to the potential harm that our jokes can cause. Comedians have a great sociopolitical responsibility as they add to the canon of what has been considered funny throughout history. My point in all of this is that good comedy is long-lasting. Good comedy reaches many people. And good comedy swings up.
Good comedy swings up at institutions of power, not down at the oppressed. The future of comedy is organized, it is a discussion on the very power dynamics that play with the social order of things. Chances are, the people in the audience are oppressed in some way or another, and they want their comedians talking about it. When comedians play with these power dynamics and even flip them on their head or provide social commentary, we feel a cathartic release. We feel like they are identifying with our lived experience. And that is funny. Comedy will always be personal, and it’s better when connected to the political.