Comedy is more than laughing matter. It’s the commoner’s cry for change. The art form of satire goes back to ancient Greece, where voters were swayed by the political satire of comic poets at the theatre. Today, the poet’s cry for justice can be heard on TV shows like Saturday Night Live. Often, a comedy pits two sides against each other – a powerless person who wants something but can’t get it because of powerful traditional, political or social forces that stand in his way.
No satire is less threatening and more easily pardoned than the cartoon, although history has its exceptions. It strikes at the nerve of our restlessness with rigidity. It gives voice to unnamed feelings that clog our thoughts when we’re faced with human idiocy and don’t know what to do about it.
In India, 3 Idiots struck a nerve with it’s audience because it was a comic cry for change that we all wanted, but didn’t know how to ask. It was made for $7 million and earned nearly ten times more. It’s a comedy that portrayed the struggles of three ordinary students under the oppressive educational system in India. The forces that stood against them were traditional parenting, poverty, rigid administration and the cookie cutter way of thinking about careers. But that doesn’t mean it changes anything. Often, comedians can’t influence the system; but at least they can drag it out into the street, strip it of it’s dignity, stir up a mob and mock its ugly absurdities in the public square. It may not change anything more than minds. But sometimes, for the comedian, that can be enough.
True comedy exposes the absurdities of bad ideas, poor decisions and stupid people. In that sense comedians are prophets who tell the truth with the force of irony. Sometimes it’s a voice that’s hard to hear because it’s hiding under the crass and the obscene. For instance, where most people see Sasha Baron Cohen – better known ‘in character’, as Borat, Bruno or Ali G – as lewd, vulgar and shocking, I see an honest cry for justice, freedom and common sense. In his new movie, The Dictator, he reveals the absurdity of taking bad ideas and letting them play out in real life to show that it doesn’t work. You can’t live like that. You can’t rule like that.
But at the end of the movie comes the irony, the sucker punch. In a speech to America to defend his oppressive rule, the Dictator rebukes America for its insistence on democracy and urges it to imagine all the things it could do if it were a dictatorship. He says, “Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let 1% of the people have all the nation’s wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes and bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor, for healthcare and education. Your media would appear free but secretly be controlled by one person and his family. You could wire tap phones. You could torture foreign prisoners. You could have rigged elections. You could lie about why you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group and no one would complain. You could use the media to scare people into supporting policies that are against their interests.”
Aside from his political persuasions, Cohen captures the essence of satire and comic irony. It hits the powerful where it hurts. Comedy wants to change things even if it has no power to change them. But that’s the tragic irony of it all. The comedian is, often, tragically powerless. It’s almost as if his comedy is a temporary hiding place from the overwhelming tragedy of life. That’s why comedy and tragedy are more than merely art forms. They’re competing ways of thinking about the world.
In the Woody Allen film, Melinda and Melinda, two writers explore the question of whether the essence of life is comic or tragic. Both writers are given a set of circumstances, which they twist into tragic and comic stories. The same events are translated into something dark & depressing and light & refreshing. In the end, the burden of the question of life is placed on the shoulders of the living. We’re invited to interpret life as tragedy or comedy. Either comedy is the norm and tragedy is the exception, or it’s the other way around. In the eye of the beholder, lies the truth of the world.
But the story of the Bible leaves no room for interpretation. It sets the stage for something that begins badly to turn into something that ends well. In the language of God, the word for comedy is Hope. Its opponent is despair.
Whether we live happily with a little bit of sorrow or sorrowfully with a little bit of joy, we all come to the same fate. Whether we come laughing or weeping, the grave patiently waits for us at the end. Whether comic or tragic, we’re living in the middle of an unfinished story that ends in certain death. But the comic irony of the Bible is that a crucified man, powerless and vulnerable, overcame the power of death by His resurrection. Tragedy turned into comedy when the Writer entered His story, so we can live with Hope instead of despair.
But this Hope is not an idea. It’s a person and His promise. At the heart of biblical comedy is the invitation to journey through life with Jesus. It brings the conviction that history is heading towards goodness, not into the abyss. It enjoys the comedic elements of life with Him and perseveres with Him through the tragic, because it knows that they are merely battles in a war He has already won. In this unfinished story, we’re invited to be agents of change who turn tragedy into comedy because we live with hope that is infectious.
Comedy, then, is the hint of a promise. The commoner’s cry for change will be answered. The powerless will have their day of reckoning. Hope fills the heart with visions of a better world, so we can live in this one as if we were already there. In the worst of times, it whispers into your heart that a world without pain is coming. In the best of times, it thrills your heart with a foretaste of things that are still to come. There will never be a tragedy to threaten this comedic Hope, because sorrow cannot outlive the earth and laughter belongs to Heaven.