on 22 June 2014
A good book grows on you. It makes you want to read it again, to refer to it, to chew over parts of it. And it takes you to places you didn’t expect. This is what this very short introduction to comedy did for me. Its eight main chapters are short and cover a lot of ground, cleverly sequenced in a rough, chronological order. So we start with the ancient Greeks and end with eschatology. Generous use of illustrations, photos, quotes and further references enhances the reading experience.
My intention was to summarise each chapter, but that would be silly, since you can deduce their contents from the Contents page. Instead, I’ll offer you the insight which struck me the most, namely, Bevis’ contention that comedy’s power lies in its bringing together things that seem divergent from one other. In the context of a conversation about the two different types of clown, Bevis speaks of how these two characters embody a “myth that’s inside all of us: the reconciliation of opposites” (p. 73).
Later on, Bevis expounds his view that laughter and seriousness shadow each other, just as the id and superego did for Freud. Comedy is both an avoidance and an expression of life’s darker side. The opposition between comedy and tragedy is only apparent; in reality, they presuppose each other (ps. 94-6). Thus we can learn to balance detachment from life and engagement with it (p. 100), neither pitiless nor pathetic (p. 112).
How to classify such a comedic, ludic life is an interesting question. Bevis suggest the tragicomedy, in the vein of Beckett (p. 104). Possible even the genre of romance can form a mid-point between comedy and tragedy, or at least an end-point for when comedy comes good (p. 110). More often than not, though, Bevis is content to leave the contradictions in tack and the task of reconciling them to whether we get the joke (ps. 43, 112).
For the fun of it, here are a few of the comedic antinomies Bevis lists throughout his book:
• The comic imagination gets physical and thinks about the physical (p. 20)
• In comedy, bodily pleasures are both exalted and earthly (p. 28)
• A comic character both acting and satirizes himself (p. 35)
• We enjoy comic characters as they allow us to both spectate and participate at the same time (p. 48)
• In comic plots, there is no time like the present and no time but the present (p. 62)
• Comic characters are both idiots and iconoclasts (p. 65), both utilizing and mocking subservience (p. 69)
• Stand-up comedians both threaten and forge a community (p. 74)
• Satirical comedy allows one to be a fatalist and a moralist at the same time, a mixure of the blithe and the biting (ps. 83-4)
• Comedy’s fascination with pain makes its objects both risible and resilient, in which life is serious but not too serious (ps. 99-100), peoples by characters both trivial and also larger than life (p. 102), equally laughable yet able to laugh (p. 109)
Perhaps what I will take away from all this book most of all is Bevis’ contention that comedy is a “way of being in the world” (p. 14) and an “approach to life” (p. 45). Here we have the novelty of a deep interpretation of comedy presented in a playful way. So deep is it that Bevis plays with the notion that it may even be religious is nature. He quotes Kierkegaard. “The religious person is one who has discovered the comic on the greatest scale” (p. 113). I for one would find this hilarious if true.
I didn’t give the book five stars because of a few flaws I feel it has. They are both relatively minor, but together they are significant enough to take away top marks. Firstly, there are gaps in the material. There is, for example, very little in Comedy about comedy as narrowly understood, comedy-as-humour, jokes and japes etc. Likewise there is even less on play and playing; this is despite excellent Further Reading sections for both on pp.136-7.
Secondly, the way Bevis writes is a little too flowery to my taste. He writes well, very well, both highly moving and amusing at turns, but sometimes the words crowd out the meaning. Many of his sentences are of the sort you study in literature class at college, where everyone has their own interpretation. That’s fine for poetry, but in a book like this, I prefer to know what exactly the author intends, please.
Matthew Bevis' "Very Short Introduction to Comedy" is hugely enjoyable and offers a sophisticated (and at times properly demanding) account of the development of the subject from the time of the Ancient Greeks up to more-or-less the present day. I say it's demanding but that should not put anyone off reading this wonderful guide. As plenty of people have said, comedy is a serious matter - if it is to be done well - and Matthew Bevis makes this absolutely clear by providing a thorough account of the history of the subject in its many different forms. Having said that, the book is full of great jokes which exemplify or illustrate the points he makes about how Comedy has evolved through history.
Bevis' analyses of "Withnail and I", "Groundhog Day", and episodes of "The Simpsons" alone make the book a real winner, but there is much more to enjoy. In particular I welcomed being introduced to comedy I didn't know about.
Shortly after finishing the book I re-read parts of it and I've come to view that it isn't just good - it's an excellent exploration of its subject: comprehensive yet concise, thoughtful, full of shrewd insights and above all very funny. Highly recommended.
on 20 May 2013
This book has literally saved my essay. It is packed full of relevant references in an easily accessible manner and is a vital guide to anyone studying comedy at any level, from theatre through film and stand up (it even has a short passage on Groundhog Day!). It may be 'short' but it is so full of leads to different books, making it incredibly useful. THANKS MATTHEW.