The Tragedy of Comedy by P. Ravindran Nayar SignUp
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The Tragedy of Comedy
by P. Ravindran Nayar Bookmark and Share

I am confused. Utterly confused, like many other viewers of television channels. Notwithstanding the intermittent guffaws we hear from the celebrity panelists in the studios, is it comedy that we see on TV? The self-indulgent titles like Thakarpan Comedy, Comedy Utsav, Comedy Stars and the like unfortunately do not, I think, bestow on their contents with anything that is funny, amusing, humorous or comic. Then how to justify the panelists’ laughter all, all the way and guffaws at frequent intervals?

Whatever be the so called TRP rating that these programmes get, most of the evening stuff touted as comedy do question the very sensibility of the viewers. I think no one will disagree that what is presented is almost always warped humour, in situations that are contrived, with ‘anything goes‘ as perhaps a general tagline. With umpteen channels competing with one another for the evening kill, showing no mercy whatsoever, I wonder what would have been the fate of the viewers if they did not have that admirable finger-tip facility called the Remote.

Obviously Muse Thalia, the eighth Muse considered as the inspirational goddess of comedy, is not amused. Much of the comedy we see on televised stages is unrefined, in other words crude, banal , often with sexist, anti-feminist overtones, so untouched by any divine inspiration for artistic creativity.

In this aspect they may have something in common with the banality of the original comic stuff as described by writers of Greek antiquity. Tradition has it that the word comedy originated from komos, meaning (drunken) revelry, and ode, meaning song. Probably associated with Dionysian rituals of vegetation, drunken revelers, all male, wearing masks and singing songs that were sexist in tone, danced around what could be seen as a phallic symbol. This phallic dance, as Aristotle chose to describe it in his Poetics, perhaps has some bearing on the sexist, anti-feminist overtones found in many of the present day comedy stage shows.

Aristotle has well differentiated tragedy and comedy. According to his summing up tragedy imitates men who are better than the average while comedy imitates men who are worse.

Comedy has come a long way from its komos and ode vintage to the present day, traversing continents and centuries, sometimes vastly improving upon the old mould, sometimes worsening the end product. In classical Greece, there were three distinct divisions known as Old Comedy, Middle Comedy and New Comedy. Aristophanes, with a slew of witty dramas, was the reigning monarch of the Old Comedy school. Down the centuries we have many stalwarts of comedy in many countries, including such greats as Shakespeare with his impressive array of fourteen comedies that still have universal appeal.

When cinema and, later, television became the chief modes of entertainment for the people, comedy scaled new heights of popularity. Humour in the everyday life of everyone was the theme and the minor and major failings of men and women, in words, deeds and gestures, were the staple ingredients for creating a hilarious or comic situation that made one laugh, heartily and instinctively.

Cinema had many unforgettable greats in comedy. Even without the benefit of words, gifted men like Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin enthralled millions all over the world with their inimitable antics. The long passage of time does not at all make them stale.

The same is the case with the many comedians with magical touch who transformed the tinsel world in this part of the country, including Malayalam cinema. Who can forget Kuthiravattom Pappu, Sankaradi, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Innocent, Mammoo Koya or the inimitable Jagathy Sreekumar, who enriched Malayalam cinema of recent decades? They are among the rich crop of thespians who not only lent the weight of their character to the films but also elevated them to comic heights through their innate, and remarkable, sense of humour.

That is probably what is needed to make an ordinary event as one imbued with the possibility to generate a smile, a laughter or a loud-mouthed guffaw. Without sense of humour, graciously granted by Muse Thalia, the effect will be lost on the onlooker.

In the heydays of sitcom, or situation comedy, in the U S television, a sound engineer found that the studio audience, ‘employed’ to laugh and applaud whenever needed, was not doing its assigned duty properly. The audience laughed too long, or too late or too loud for comfort. So he came up with the idea of pre-recording laughter and using that clip whenever and wherever he wanted. ‘Canned laughter,’ devised by Charles Douglas of CBS, then became a hallmark of western comedy shows, but subjected to much over-use. May be because of its artificiality or may be because of latter day producers’ decision to do without studio audiences, this gradually went out of use in the 1980s..

We have not yet, I think, graduated to the level of having canned laughter in every comedy show and are still dependent on panelists and audiences laughing and applauding at every turn of the unbearable comedy. Sitting in front of the television set, most of us may not laugh or applaud in unison. We can only grin and bear it, or go for the Remote.

It is really tragic that comedy has come to this pass.

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12-Sep-2020
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