Since 1927, the following comedies have won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
1934 – It Happened One Night
1938 – You Can’t take It With You
1963 – Tom Jones
1977 – Anne Hall
In more than eighty years, only four comedies have won the top award. Why this disrespect for the art of comedy?
I blame Plato.
The word Academy comes from ancient Greek. Originally it was a place. Maybe a person too. But definitely a place. And Plato started a sort of school there which took the name the Academy.
Originally the Academy was sort of like a club. A select group gathered, drank wine, and discussed the issues of the day, which happened to be subjects such as Beauty, Love, and the Good. Plato, being the smartest guy in the room, was sort of an intellectual bouncer at these events.
So since they were sitting around drinking wine and talking about Love and such, you would think there would be a lot of laughter. Plato, however, did not approve of laughter. This is odd, because his teacher Socrates had from most reports an excellent sense of humor. In fact, Plato even attributes this opinion of laughter to Socrates himself.
Plato wrote Dialogues, whose participants were Socrates and whatever sockpuppet interlocutors Plato decided to put up against him. As translated, these Socratic opponents sound like an ancient Magic 8 Ball: “Yes, Socrates, it is decidedly so”. But the idea of a group of men (and the occasional woman) sitting around and trying to reason their way to a better life seems quaint and somehow wonderful. We have mostly stopped trying in our time, divided between the Alreadydecideds and the Givenups.
Plato first mentions his concerns about laughter in his most famous work, The Republic, which describes his concept of the Just State. Socrates is discussing the qualities of the guardians (the rulers of the Just State) with a young Athenian named Adeimantus:
S: Neither ought our guardians to be given to laughter. For a fit of laughter which has been indulged to excess almost always produces a violent reaction.
A: So I believe.
S: Then persons of worth, even if only mortal men, must not be represented as overcome by laughter, and still less must such a representation of the gods be allowed.
A: Still less of the gods, as you say.
S: Then we shall not suffer such an expression to be used about the gods as that of Homer when he describes how inextinguishable laughter arose among the blessed gods, when they saw Hephaestus bustling about the mansion.
Plato again alludes to his opinion on laughter in the dialogue Philebus, which is oddly named because the dialogee is not Philebus but a stand-in named Protarchus. But this time, Plato deals with a more general case. In this dialogue, Socrates is discussing whether pleasure or wisdom is better for mankind:
S: Is not envy an unrighteous pleasure, and also an unrighteous pain?
P: Most true.
S: There is nothing envious or wrong in rejoicing at the misfortunes of enemies?
P: Certainly not.
S: But to feel joy instead of sorrow at the sight of our friends’ misfortunes—is not that wrong?
S: Did we not say that ignorance was always an evil?
S: And the three kinds of vain conceit in our friends which we enumerated—the vain conceit of beauty, of wisdom, and of wealth, are ridiculous if they are weak, and detestable when they are powerful: May we not say, as I was saying before, that our friends who are in this state of mind, when harmless to others, are simply ridiculous?
P: They are ridiculous.
S: And do we not acknowledge this ignorance of theirs to be a misfortune?
S: And do we feel pain or pleasure in laughing at it?
P: Clearly we feel pleasure.
S: And was not envy the source of this pleasure which we feel at the misfortunes of friends?
S: Then the argument shows that when we laugh at the folly of our friends, pleasure, in mingling with envy, mingles with pain, for envy has been acknowledged by us to be mental pain, and laughter is pleasant; and so we envy and laugh at the same instant.
So Plato really seems to have two complaints about laughter. First, laughter comes from someone laughing at someone else who seems ridiculous. I have to admit, I am not fond of this particular aspect of laughter either. Second, Plato says that laughter produces a violent reaction; that is, laughter can overcome us. He is concerned about this, because he thinks that it will degrade the person, god, or goddess who is overcome. For an idealist, Plato was strangely concerned about image.
For humans, I think what is important is why we laugh, rather than if. If we don’t laugh at all, we are in big trouble. For gods, if they don’t laugh, I don’t see how they can understand us humans.