Today I kicked off the comedy class with a one-question poll: "Would you ever wear a clown costume to a funeral?"
Although several students came up with very specific circumstances under which wearing a clown costume to a funeral would be appropriate (e.g., the funeral of a clown), the majority agreed that in most cases such attire would be disrespectful if not outright offensive.
But where is it written that Thou Shalt Not Wear a Clown Costume to a Funeral? How do we learn these things? How can we all be so certain that wearing a clown costume to a funeral is unacceptable without ever being specifically instructed?
Moreover, why do we sing the national anthem before football and baseball games but not before bowling, surfing, or poker tournaments? ("Because football and baseball express the national character but gambling doesn't," said one student, but how does that square with the number of people who gamble on sports?)
And why don't Catholic churches have to post big signs in the foyer saying "Please don't drink the holy water"? ("Because everyone knows"--but how do they know? And what if they don't?)
And why do we accept all these practices as "normal" without ever questioning them?
The topic of the day was the nature of rituals and their unspoken conventions. We are working our way through Matthew Bevis's excellent Comedy: A Very Short Introduction, in which he asserts that "comic riot is predicated on ritual." Comedy, he claims, provides a safe place to expose, illuminate, or critique the unspoken rules that guide human behavior.
Today we looked at those unspoken rules functioning in Eudora Welty's short story "Petrified Man," in which comedy provides a stage to playfully critique the gender conventions of the 1940s. A sideshow freak and a little boy bear the brunt of women's repressed anger, but the men get the last word.
There were some puzzled expressions in my classroom today. Welty's story is peculiar and puzzling and not entirely funny, while watching intelligent people try to draw fine distinctions between football and poker was pretty amusing. I'm definitely going to enjoy this class. Whether we all learn a thing or two is another question entirely.