Every time I teach a comedy class, I challenge my students to tackle a big question: What is comedy for? We consider how comedy can glue together social groups (or exclude the unwanted), how it can shine a light on ridiculous ideas to expose hard truths or persuade people to take action. But we also explore comedy's close relationship to tragedy: How does laughter help us cope with the horrors of the human condition?
I could trot out some heavy-duty jargon-infested comedy theory here, but instead I'll quote that noted expert, Lou Grant: Laughter is "a release, a kind of defense mechanism. It's like whistling in a graveyard. You laugh at something that scares you. We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us."
This quote occurs, of course, not in an article in a scholarly journal but in my favorite episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, "Chuckles Bites the Dust." Now I grew up watching Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards charging pluckily into a new life and a new job where she had to work twice as hard as her colleagues to prove that she could play the game with the big boys (who were mostly little boys trying to cast big shadows). She showed a generation of young women that pursuing a career was possible, that we didn't have to shelve our smiles or our sense of humor to get ahead in the cutthroat world of work.
So I loved Mary and wanted to emulate her ability to pick herself up after every pratfall. This ability is on display in "Chuckles Bites the Dust," when Mary plays the voice of reason trying to persuade her colleagues that there's nothing funny about the death of Chuckles the Clown; later, though, in the funeral scene, her wordless attempt to control her emotions reveals the power of comedy to bring painful emotions to the surface (see it here). Those emotions may spill out messily and at an inopportune moment, but whatever happens, our Mary will find a way to cope.
Even after all these years I can't watch this scene without laughing, but now I also want to cry. (Can someone pass a tissue?)