Comedy and Cultural Critique in American Film

By Ryan Bishop | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
American Film Comedy and
Cultural Critique: Glitches in the
Smooth Running of the Social
Machine

To a joke, then, I owe my first gleam of complete consciousness–which again has
recapitulatory implications, since the first creatures on earth to become aware of
time were also the first creatures to smile.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory (19)

Contrary to what it seems, comedy was in reality the most serious genre in
Hollywood–in the sense that it reflected through the comic mode the deepest moral
and social beliefs of American life.

André Bazin, 1948 film review

One does not yet know what the image will give or show, but the interval must be
objectively calculable, a certain technology is required, and this is perhaps the origin
or the essence of technology.

Jacques Derrida, Athens, Still Remains (19)

If tragedy is about the fact that people are mortal, then comedy is about the fools we make of ourselves on the way to the grave. The traditional distinction between Tragedy and Comedy, however, has always been difficult, at best, to maintain, especially when any moment or statement, depending on context, has the potential to be funny. In fact, comedy has been able to perform a great deal of analytic work that typically was the domain of tragedy or drama, especially since the end of the First World War. The emergence in the twentieth century of a host of literary and cultural figures, from James Joyce to Samuel Beckett to Eugène Ionesco to Flannery O’Connor to Joseph Heller to Günter Grass to Gabriel García Márquez to Salman Rushdie to Don DeLillo to Martin Amis and many others, reminds us of the great traditions of comedic cultural critique often ceded to other expressive arts. These are but a handful of the large number of writers who turned to comic, and often darkly comic, modes to address the horrors of existence in times of war, trauma and upheaval wrought by culture, ideology, politics, race and technology. The powerful thrust of comic critique has long held sway in the Western intellectual

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