Comedy and Henri Bergson
Originally published backstage.com Sept. 4, 2014.
Photo from Kayatana Stamps.
When one thinks of comedy, one rarely thinks of Henri Bergson—quite possibly because one has never heard of Henri Bergson. I was surprised to learn not too many years ago that Bergson was considered the greatest thinker on the planet…at least according to another great thinker, Bertrand Russell.
At the end of the 19th century, Bergson lectured in sold-out venues around the world. He probed the nature of man and the human soul. He examined life from the viewpoint of a poet and a scientist and then, quite surprisingly, turned his attention to comedy.
His lectures on comedy have been collected in an essay called “Laughter.” To summarize very briefly: Man is torn between two forces. The desire to organize, prioritize, mechanize, and create rules to handle the obstacles of life—and an equally powerful, opposing desire to throw caution to the winds and be flexible to deal with situations that aren’t easily handled by sticking to the rules.
There you have it.
Bergson observed that comedy is created when a character is stuck in one of these two positions. The closer man resembles a machine the funnier he becomes. This rigidity can be physical, like Charlie Chaplin’s walk or Peter Sellers’ uncontrollable Nazi salute in “Dr. Strangelove.” The mechanization can also be emotional, like Rainn Wilson’s hilariously inflexible Dwight Schrute on “The Office.”
The opposite is true as well. Bergson notes that characters with no ability to organize or act appropriately are also funny. This is a comedic motif used by Woody Allen in many of his comedies. “Bananas” and “Sleeper” come to mind.
In one of television’s classic comedy sketches, the brilliant Lucille Ball demonstrated the entirety of Bergson’s comedic theory with the candy assembly line. Need I say more? Lucy and Ethel begin as “part of the machine” wrapping candies; they end in a disorganized mess as the assembly line speeds up. Both ends of the spectrum create tension, which is released in our laughter.
Bergson took on Shakespeare. His insights were thought-provoking. He said the monologues in the tragedies should always be performed standing. He said if Hamlet sits onstage when he delivers “To be or not to be…” the energy becomes comedic. Sitting is an indication that a character is affected by gravity. They are weary in some way and need to rest. This turns their noble and even desperate sentiments into something more trivial, and in danger of looking like kvetching.
Bergson saw the modern comic spirit as the individual who has substituted the jargon of his profession for his humanity—like when someone at a bank explains why you were charged fees on your “no fees” checking plan. The classic comedy “No Time for Sergeants” has several examples of this type of Bergson comedy. The one-size-fits-all structure of the military is a perfect setting for showing the human desire to strictly follow and/or break rules.
We laugh because, as in the best comedies, it points to a larger truth: We are close to the angels, but we’re not there yet.