Many people assess humor and the funny using the same litmus test employed by Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 obscenity case “Jacobellis v. Ohio.” In regards to hard-core pornography, Stewart famously stated “I know it when I see it.” While I have no knowledge of Justice Stewart’s expertise in this particular subject, I do tend to think that the ability to make snap judgments stems from experience. That is one reason why so many of us feel capable of instantly ascertaining what is funny and what is not. We’ve spent our whole lives laughing, so we believe that we know it when we see it.
Technically speaking, of course, comedy is also a performance structure. (And if you don’t know an academic when you see one, it’s possible to spot a scholar through the use of such phrases as “technically speaking” and “performance structure.”)
I’ve been intimately involved with one particular Absurdist comedy of late, and it’s reminded me of how some of the best comedies question what and how comedy works, and whether we should know comedy when we see it. Last year I joined with some former colleagues from the Stanford and Berkeley doctoral programs in performance to found The Collected Works and our inaugural project is Princess Ivona, a 1935 play by Polish literary legend Witold Gombrowicz. (While the text is European, I trust that staging this in San Francisco qualifies it as “Humor in America.”)
I’ve noticed throughout the production process that Princess Ivona brings to the fore our uneasiness surrounding comedy and our desire to be on the winning side when it comes to mockery and the mocked. On the lower end of the social hierarchy, there are aunts in the first act, concerned that they are being teased…
2nd AUNT: Your Highness is laughing at us of course. You are welcome to, I am sure.
…and courtiers in the second act, determined to tease the court newcomer, only to find that the tables have been turned on them.
2nd LADY: I understand now. You have arranged it all to show us up. What a joke!