January 12, 2018
“Let fancy fly, with all her lofty graces,/ Pack wisdom in, with tenderness and passion,/ But never put good fooling out of fashion.” – Goethe
Chaucer’s wit still resonates today. In The Canterbury Tales he developed characters that might also fit straight into contemporary society. Whether read in the original or a translation, Chaucer is simply fun to read. He is funny, irreverent and poignant. I want to demonstrate just two of the possible ways in which Chaucer filters into the present. My ideas may not square with your understanding of Chaucer and if that’s the case, post a comment and let’s start a discussion of humor’s qualities all the way from Chaucer to today!
First, stand-up comedy is a fairly new form of comedy. The routines make us laugh (hopefully) but also search for a larger point (hopefully). Stand-up often contains a raw quality that makes us laugh about an uncomfortable truth, just as Chaucer does in something like the “Miller’s Tale”. A comedian’s craft relies heavily upon the combination of language, word choice, subject matter, rhythm and narrative. None know this lesson more intimately than stand-up comedians whose feedback is immediate and face-to-face with an audience. Reliance upon recognized narrative techniques brings the joke, punchline or story toward a harsh truth which we must communally face. Chaucer developed a sort of humor based upon these uncomfortable truths through the lens of a pilgrimage. His brilliant scheme combines a random assortment of odd personalities who perfectly reflect society’s variety. This scheme enables him to poke fun at a wide array of cultural differences (among other things). Literally, everything is ripe for a joke in Chaucer – from potty humor to personal faith to corruption. I believe that Chaucer’s success has affected the path of comedy in general, and stand-up comedy more specifically.
First, irreverence. Chaucer did not shy away from uncomfortable narratives. In the introduction to the 1958 Everyman edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Professor Cawley writes, “[S]olemnity is avoided by virtue of Chaucer’s unfailing sense of proportion and unerring eye for the humorous incongruities of life”. In other words, Chaucer’s study of human nature included those parts which often make us uncomfortable, but he balances these with equality (he makes fun of everyone) and also proportion (not everything is a joke). In a similar way, Dave Chappelle, actor and comedian, recently finished a three-part Netflix series in which he continued to push hot-button issues. Chappelle could not be more forthright with the fact that, at some point, he will offend everyone. And that, according to both Chaucer and Chappelle, might just make us realize something important about ourselves. The Canterbury Tales pokes fun at everyone, even Chaucer himself. Chaucer traveled the world in a way that was rare for his time. He met all sorts of personalities, and I wonder if this is what drove him to write the way that he did. Was Chaucer inspired to write of morality through stories of bawdy embarrassment because he recognized humor’s ability to equalize awkward situations? Humor of this type is just, fair and equally unsettling. However, this article in The National Review claims that no comedian can be universally embraced because even comedy is partisan. I think perhaps the author misses the point of Chappelle’s comedy, which is not necessarily to push a single agenda, but rather to draw out the ironies present in our lives. Chappelle claims that Americans’ heightened sensitivity began to intrude upon his comedy sketches in a negative way. I think a comedian like Chaucer or Chappelle would likely claim that we all participate in these ironies, unwitting or not, and that doesn’t make us political, it makes us human. For them, humor is one way in which we can gain a better understanding of our own biases. Laughing at others is insensitive, laughing at ourselves is uncomfortable, but laughing together is social and redemptive.
Second, potty humor. We all remember the Miller’s Tale which ends with a kiss on the backside and some fart jokes. Basic human nature was funny then, and it is funny now. One can find these jokes anywhere, but it might surprise you to see it in children’s literature. This is another rapidly expanding space in contemporary society. It often combines poetics and morality since children enjoy rhythm and rhyme, but also have many lessons to learn. The sing-song sounds are intended to develop a child’s language skills, but are a bit too formal for speech. Therefore, these sorts of rhyme schemes have mostly fallen out of modern-day speech, but are very useful in portraying a message. Chaucer too uses these techniques which is why they would be best spoken aloud. In fact, he uses poetic voice to further distinguish one character from another (something that Shakespeare quickly picked up on). Andrea Beaty is a contemporary author of children’s literature. Her book, Iggy Peck, Architect, published in 2007, was an instant success. Written in rhyme, it includes funny, silly details such as the fact that Iggy Peck can build with any material – even soiled diapers. This type of potty humor is funny to kids, but also adults. It’s not high-brow, but it is pretty universal.
Humor illuminates incongruities in a unique way. Sometimes we do not know the right emotion to accompany a joke. Often jokes pass our personal comfort levels – and this is the time when we should transition to discussion. The time when we have reached a sensitive point is the best time to develop informed and open conversation. And this is just one reason why I am grateful for Chaucer!
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