Crime isn’t funny. Generally, folks get hurt and the overall results don’t make the world a better place. It trades in hubris, greed, fear, deceit, and such and nothing ordered society holds dear is sacred. Not jurisprudence, not religion, not gender, not race. Crime breaks the rules. Crime sneaks around. Crime deceives. Crime hurts. Crime is anti-social. It’s a dull, serious business fraught with suffering. Which makes it the ideal background for comedy because for it to work, comedy needs a world that takes itself seriously, populated by characters who take themselves seriously. And crime is serious.
Like crime, comedy holds nothing sacred. But its cause is noble not self-serving or plain evil. Comedy uncovers hypocrisy and challenges stupidity. It exposes foibles, flaws, and failures. It mocks what you can’t (or shouldn’t) respect. Comedy outs the truth, as unbearable as that sometimes is. Northrop Frye writing about the fool in “King Lear” noted: “in our world nothing is funnier than a sudden outspoken declaration of the truth”. Comedy is life-affirming, even the vulgar stuff.
Comedy, as Aristotle remarked, presents humanity at its worst which is where crime excels: terrible people doing terrible things. In crime stories we look for a plot. Who dun it? How’d they do it? Why’d they do it? We look for justice in the end, for bad behaviour punished, mysteries solved, and misdeeds avenged. But crime comedies offer more than tidy resolutions. Crime comedies present people at their most ridiculous when they’re most serious, perpetrating all manner of mayhem and corruption. And somehow, we face that existential misery not with tears but with laughter.
The criminal details are exotic in the face of our dreary jobs, limited annual holidays, and car payments. That’s maybe why we like the outsiders even when they’re bad. The Id unchecked is everyone’s fantasy in an over-regulated world which claims to be so correct when in fact everyone’s afraid or unable to point out the hypocrisy, inequality, and absurdity that governs our day to day. Only criminals and clowns seem to be able to transcend that.
A general attack on society’s systems of restraints is refreshing unless the system takes itself so seriously that the joke becomes the crime. In some places the line between comedy and crime gets blurred, usually when political or religious ideologies get involved. Lenny Bruce comes to mind. As does Munawar Faruqui, the Indian comedian arrested recently for telling a joke supposedly insulting to Hindus – a joke he didn’t tell on the night of his arrest. Or the Quebec comedian Mike Ward whose off-colour jokes have landed him in front of the Supreme Court to determine if a joke can be decided by a judge. Even James Joyce’s comedic masterpiece “Ulysses” was banned as pornography before being recognized as one of the greatest works of literature ever. Crime and comedy are perhaps distant cousins.
The ultimate joke is of course the eternal grin of that great enigma, death. The Cheshire Cat-like grin from the beyond, dug up by the gravedigger in “Hamlet”, one of Shakespeare’s great clowns, who Harold Bloom calls the reality principle, mortality. The clown/gravedigger says the grave he digs is the most permanent thing on earth that “will last till doomsday”. In the process, he unearths Yorick, the “whoreson, mad fellow” court jester, Hamlet’s spiritual father who “borne me on his back a thousand times” now dead for twenty-three years, still grinning though his flesh has long rotted away, and his bottom jaw is missing. Through the toothy grin of Yorick’s bare skull, the joke lives forever, the comedy immortal because it speaks the truth. The flesh rots and death is certain. The joke is on you.
Puddin’ Head Wilson nailed it when he said, “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
J.P. Meyboom is the author of Business, a collector of improbable experiences, an appreciator of excellent food, and a friend to outrageous people. He is a film and television producer who has worked on the award-winning comedy series The Newsroom and the acclaimed Murdoch Mysteries. Meyboom has lived many lives in many countries, but he currently lives in Toronto. Read more here.