Woke comedy tries to be didactic and fails because it has nothing profound or interesting to teach. But tons of real, good comedy is didactic.
Recently Robert Tracinski mistakenly argued that “there’s no way to make comedy didactic…this is the ultimate contradiction in terms.” This is absurd. The best comedy is didactic. That’s because the best comedy is about revealing hilarious truths.
The ancient biblical books of Jonah and Esther, for example, have comedic elements that are clearly didactic. William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing” is didactic. “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera” are didactic. “The Producers” (original only) and “Blazing Saddles” are didactic.
Monty Python is didactic, especially in its masterpiece, “Life of Brian.” “Seinfeld” is didactic precisely because it’s about nothing. From “Dr. Strangelove” and “Meet the Parents” to “30 Rock” and “I, Tonya,” you will find great comedy is didactic.
The problem Tracinski has identified is not that woke comedy is didactic, but rather that the woke side of the moon has no light of knowledge to impart. Woke “comedy” tries to be didactic and fails because it has nothing profound or interesting to teach.
But tons of real, good comedy is didactic.
“Much Ado about Nothing,” for example, is a brilliant and hilarious play that examines some of the most wonderfully dumb parts of human nature. Kenneth Branagh’s joyous film adaptation of this play contains an instructively hilarious interpretation of the ironies of erotic love.
In one scene, we find two people being tricked into falling in love. They are perfect for each other, but their passion has produced too much rhetorical heat, keeping them at bay for years.
All it took was a little deception from their friends to help them see the truth. How is this not instructive about the nature of men and women? Love is a hilarious game cleverly put on naked display by the Bard’s wit.
A romantic comedy like that can make our bellies ache from laughter, but also potentially save a generation from the fear of Eros. I do not mean a fear of sex, but of the emotional journey that is supposed to culminate in sex. It’s a delicious journey that so many westerners have decided is a waste of time, opting instead to jump straight to the end, because love can hurt more deeply than anything else.
To see the trials and tribulations of Benedict and Beatrice hilariously coming together shows us not take love so seriously that we never experience it. Eros should know more of laughter than orgastic moans.
Laughter has certainly kept my marriage alive. While pointing out to each other how silly and buffoonish we are, we knits our hearts together.
What happens in the bedroom reflects what’s going on outside of it, and a marriage without laughter and silliness is a marriage without heat. This is a didacticism, a fundamental truth that people often need to learn, that comedy can reveal to us and, at its best, does reveal to us.
Comedy is not merely an event that produces laughter. A fart is not comedy (although it could be). The difference between comedy and tragedy is tonal.
Both stem from the inflexibility of the ego. This is why “Much Ado” is such a remarkable comedy. The two people who want to be viewed as most principled in their objection to romance are so easily pushed over into love, because their hearts are ultimately farcical. The hilarity stems from the disconnect between their inner and outer selves.
FAST FACT: Mel Brooks has repeatedly said today’s Hollywod wouldn’t be able to make “Blazing Saddles.”
The funniest line is when Benedict tries to justify his all too easily obtained infatuation: “The world must be peopled!” Also hilarious is his last, pathetic attempt at saving face in front of none other than himself: “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”
While the ridiculous disconnect between the ego and reality makes us laugh here, it could just as easily make us weep if the situation were changed. The fundamental difference between Shakespeare’s comedies and his tragedies is the ending. Everyone gets married at the end of his comedies and everyone dies at the end of his tragedies.
Yet Hamlet and MacBeth are still felled by their own inflexible egos, just as Benedict and Beatrice are made to be wonderful, humorous fools for love by the same principle of human nature.
Comedy’s didactic nature is even clearer when we look to films like “Duck Soup” or “Blazing Saddles.” “Duck Soup” is a scathing indictment of fascism and arguably the Marx Brothers’ funniest film. “Blazing Saddles” does the same for American racism.
Neither is necessarily meant to be interpreted along propositional or pedagogic lines. Regardless, those films teach and they teach well. They expose the absurdities of reliance upon authoritarian government and identity politics to solve our problems.
The problem with woke comedy is that woke comics want to convince people that things like socialism are good. But leftist politics are fundamentally ridiculous. That’s why they can be so easily used for comedy: their core concepts and assumptions are easy to mock.
In contrast, actual conservatism isn’t funny in itself. Of course conservatives can be mocked in humorous ways. But if you compare these two Allie Beth Stuckey interviews, it becomes obvious how easy it is to mock someone like socialist candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (see below), and how difficult it is to mock conservative pundit Ben Shapiro.
The comparison is far from fair, but it is illustrative.
Ocasio-Cortez was edited to look more foolish than she is, and Ben obviously knew what Stuckey was doing. But because Ben knows who he is and what his fundamental principles are, he can take a joke.
Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t know what her principles will be tomorrow. If she has to reconstitute her worldview every day it’s easy to see why she became so upset over Stuckey mocking her in this way. She doesn’t have a lot of dignity to hang onto, so she’s got to fight for whatever she can get.
Real conservatives have principles, and these principles are based in reality. This frees us to be able to laugh at almost anything that is genuinely funny, including ourselves. Having principles frees the ego from inflexibility. But the woke person is constantly evaluating whether something is “didactic” in the correct way. They have to pull out their intersectional checklist before allowing themselves to laugh.
In “Life of Brian,” the Pythons did not mock Jesus. When he appears, it’s in the background, he only speaks scripture, and his portrayal is markedly respectful. Nothing else in the film is respectful—everything else is treated like a huge hilarity.
John Cleese said the reason they didn’t try to make Jesus funny is that they didn’t think he would have been funny. According to Cleese, he didn’t have an ego to bruise or be inflexible.
Yet Jesus was a complete and humble person. If he slipped on a banana peel and fell, he would have found it just as funny as anyone else. That’s because Jesus was self-forgetful. You can’t mock someone who gets the joke. So you can’t turn Jesus into a joke, because he’s not threatened by jokes.
Conservatives are similar in the sense that our principles actually help us see what is and isn’t funny. We don’t have to worry about the fluctuating woke checklist. So it isn’t didactic comedy that is really at issue, it’s the insane politics of leftism that are ruining comedy.
Well, they’re ruining comedy on the Left. The rest of comedy seems to be doing fine.
A.C. Gleason is a proud Biola University alum, where he met his wonderful wife. He earned his MA in philosophy of religion from Talbot. You can find more of his writings on Medium and ricochet.com. Follow him on Twitter @ac_gleason.