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April 2, 2009

the appeal of comedy and horror

by sven at 7:00 am

[An essay written to some email friends on 3/27.]

"For some, just to be "offensive" may well be the point, I reckon."

I think there's a strong relationship between horror and comedy.

Both are intentionally visceral experiences. At a horror film, you're supposed to feel anxious, revulsion, and startled in your body. When you go to see a stand-up comic, your body is supposed to convulse in laughter.

Physical experiences while you're sitting in safety? Neat trick! And since it's perfectly safe, it almost doesn't matter what kind of physical experience you're getting… They're all interesting at some level.

Comedy and horror also both deal with taboos. And for that reason, both have a sort of fascination because it feels like they reveal Truths that are denied to us in everyday life. We're not supposed to talk about mortality, or that each of us is a fragile being walking around filled with intestines, blood, and gore. ["Not supposed to" because it's upsetting, and being upset interferes with the necessary agendas of daily living.]

Comedy often talks about sex, race, religion… Things that we have a hard time talking about as a society because there are real political tensions there. But the Shakespearian fool and the Native American clown and the social outcasts brought into the center of town for Carnival are allowed to say outrageous things -- under the guise of entertainment -- but also with this understanding that the role allows taboo observations to get heard. I hear comediennes like Sarah Silverman and Margaret Cho being praised for doing comedy in this tradition.

So: horror and comedy -- visceral and truthy.

But also traumatic and addictive.

* * *

There's a story I heard once about the Cambodian killing fields; how someone witnessed a group of teenaged boy-soldiers performing executions by bringing baseball bats down on captives' heads. They were laughing as they did it. From how I understood the story, though, this wasn't pleasurable laughter; it was more like the nervous laughter of trauma.

There's a school of psychology -- Re-Evaluation Counseling -- which has not been rigorously tested, incidentally -- that says laughter is psychological distress leaving the body. I think sometimes this is true, but not always. If you look at chimpanzees, they laugh when they're being tickled; but there is also a laughing, toothy smile that is a sign of fear and aggression -- beware! It seems to me that sometimes laughter trickles out as a coping mechanism when a person is absorbing a painful experience, and there's just no other way to deal.

"Sex and violence" are often called "puerile" interests. People often don't realize that the word "puerile" stems from the Latin, "puer," meaning "boy" -- it's a synonym for "childish." I think sex and violence ARE childish interests… In the sense that children have every reason to be interested in procreation, physical pleasure, the level of violence that human beings are capable of doing, and what sort of personal armor you have to wear in order to be ready to face it.

This is very existential stuff, all about what it means to be alive in the world. You're not born knowing it; you have to learn it. And anyone who stands in the way of your getting this information, prevents you from accessing the most vital information for living your life. …Is there a Santa Claus? Think about it -- the answer to that question is going to have a phenomenal bearing on your sense of reality. …Are there psycho-killers afoot? Same thing.

Violence is a sort of truth. Yes, there are murderers, rapists, child abusers, and war in this world. Truth doesn't always "set you free" -- sometimes it weighs you down. But it's necessary. And so, when people condemn how violence desensitizes you, I think they're only seeing half the picture. It's unfortunate to lose one's emotional sensitivity through seeing violence. That's a part of what trauma does: it deadens your vulnerability. But if in fact you are living in a community where you are not physically safe, then wearing some emotional armor is actually a vital thing. Carefree children who pick flowers for the Easter Bunny cannot exist in a neighborhood torn by gang violence.

A long way of saying: there's value in understanding violence, including through portrayal in fiction -- but the cost is emotional sensitivity. Poetically, it's sort of like how a guitarist builds up calluses. If you want to play in the world, being soft isn't always functional.

* * *

Horror and comedy are visceral experiences… Adrenalin, endorphins, and the like are internally produced drugs. I can understand the appeal of bungee jumping and other "extreme" sports. Once, I took the opportunity to go sky diving along with a large group of friends. At the end of the day, my nerves were singing. Marathon runners, similarly, often talk about the ecstasy of endorphins when they break past the hard part and get into their "zone."

Well, similar positive reinforcement also happens at a less extreme level. Slot machines in Las Vegas are a good example. There's a heightened sense of expectation when you pull the lever; and when you receive a pay-out, that's a positive reward. I'll never forget, as a child, seeing slot-jockies whose fingers had turned silver from handling so many nickels.

So, that's Behaviorism for you: click a button, get a reward, repeat. Horror shocks, laughter, orgasms, slot machine pay-outs, video game kills, and web surfing can all establish patterns that are difficult to moderate through will power alone. It doesn't matter than you really want to get down to work for the day; if you click the mouse again, you'll get the pleasure of seeing another blog. It doesn't matter that the comedy show you're watching is vulgar; if you stick around, the shock value alone can prompt the visceral "reward" of laughter.

I'd like to also point out that Behaviorism effects art producers as well as consumers. If you watch some comedians, such as Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey, it won't be long until you spot a certain desperation in their eyes. They come out on stage and there's a powerful visceral thrill of stepping into the spotlight… But then they're looking for the laugh. It's their hit of heroin. Certain individuals don't perform purely out of altruism or capitalism -- when the audience laughs, that positive attention feeds them in a way that they can't live without.

Stopmoes… Well, one of the reasons I like stop-motion better than CG is because every five minutes, when I snap the camera shutter, I get a little hit of "Ah! Progress!" Snapping frames for an animated film supposedly takes "patience" -- but in another way, we get our pay-offs much more rapidly than the slot jockey.

* * *

So… Horror and comedy: visceral and truthy -- also traumatic and addictive.

The last thing I'd like to comment on is cultural drift.

Over the years, it seems like horror films get more gruesome (compare "Saw" to "Psycho") and comedy gets more vulgar/edgy (compare "Something About Mary" to "The Wacky Professor"). I don't think this should be surprising. Who goes through the trouble of creating horror and comedy? Enthusiasts. People who've seen it all before. Of course there's going to be an urge to go just a little bit farther, to try to do something that hasn't been seen under the sun yet.

Does new comedy/horror lack the subtlety or "restraint" of previous works? Maybe. But perhaps that's unavoidable. Jaded critics of film, stage, literature, art, philosophy -- whatever -- will tell you that there's nothing new under the sun. Maybe it is possible to exhaust the possibilities of creativity. What then? Stop making art? No, you keep trying to do something new and different -- as difficult/impossible as that may be.

As time goes by, there's likely to be specialization, homogenization, and confusion. There used to just be CG animators… Now, to be a professional, you have to specialize in modeling, texturing, character animation, match-moving, and the like. What was once being invented in the garages of eccentrics generalists has now become an institution that insists on specialization…

With institution comes pedagogy. I look at books about how to write movie scripts, and I realize that these authors are all reading the same books. Everyone is responding to the same "big ideas" of the past 10-15 years. It seems that if I want to find new and original concepts, I actually have to go backwards in time… Because some of the geniuses who invented literary theory, cinematography, animation principles etc. -- have been more or less forgotten. Often I find more truth in the flawed writings of people who invented an art form than in the books of contemporaries operating in an echo-chamber.

So, even though at the beginning of the 20th century, we may have the benefit of 100 years of predecessors (in the art forms revolving around cinema), the intent with which people set out to make art often seems quite confused. It's harder to take in "the big picture"… As an artist, I discover something that I like -- and now more than ever it's possible to get stuck in a ghetto with people who like the same things I do… Referencing nothing but what's already been done in this tiny-yet-densely-packed area.

It's the blessing and curse of the Internet Age: maybe there's nothing left but niches.

posted by sven | April 2, 2009 7:00 AM | categories: writing