Comedy: The Cinderella of Art

Comedy and TragedyComedy, regardless of medium, is an undervalued genre when it comes to artistic endeavor. Here’s the test: name a comedic movie that has won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Still thinking? That’s because not many comedies win Academy Awards, much less an award for Best Picture. There have been a few: “Annie Hall,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “It Happened One Night,” are rare examples.

As I see it, comedy is the leavening that provides texture to almost any art form. I find this especially true in television serials. “ThirtySomething” started out with a delicious blend of comedy and drama that made it a “must-watch’ show in our household. The show dealt with serious themes, but every show had its comedic moments, providing needed relief from the heaviness of the drama. After two seasons, the comedy element began to disappear. Finally, we were left with unalleviated gloom: cancer, unemployment, business failure, marriages in trouble. We stopped watching because it was no longer entertaining, just depressing.

But the comedic artist is often discounted or overlooked. Only now, 34 years after his death, is painter Norman Rockwell beginning to be recognized as a superbly skilled artist, as subtle in technique and execution as many of the great masters. He was always viewed as a mere illustrator of ephemeral things like magazine covers and ads—because his paintings were usually funny, or at least amusing.

Charles Dickens understood the importance of comedy as a writer’s tool. He used comedy as a way of pointing up the absurdity of society’s conventions or people’s hypocrisy. He was instrumental in initiating important social reforms—and did so largely not by preaching but by making people want to read his books because they were entertaining. For every murderous villain like Bill Sykes in “Oliver Twist” is an offsetting comic figure like the Artful Dodger. Comedy does not obscure the seriousness of Dickens’ message about the misery of the London poor. Comedy makes his message stronger, because his deft juggling of comedy and tragedy make his books a joy to read.

I tried for years to write “literature,” serious work with serious themes that would fulfill me as an artist. I never got very far with any of these efforts, mostly because I bored myself. When I started writing “The Obsidian Mirror,” I didn’t even think about “literature.” I wanted primarily to write a fantasy based on American myths and legends. And I wanted it to be a story that I would enjoy reading myself, which meant that it had to have a lot of comedy in it. (I don’t know why it took so long to realize that I needed to write the kind of story I read. But it did.)

I quickly discovered that comedy isn’t easy to write. It’s easy to write suspenseful, tear-jerking scenes. All you have to do is make the reader care about the character, then do something awful to that character. John Irving is the greatest living master at that (an author I avoid because I don’t like being tear-jerked). Writing comedy means you have to make the reader care about the character while laughing at him or her, and that’s harder.

Also, the book’s underlying theme is environmental conservation, which is a huge personal concern. I wanted to get my message across, but I knew that to become preachy would condemn the book to failure. I worked on upholding the theme throughout, but in such a way that it didn’t become the focus, but the background for the nonstop action and interaction of my characters.

I enjoyed writing the book, and I hope to write another and another and another. None of them will be “literature.” I have embraced being an entertainer rather than an artist (or rather, I hope to be, as the book is not yet published).

If it was good enough for Dickens, I guess it’s more than good enough for me.