Comedy is the realm of pleasure. It represents freedom. It is not moral. It seeks to make us feel good. It serves no higher purpose.
Tragedy is the realm of conscience. It represents order. It renders justice. It serves civilization. It seeks to call us to our higher selves.
In 1962 Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart mashed up three comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus to create A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Everything about it–even the title–is funny. The plot gives us the slave Pseudolus (Liar or Faker) scheming to win his freedom. That says it all.
A Funny Thing is a musical comedy. Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and the lyrics. In tryouts the show couldn’t get off the ground until Sondheim came up with the brilliant curtain-raiser “Comedy Tonight.” The great Zero Mostel played Pseudolus (straight from Plautus) in the original Broadway production of A Funny Thing. YouTube preserves Mostel performing the opening number at the Tonys in 1971 (video below).
Comic writers and comedians seem to feel guilty about their work, as they probably should. Preston Sturges portrays the ordeal of comedy in Sullivan’s Travels. The comic director John Sullivan (played by Joel McCrea) disparages his work. He thinks it unworthy. He seeks to achieve something higher and better in the socially conscious film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Undertaking an odyssey to acquaint himself with the miseries of the common man, he discovers that he can make no greater contribution than laughter.
Joel and Ethan Coen drew on Homer’s Odyssey itself to create their comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? The title of the film paid an audacious homage to Sturges. I think it’s a funny movie. What I love most about it, however, is how the Coens make traditional American music the hero of the story. It is music that saves the day. Now that’s funny.
The soundtrack recording of the film was so successful that it gave rise to a tour of the musicians who performed on the soundtrack. The tour went by the title Down From the Mountain. The production of the tour at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville is available on DVD. I saw the tour twice, once when it came through St. Paul and once when it came through Minneapolis. It was terrific both times.
For a brief, shining moment, the tour made Ralph Stanley, the surviving half of the Stanley Brothers, something of a mass phenomenon. The Coens had managed to place Stanley before large audiences performing “Man of Constant Sorrow” and several other haunting songs. O Brother was a comedy with a happy ending several times over.