In the first of our new series Thinking Comedy, film comedian Jack Black ruminates on the philosophical underpinnings of his Comic Art.
It was the French philosopher Henri Bergson who first tried to formulate a coherent philosophy on comedy and what makes us laugh. In his 1924 book Le Rire: Essai Sur La Signification du Comique (and by the way if you can, read it in the original French as the translations available are merely adequate), Bergson refers to laughter causing a ‘temporary anesthesia of the heart’, and it was precisely this idea that I have used in my career up to and including my triumphal Gulliver’s Travels.
The idea that laughter is cruel and unfeeling has a long history. Laughter is often, in writings, equated with ridicule and scorn. For us to laugh at a victim, we have to feel nothing for them. But even characters, clowns, people who we feel some empathy for, even these characters only become comic, truly comic when we suspend our feelings and indulge in the elation laughing at someone brings, what Hobbes in Leviathan referred to as the ‘Sudden Glory’ of our superiority in relation to the object of our laughter. So Po in Kung Fu Panda might be a figure of love-able sympathy for the most part, but for comic sequences there is a cartoonish allowance that although he is being hurt, he is not being really hurt so that we can suspend our empathy and simply enjoy his misfortune. Likewise Nacho and Steve in Nacho Libre are both like-able characters, but the moment they step into the ring we understand that the bets are off and we can giggle and hoot as they are viciously beaten up.
My own off-screen persona as a kind of wild zany is a meticulously rehearsed construct. My wild eyes, my eyebrows, my incessant face pulling, my obesity: everything is designed at once to provoke a like-able sympathy (I know this isn’t always forthcoming but oh well…) and also to give the audience the Hobbsian Sudden Glory they so obviously crave. This is the frame that prepares everyone for my film or musical performances, but within that frame I can vary my performances greatly. Look at Dewy Finn in The School of Rock for instance, in which I play an anarchic Holy Fool, fighting against an overly rigorous educational system.
However, what I would like to do is emphasize the flip-side of the Bergosonian equation. It is a ‘temporary [my italics] anesthesia’, and it is this temporariness which is important and which lends comedy its emotional depth as we shift from not feeling to feeling and back again. That’s why in everything I do, from Orange County to Tenacious D, yes I am looking for the laugh, but I’m also probing the heart.