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Being funny is not the same as being happy

Well, it isn’t, is it? It seems so obvious that it isn’t worth saying; the “tears of a clown” thing is a very old cliché indeed. And yet it’s something that still causes a lot of misunderstanding.

Take, for instance, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, premiered in 1946. The last movement is fast, bright, manic music, exciting and, yes, funny too; but is it “happy”? The writers of sleeve notes seem to think so: two which I have to hand refer to its “festive mood” leading to a “jubilant close”, and to how “Prokofiev seems to look into a bright and positive future.” And yet, surely, its laughter is harsh and mocking; what “bright and positive future” is to be found here?

The last movement of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, performed by the Belgian Broadcasting Orchestra conducted by Leopold Hager

Prokofiev’s compatriot Dmitry Shostakovich has sometimes been misunderstood in the same way. The raucous humour of much of his music is hard for some to swallow; in Soviet Russia, amidst so much suffering and fear and oppression, how dare he be funny? But of course that is precisely the point. Shostakovich lived in daily (and nightly) fear of the knock on the door which might take him away for ever, simply because, try as he might, his music came out its own way, which was not always the way the authorities wanted it. He was a shy, nervous man, hating the limelight; but there was a tough core too which meant that in certain circumstances he would never back down. Humour was to him a defence, something that allowed him to tell a measure of the truth, to keep a certain integrity. (Because the point of a joke is that it is a truth and also at the same time a lie; it is slippery and it is unprovable.)

His Ninth Symphony (1945) is a case in point – written in the shadow of authorities expecting from him an official celebration of victory in war, something grand and heroic on the lines of Beethoven’s massive Ninth. What he gave them instead was short (only about 25 minutes long), a chamber symphony full of perky tunes and musical jokes: a pulling-away of the chair from official expectation. True, the last movement could be read as a kind of triumphal march, but if so it is one which gets comically faster and faster like a film played at the wrong speed until the entire procession is running manically and falling over its feet.

Last movement of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony performed by the Kirov Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev

Shostakovich was able at the time to pretend the symphony was merely an expression of the Soviet citizen’s joy at victory in war – a useful result of the ambiguity of humour. But there were those who were not convinced, and it did not save him from severe official criticism a couple of years later.

I’ve a feeling that some, even now, consider this symphony a mistake, or at any rate something which has to be explained away: Oh, he wasn’t really being funny, that’s a cover, it’s actually a tragic symphony in disguise – because they feel, at some level, that being funny is not a proper response in a tragic situation.

But humour and comedy (they’re not quite the same thing, but that’s a discussion for another time) are, or can be, defences in an unhappy situation. Sometimes they can be the only remaining weapon. When Shostakovich, in his 13th Symphony, set a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko entitled “Humour”, he was attesting to its power against oppression:

Tsars, Kings, Emperors,
sovereigns of all the earth,
have commanded many a parade,
but they could not command humour.

It is the voice of an ordinary person looking round and saying: “But none of this makes the slightest bit of sense!” It is the voice of discontent. Comedy is not the voice of someone saying how good things are, but, often, the precise opposite. Fawlty Towers for instance may be very funny, but it is certainly not happy.

As usual, there are things I want to say in this blog which, looking at it now, I see won’t quite fit. For instance, I wanted to go on to discuss the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and how certain scholars take it as read that the operas are an expression of support for the status quo – simply because they completely misunderstand the operas’ consistently ironic humour. But that’s for another time.

Maybe a good concluding thought would go something like this. Some comedy is genuinely happy – Wodehouse, for instance. It leaves the reader in a good mood as if in truth God were in his heaven and all right with the world. Perhaps Wodehouse himself really was that rarest of things, a genuinely happy person. But much more commonly comedy, expressing the world’s absurdity, comes from an unhappy, or at least discontented, place. And it may be useful to point out one last thing: comedy may make you laugh. But, if the truth behind the laugh also hits home, it won’t necessarily make you happy.


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  1. Wodehouse, as you say, is a happy comedian — mostly. For me, there are at least two short stories where a certain unhappiness breaks through the silver lining: Jane Gets off the Fairway and Rodney has a Relapse — the first is about marital infidelity and the second is a crack back at A.A. Milne. Given PGW’s long life, the canon probably contains many other instances in which he is far from gruntled that I don’t know about or (likely) failed to recognise..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I think you’re right… though one of the things about the Broadcasts, I think, is that he seemed to be making a conscious effort NOT to let the hardships get to him and to retain a “happy disposish” in spite of everything that he experienced. The mention of Wodehouse at the end was a bit of a throwaway and maybe I should have thought it through a bit more!


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