Comedy in one sense involves humor, while tragedy is not funny, though the same events might be viewed almost without exception as comic or tragic. It is difficult to state the one thing that makes all things humorous that are humorous. What makes a joke, and what makes it work, say, for a comedian? If we- those asking the “What is” question- knew, we might perhaps have a calling!
Beyond this- that it involves when things do and do not work out well as the result of human agency in our stories or drama, our actions, it is difficult to say just what each- tragedy and comedy- is, in a statement that comprehends each instance because the statement gets at the universal that is at the root of the words we use. There is a close kinship between these complementary opposites, as nearly the same things that are tragic might be viewed comically. That nature is uncovered or that justice and fortunes do not coincide can be said of both comedy and tragedy, though comedy it is just the point that they do coincide, and it is comedic cynicism that notes the ways in which justice and what occurs do not coincide.
To find a single cause of the laughter of all humans, what it means when we laugh, what kinds of things make us laugh, is very difficult, but is a part of the study of the nature of comedy. From Aristotle, the old comedy is described as lampooning the base, although the complement of tragedy that could portray the noble character eluded the ancient Greeks, and all drama, until Shakespeare. Beyond Aristotle, what is usually said about the cause of human laughter is first what is said by Hobbes, that it implies a superiority to those at whom we laugh, and second, by Freud, that it involves the release of repressed contents and emotions, as when we laugh at the dirty meaning of a pun we could not see unless we knew what perhaps we ought not. A surprise twist in a joke at the point that nature is revealed adds to the comic impact. The body is truly a joke, and not significant in this sense, and it might even be said that the body IS the joke.
Bennie Hill is an example of comedy based almost entirely on the revealing of the base erotic nature of man, old men chasing young models for example. Monty Python is an example of high intellectual humor, including the deflating of the pretense of the scholarly life, and here many tragic things including the crucifixion are treated comically with some success.
Ignorance and vice seem then to be the two things we like to hide that are revealed in comedy in the sense of jokes. Could the unifying theme of what is funny then be the undoing of that fateful day when Eve and Adam hid themselves from the Lord?
Sometimes we will make a stupid assumption, exaggerated as in mime to show or amplify a certain characteristic, and show the error by playing out the consequences. But generally, comedy and hilarity happen by themselves, and by a kind of inspiration, as is wit. Comedy depends, though, upon knowledge, and would sometimes be an arrogance were it not only joking. But it shows that the soul has knowledge within, to our surprise!
Why word puns should make for such amusement in comedy is a good question. One suspects that the function is similar to that of rhyme in metered lines: the accidental or semi-accidental connections call to mind things within, in the “unconscious,” we would say, allowing for knowledge and expression. Here is a fine example that shows too that the theoretical is not excluded from comedy:
It is evolution that de-feated the porpoise.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates expels both the comedians and tragedians from the best regime and education, awaiting a correction in the art form, and this is where Shakespeare seems to begin, correcting both the old and new comedy in the service of philosophy. Cryptically, Socrates says that one who laughs “seeks a mighty change,” and not one is quite sure what he means here. But from the comments of Odysseus on the cause of the disorder in the Greek army, and the untuning of degree, we have a suggestion as to the problem with the old comedy, if not in a democracy, at least in a regime dependent upon conservatism rather than change.
We laugh at the irrational, whether in ourselves or in nature. Folly or stupidity is comical when accompanied by pretense, such as the pretense of wisdom pertaining to kingship. The fool in Lear makes his living off indicating the folly of Lear to Lear, and the air of comedy allows wisdom to be communicated. Comedy presupposes knowledge, and so sarcasm and satire allow for a positive teaching to be communicated where this otherwise would not be accessible at all.
Mania is related to comedy as depression is to tragedy, and it is quite surprising that the modern study of psychology- so full of words for these- has made no effort at all to study tragedy and comedy, even with the suggestion of the two masks that signify drama. What these two are may be shown too in the late plays of Shakespeare that are said to be neither- A Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and Perikles. One History- King Henry V- ends in a marriage, though political history is almost exclusively tragic.
Recent studies have noticed that Dolphins, Chimpanzees and even rats laugh, but it is due to their rudimentary social nature. [The Best Medicine: Decoding The Hidden Meanings Of Laughter https://n.pr/2YU1q2w%5D. Both laughter and tears are communications, and people rarely laugh alone, more rarely than crying alone, and even then, laughter may be an intended communication. That man is by nature social may hold the key to comedy, and it is quite useful for communicating and recognizing deficiencies in ourselves and others. Self deprecating humor may be the best, and is the most allowable, so that laughter too might involve self-perception or self-knowledge, as does penance and self-loathing.
We cry at loss of some person or circumstance that we love, but do not laugh at gain. The proper emotion is contentment or joy, but it does not make us laugh. In one Gnostic gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water laughing, and when this world is seen from the ultimate cosmic perspective, it may be seen that comedy and not tragedy is the more comprehensive view, though from inside the world and life or time, it is clear why the tragic view would first appear primary. The chorus of Oedipus at Colonus says that no happiness is possible for man, and Herodotus taught, apparently quite seriously, that the gods are jealous of human happiness. But laughter pertains more to happiness.
Laughter implies a forgetfulness of death, and the comic view may hold a liberty from the fear of death. We can laugh even in the face of death if we do not fear to die.
Shakespearean comedy is especially related to the imagination of happiness or the best condition, and so is akin to the Platonic best regime. Happiness pertains when things work out well, and tragedy is of course when things do not work out well. Love envisions a world of hope, a garden for fecundity, rebirth and the rejuvenation of human society. So comedies properly contain no deaths and end in weddings. Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in triple weddings, and As you Like It ends in a quadruple wedding. Imagination is the faculty that apprehends the best life, condition of soul and the best regime or happy city. Some question the usefulness of this imagination, but that is in truth how we ever envision to make anything better, that is, in light of the best, as best as we might apprehend this. Scripture itself is comic, ending in the wedding of the Bride and Lamb and the descent of the city of God onto earth (Revelation 19-22).
Famously, Thomas Moore notes that Socrates laughs once or twice, but is not shown to have cried, while “Jesus wept,” at the death of Lazarus, is the shortest sentence in the scripture. From this we note that Socrates, Jesus and Prospero are each angry or “vexed on only a single occasion. From the writing attributed to the Apostle Philip, called the Gospel of Phillip:
The Lord said it well: “Some have entered the kingdom of heaven laughing and they have come out.” [They do not remain there-the] one because he regrets (his action) afterward. As soon as [Christ went down into] the water he came [out laughing at] everything (of this world), [not] because [he considers it] a trifle, but [because he is full of] contempt for it. He who [wants to enter] the kingdom of [heaven will attain it]. If he despises [everything (of this world) and scorns it as a trifle [he will come] out laughing. So it is also with the bread and the cup and the oil, even though there is another superior to these.