Comedy Of Terrors

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 6 2012 @ 6:54pm

Blythe Roberson explores the popularity of David Foster Wallace among comedians, in part because DFW was a comedy theory nerd:

My favorite Wallace quote, and his most succinct statement of what makes a joke good, comes in his essay “Laughing with Kafka.” Thinking about the relation of comedy to prose fiction, he says that the best jokes and the best short stories both leave out important information but evoke it “in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections.” It’s a thoughtful exploration of a theory held by Kant and Kierkegaard. (And by Ali Farahnakian, who once told my class “Laughter is the sound of surprise.”) And it’s worth it to Wallace to think about comedy, because as he writes, “jokes are a kind of art.”

Wallace champions Kafka as a sort of standard-bearer of artful jokes. Kafka finds humor not through wisecracks, double entendre, slapstick, vulgarity, or “Woody Allen-type kvetching.” Instead, his humor is tragic, and also rapturous and jubilant. It is funny in its “grotesque, gorgeous, and thoroughly modern complexity.”

But Americans, according to Wallace, couldn’t appreciate complex comedy. The television audience he saw desired only entertainment that was reassuring. TV, which in his essay “E Unibus Pluram” Wallace called a “low art” because its central mission was “to ensure as much watching as possible,” was more than happy to provide stupid sitcoms. The shows weren’t broad and crude because Americans are all dumb, but, as Wallace said, because “people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests.”