Comedy: Work, Play, or Both?

This guest post from Brenton Cooper ’15 highlights his experience in the University Scholars comedy exploration group. Brenton, an economics and philosophy double-major, is on Twitter @brentonhcooper. You can learn more about Brenton’s experience as an Honors Student at Texas A&M by visiting his ePortfolio.

– by Brenton Cooper ’15

University Scholar Brenton Cooper '16
University Scholar Brenton Cooper ’16

We often view humor as somewhat of a toy and perceive it as being on par with kids’ video games or Cartoon Network: cheap, silly sources of quick entertainment. Maybe this is evidenced by the fact that many of our comedy shows are late at night. Whether it’s The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon or The Late Show with David Letterman (please note here that definitions of what constitutes “comedy” vary), our most popular comedians seem to be scheduled at a ridiculously late hour of the night. We take care of our work, come home and take care of dinner and chores, and watch our primetime dramas and sports events. Finally, when our brain is fried and we can no longer take part in anything of importance, we revel in comedy.

Comedy can, however, be quite serious and deeply important. In some senses, it might in fact be the most serious and most important thing in the world. This past semester, some of my fellow University Scholars and I took part in a seminar on comedy led by Jamaica Pouncy. We got to hear from a professor from the business school who explored comedy’s applications in marketing. We heard from a scholar on Jewish, female comedians who made social statements through their comedy about their lives and times in the 1950s. And we heard from a graduate student who studies how cultures and nations appropriate and reflect on themselves through the use of internet memes.

This experience showed us that comedy has tremendous applications of a serious nature. “Humor is a rubber sword,” says comedian Mary Hirsh. “It allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” Because of its ability to spread messages without offending people, humor plays an immensely important role in politics. For better or worse, people are more likely to share and pay attention to clips of John Oliver or satire from The Onion than whatever publications the Congressional Budget Office puts out. Comedy also has a huge impact on our purchasing habits. Last year, companies paid $4 million for a thirty-second opportunity to make Super Bowl viewers laugh. And it has an immense role in the way in which we understand our cultures and communities. Sometimes it is only by laughing at ourselves that we are able to be honest with ourselves about who we are as people and as a broader community.

The philosopher Michael Oakeshott once made a helpful distinction between work and play. Work, he argues, is what we do when we use the materials the world provides for the sake of something else. Play, on the other hand, is that in which we participate for its own sake. This dichotomy presents a helpful lens for viewing the role of comedy. To be sure, comedy is play—something which can be wholly and thoroughly enjoyed for its own sake alone. To deny this would be to deprive comedy of its most important function: enriching our lives by making us laugh. But we would be remiss not to recognize that in some ways it constitutes work. As a society, we wield comedy as a potent weapon for a number of serious endeavors. In that way humor, which appears silly and childish on the surface can, in fact–for better or worse–be one of the most serious forces in the world.

Enriching programs like University Scholars would not be possible without the guidance of Program Coordinator Jamaica Pouncy, the tireless support of our faculty, and the generous contributions the Association of Former Students.

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