Although comedy is as much a part of the human condition as tragedy, researchers for the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society’s project Infrastructures for the Comedic felt that its study was “underdeveloped compared to the study of tragedy and catastrophe.” Below, the project’s researchers address the challenge of studying something funny without taking the fun out of it, and English Language and Literature’s David Simon discusses the value of schadenfreude.

Lauren Berlant, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English Language and Literature; Zachary Cahill, MFA’07, curator for the Richard and Mary Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry; and Catherine Sullivan, associate professor in Visual Arts, collaborated on a Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society project, Infrastructures for the Comedic. The three discuss the project below.

We had been having separate conversations about comedy that grew into a working group on comedy, variously called ComLab or Infrastructures for the Comedic. It’s been a wonderful place to share, among other things, an interest in different kinds of embodiments and movements and the ways comedy makes sense of and develops them.

Maybe comedy has been less studied than tragedy because there is the risk that what you are working on will be seen as unimportant or just silly. But we were interested in it because comedy is one of the best tools for getting at things that are difficult to talk about. It tests the quality of things and experiments with them over and over. It shows that the mind is as slapstick as the body, pointing to the delicacy of consciousness—how quickly it becomes destabilized, disorganized, confused and confusing, inappropriate and amorally creative. This is why comedic exploration requires protection from censorship, while constantly raising the question of the proper, the ethical, and the ordinariness of aggression.

Look at comedy’s relationship to power. Philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin puts the grotesque in the context of festivals during the Middle Ages, where the king could create a zone for everyone to be on the same playing field, and in the carnival people could make jokes at the expense of power. On the other hand, philosopher Achille Mbembe talks about the grotesque in the context of postcolonialism, where people aspire to the grotesqueries of power and wealth: ostentatious displays of riches and behavior that are above the law. Bakhtin has a horizontal view of how comedy plays out in society in relationship to power, and Mbembe has a vertical or aspirational view of the comedic as it pertains to power.

We’ve also talked about the ways in which the comic is expressed in visual terms in relation to character and mise en scène. If you look at single-woman TV sitcoms in the 1970s, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the art direction is a huge part of introducing a new identity to the public.

Since our fields encompass both literature and visual art, we’ve talked about how comedy expresses itself in both. One distinction between written and physical comedy might be that in performance you are working through other bodies that have their own will. In literature you are all of those bodies.

We’ve learned that if you analyze anything to death it becomes less funny, but if you analyze it past death it starts to become hilarious. This is why professors are both wise and comic figures: we explain things to generate new capacities for insight, and we can’t stop explaining things, stumbling into jargon—always funny from the outside—obsessiveness, ridiculous analogy, the king’s grandiosity, the fool’s playful narcissism, and so on.

The University’s annual Latke/Hamentashen Debate on campus is one such local ritual of pedantry out of control. Another famous demonstration is the Monty Python “Dinosaur Sketch,” in which a professor played by John Cleese takes three minutes to state a “theory” that brontosauruses are thicker in the middle than they are at the ends. Deflation of the self-inflated is a classic comic move.

Edited and adapted by Jeanie Chung


David Carroll Simon is assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. He studies the literary and intellectual history of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, often in connection with French cultural phenomena.

Philosophers have often condemned schadenfreude, the pleasure someone takes in someone else’s suffering, as proof of moral failure. Meanwhile, witnesses for the defense go as far as to deny the guilt routinely assigned to apparently malevolent enjoyment—by, for instance, identifying it with an appetite for justice that rightly takes satisfaction in the correction of vice. I wish to provide an alternative to both accusatory and apologetic perspectives—but not by offering a competing moral evaluation. Instead, I offer a new description of the experience, which turns out to be both disquieting and comic.

Drawing inspiration from Michel de Montaigne’s Essais (1572–1592), I suspend the familiar view of schadenfreude as the smug satisfaction of the eminently safe. Montaigne proposes that the ground of the cruel pleasure one might take in someone else’s suffering is actually a powerful awareness of danger: the perception of a threat from which one finds oneself spared. What distinguishes Montaigne’s perspective on schadenfreude from that of other philosophers is his insistence that susceptibility to harm is a fundamental premise rather than an attribute of certain situations. Like the contorted face that accompanies the body’s wincing retreat from near injury, the freude (joy) in schadenfreude (harm-joy) is distorted by an ongoing sense of vulnerability. Yet such alertness to the possibility of harm, interrupted but not suppressed by the pleasure it enables, does not necessarily generate fear. Instead, Montaigne directs our attention to a physiological reaction we do not ordinarily associate with existential danger. We can listen for the alarmed elation of schadenfreude, he suggests, in rumbles of laughter.

Although it will not surprise us that comedy can be cruel, my point is less about genre than it is about what it feels like to laugh and to be caught off guard by feeling amused. Rather than the serene delectation of safety, mirthful schadenfreude is the affective recoil of the vulnerable. In someone else’s misfortune, Montaigne discovers a portent, uncertain but nonetheless foreboding, of his eventual unhappiness. Because his own failure to uphold the moral good would be, as far as he is concerned, an especially terrible misfortune, his experience of unsympathetic laughter should itself be understood as a bitterly comedic foretaste of suffering: evidence that he can’t quite trust himself to adhere to a standard of behavior to which he nonetheless remains attached.

Adapted from Simon’s essay, “The Anatomy of Schadenfreude; or, Montaigne’s Laughter,” in Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter 2017).



Well said and true!