"Tragedy is when I cut my finger," Mel Brooks once reputedly said. "Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."
Besides the fact that it's funny, there's a great deal of truth in this quote. Not only because of the insight into human nature – we tend to take our own small misfortunes as a sign that the gods are aligned against us, and love to find humor in the plights of others – but also because of what it reveals about the ways comedy works through opposition. Juxtaposition, change of direction, making small things large and large things small, forcing us to giggle at something that would otherwise make us uneasy; these are some of the most fundamental elements of the way we make each other laugh.
When I dance across the room singing like Elvis and swiveling my hips like Justin Timberlake to amuse my partner, she laughs at least in part because I have the misfortune of neither being able to sing like the one or dance like the other. Or look like either.
When the Syrian refugee played by Youssef Kerkour, in the fantastic British show Home, sings nonsense phrases while pretending to pray – in order to placate the loving but ignorant British family who've taken him in and want to prove they're okay with him being a Muslim even though he's told them he's a Christian – we laugh because of the contrast of silliness and tragedy, because of the uncomfortable truths revealed and the way they are made pathetically and endearingly human.
Things are often funny, that is, because of what they are not. We laugh because we can get away with it, out of defiance. We laugh as a way of dancing in the face of a world that does not care about us, a world that is terrifyingly out of our control, full of misfortunes bestowed by fate, unexpected downfalls, unimaginable circumstances, sudden reversals.
These aspects of the comedic are often commented on. What gets noted less frequently is that the deeper blessings of our lives often work the same way.
Laughter is intertwined with joy, and they're both intertwined with the deepest joy of them all: love. These feelings feel the same in the chest. They operate as lodestars and bulwarks, leading us and protecting us.
And they do not simply allow us to navigate conflict and negation, they arise out of these things, out of a realization of what we have in the face of all that we do not have. In a world where joy and love were all that existed they would have, of course, no meaning at all.
Which is to say that the structure of comedy is in many respects also the structure of joy and the structure of love. Brooks' cut finger and open sewer tell us a great deal about all three interconnected feelings. Or at least I think they do. And what I'm really trying to work out is the enduring power of a movie like The Princess Bride, from 1987.
The Princess Bride might be best described as a fairy tale with metafictional and absurdist elements, which is to say that it owes as much to things like Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Catch 22 as it does to the Incorporated Disney Universe or Hans Christian Anderson.
It's framed by the story of a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a book called The Princess Bride to his grandson (Fred Savage) who's sick in bed. This book tells the story of a simple but beautiful girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright) who falls in love with a farm boy named Westley (Cary Elwes). Being poor, Westley sets out to make some money so he can marry Buttercup, but is unfortunately waylaid by the famed Dread Pirate Roberts, who never leaves survivors of his attacks.
Buttercup is devastated. This is made worse when she's chosen, five years later, to be the bride of the loathsome Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). As the wedding approaches, Buttercup is kidnapped by a trio of mercenaries led by an almost-brilliant man named Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) who is intent on killing Buttercup to start a war.
Almost immediately, this band of rogues realizes they're being pursued by a mysterious Man in Black. He chases them down and first defeats master sword fighter Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) in a sword fight and then the giant Fezzik (Andre the Giant) in hand-to-hand combat. This leaves Vizzini, whom the Man in Black defeats in a battle of wits, rescuing Buttercup.
Buttercup figures out that the Man in Black is actually the Dread Pirate Roberts, and they both figure out that they're being pursued by Prince Humperdinck, intent on taking back his bride-to-be. Then the Dread Pirate Roberts reveals that he's actually Westley, who wasn’t killed at all and has finally managed to return after all these years to rescue the woman he loves. After some adventures involving fireballs, quicksand and giant rodents, however, Westley and Buttercup are captured by Humperdinck after all.
Buttercup is returned to the Prince's castle to be married, and Westley is sent to the Pit of Despair to be killed. And he is killed. Except that there are degrees to death, and an aging magician named Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) manages to revive Westley after his corpse mutters that he needs to live because of True Love.
At the end, the living-again Westley, accompanied by Inigo Montoya and Fezzik – whom he befriended as he was defeating – storm the Prince's castle and free Buttercup. The happy couple celebrates with a kiss which the story tells us ranks at the top of the five greatest kisses in history.
It's a charming film, brilliantly written by William Goldman from his own novel, and wonderfully directed by Rob Reiner. It's also one that exudes an almost unique delight, and which has a great deal to tell us about the construction and importance of these things we call comedy, joy and love.
Oddly enough, maybe the best way to begin to think through these things is by considering the absurd. By the absurd here, I don't mean (or don't only mean) the Albert Camus or existentialism-writ-broadly sense of the universe refusing to provide us with the meaning we crave. Instead, I'm thinking more of the way the film plays with convention and story, and also of its pure silliness.
Consider, for example, the scene in which Westley defeats Vizzini in the battle of wits. This consists of a simple challenge. Westley poisons one of a pair of cups of wine. Vizzini, who considers himself a genius ("Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?...Morons.") must deduce which cup Westley has poisoned, and then gets to pick which one they both drink.
During the course of this, Vizzini declares that in challenging him to a duel of wits Westly has fallen "victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia!'"
The gag is funny for a bunch of reasons (and one always risks stripping away all comedy by trying to put it into words.) It's apropos of nothing, of course, land wars in Asia having zero to do with a battle of wits over a poisoned glass of wine. It's an invented aphorism, which is always a great gag, as it turns silliness into purported wisdom. And finally, it brings to mind in the viewer of 1987 the American boondoggle in Vietnam, and the Soviet boondoggle in Afghanistan, which breaks us out of the fairy tale world altogether, or perhaps reminds us that the connections between the world of stories and the world we inhabit are never nonexistent.
Beyond all of this, it also immerses us in a kind of destabilization, in the same way that Brooks' quote about cut fingers and open sewers does. It forces us into a chaotic place where non sequiturs rule, where wisdom may not be wise, and where characters know more than they should be able to, given the rules of their world.
The resolution of the sequence works similarly. After Vizzini, convinced that he has out-thought Westley, chooses which glasses they will drink, he keels over dead. It turns out, though, that he did not choose the wrong glass. Westley actually poisoned both, as he has spent years developing an immunity to the poison. Which is to say that the rules of the contest, which Vizzini thought he was manipulating to his benefit, were not really the rules of the contest after all.
Again and again, in both large and small ways, The Princess Bride uses this approach. Westley dies, but it turns out that when you are dead you can actually only be mostly dead. The Dread Pirate Roberts, it turns out, is not a dread pirate at all but a series of men who assume the position and maintain the legend of terror so they can make a buck.
During their sword fight, Inigo Montoya and Westley both trick each other by pretending to be left-handed. The giant Fezzik excuses his loss in combat to Westley by noting that "I haven't fought one person for so long. I've been specializing in groups, battling gangs for local charities, that kind of thing." Giant killer rats bear the nickname "R.O.U.S.'s" or Rodents Of Unusual Size.
The comedic effect is a topsy-turvy world of reversals and absurdities. But it is not a world without meaning. It brushes close, in some ways, to the existentialist vision of a universe that presents us with no stable ground beneath our feet, but does not get there completely, because it provides a single, solid, unchanging element: Love.
Comedy functions in many ways as a defense against the terrors of the world. If we can do nothing else, at least we can laugh. Love, in The Princess Bride, functions in much the same way. It offers both characters and viewers stability in a world in which everything – the rules, the question of whether people in an invented fairy-tale land have a knowledge of Cold War history, and even meaning itself – is up for grabs.
And part of the joy of watching the film, I think, arises from the same source. It offers a pure pleasure, a place of safety from which to operate, a statement of defiance against the tyranny of chaos and uncertainty in our lives.
I should also note, at further risk of playing the surly mechanic on a finely wrought artistic engine, that the framing of the story – the grandfather reading the book to his sick grandson – works in an identical way. The boy is initially hesitant about hearing the story, because he likes sports and this tale sounds like pretty mushy fare.
And at several points early on, Buttercup and Westley's story is interrupted by the boy's voice, dragging us out of the fairy tale story and back to his bedroom in Chicago. This happens during moments of tension – when Buttercup is about to be attacked by a shrieking eel, for example – but most often during moments of romance. The boy is a boy and doesn't want to hear about stuff like kissing.
There is a so-called "metafictional" element at play here. Much as it does with its absurdist gags, the boy's interruptions serve to remind us that the story is a construction, further destabilizing it (in a charming, enjoyable way). The rules are not quite the rules and our story can be interrupted at any time, particularly when it really gets good, by a pesky kid.
Beyond this, though, the boy goes through a small evolution of his own. Dismayed at the beginning by any hint of romance, he's so enthralled by it at the end that he protests when his grandfather presumes to skip the kiss which is among the five greatest of all time. He has learned that true love, that greatest joy of all, can be the thing that makes the world – he's a kid sick in bed, after all – bearable.
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