ABSTRACT

This chapter will off er a theory of comedic performance: a theory of its distinctiveness, hence a suggestion for how it may be fruitfully discussed. It is proposed not as an explanatory framework per se but as a critical tool, with the hope that it might allow us to see and articulate diff erent dimensions of comedy in ways that vivify our appreciation and understanding. My method is to proceed through examples, largely drawn from the rich tradition of American fi lm comedy-although my hope is that the theory will be pertinent for the study of comic material in other media and genres, and from other periods and regions. Cultural variations quite evidently make diff erent allowances for what may be seen as humorous. Yet across such variations, there is at least one constant: a performance is comedic in as much as we recognize that it seeks to amuse. For this reason, comedyor rather, the comic mode, since comedy is merely a genre in which this mode is dominant-may be most usefully defi ned with reference not, as has often been the case, to its presumed “aff ect” but rather to its disclosure of intent. My assumption here is that we encounter performance, indeed all art, not as something that “just is” (as we might view a sunset, say, through secular eyes), but as something that is meant, set forward as such-and-such. The question then becomes how a given performance comes to be placed, and to place itself, as comic-that is, how an intention to amuse comes to fi gure in a given performance, becomes part of the texture of the work (not just a factor in its production).