Comedy Without Wit

MORRIS FREEDMAN

August 02, 1993|By MORRIS FREEDMAN

HYATTSVILLE — Hyattsville. -- We want comedy, laughter, hilarity in every aspect of our lives.

Newspapers catch readers' attention with memorably funny headlines. They assign writers whose main job is to point up the humor in daily events. Television networks, for all their solemn talking heads, emphasize comedy. Laughter machines spice up bland, tasteless situations. Funny movies outsell all others.

Politicians, businessmen, academic worthies begin speeches with jokes. Surgeons josh patients. Waiters, after they give you their names, offer witticisms about the weather. Accountants, dentists, lawyers set you at ease with wisecracks. Publishers issue books of tasteless, all-purpose insults supposed to amuse.

Most of the time all this is harmless, perhaps good. Where omnipresent buffoonery pales and becomes pernicious is in the classroom. Lately, when I assign essays to my freshmen, they complain that those that don't tickle them are ''boring,'' ''old fashioned,'' ''pointless,'' a burden. They prefer short facetious ones even when they know longer serious ones may teach them more.

Students today have been conditioned to be immediately diverted. They have become passive consumers, eager to be entertained. They dress for rock concerts or David Letterman and Eddie Murphy shows: baseball caps on backward, jeans ripped. They cherish assignments no more challenging than comic strips or one-liners.

We are seeing the climax of a generation's rejection of the ancient discipline and stuffiness associated with schools. No gain without pain; medicine must taste bad to be any good.

We used to equate enjoying learning with trivializing it. Some years ago I proposed to a publisher, for a readings textbook, a section on ''Fun with Shakespeare.'' ''Students,'' the publisher's consultant sniffed, ''are not supposed to have fun with literature.''

Attitudes like that are ridiculous. Students should only have fun while developing skills. Genuine learning should always satisfy, always provide the delight that derives from truly understanding an area of knowledge and cultivating a talent.

Fun doesn't just mean mindlessly grinning from ear to ear or guffawing out loud for the moment. The deepest pleasure from learning comes quietly, privately, from taking even comedy seriously. Knowing Shakespeare well assures a lifetime of delight.

We can't blame students alone for their expectations; many do demand and deliver substance. But a generation of teachers has conditioned and spoiled a generation of students. Television teachers do show business shtick; their classes feed them lines. Parents conspire as they read and converse less and keep the tube on more.

For some time now, graduate schools that turn out our teachers have been easing requirements. Doctoral candidates in English record offhand impressions to indifferent works to get their degrees. No more digging in libraries and archives to cast new light on great authors; no more patient, revealing analysis of great poems, plays, novels.

Too many professors shrug off the traditional amenities when they do their own writing. Software corrects their spelling, syntax, punctuation, grammar. The writing in academic journals grows more coarse with each issue.

What teachers do not ask of themselves, they do not ask of their students. It's easier, more popular to conduct bull sessions, to coddle and josh, to give only multiple-choice tests than to read and edit papers. It's a strain to insist on respectable standards in understanding and evaluating subject matter. The world's way has become to cool it, man, to join in the jocularity and relaxation. Education for too many is now a spectator sport, not an activity in which you participate and gain prowess.

Laughter has always leavened, given depth, to serious modes. John Milton celebrated the linking of delight with thoughtfulness in his twin poems, ''L'Allegro'' and ''Il Penseroso.'' We often need comedy to apprehend tragedy in its full dimension, in literature as in life.

But comedy unrooted in honesty, comedy that excludes intellect, comedy as an evasion, such comedy becomes sad and dark in its emptiness and denial. It robs youth of knowledge and postpones maturity.

Morris Freedman writes widely on education and has taught at CCNY and the Universities of New Mexico and Maryland.

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