By: Joshua Bergstein
A man walks down the sidewalk, his nose buried in a newspaper. He reaches the curb, yet doesn’t notice the red light. On he walks, out into the middle of the intersection. Cars swerve all around him as he obliviously continues to stroll on, his eyes never wavering from the paper. A large oil tanker veers out of his path and tips over onto its side. Other cars crash into it. A telephone pole falls over into the increasingly chaotic traffic frenzy. Finally, the man reaches the other side of the street. He tosses the paper into a nearby trash can and continues on his way. Just as the street behind him erupts in a fireball of fury, we finally get a glimpse of the paper’s headline: “AUTO ACCIDENTS UP 50 PERCENT”.
That, my friends, is comedy.
For the longest time, mankind has reveled in the hilarity of physical humor: Banana peel slips, anvil drops, dynamite explosions that turn cartoon characters into dust piles with eyeballs. Even in recent decades, when we like to think our collective sense of humor has matured to more sophisticated levels, we still care enough about the endless pratfalls on America’s Funniest Home Videos to keep that show on for a full twenty-five years. And you can spot many more elaborate examples of comic set pieces designed to make us laugh, even if events like that occurring in real life would send a few dozen people to the infirmary.
What is it, exactly, that makes us laugh so hard at such indescribable pain? That makes us look at a scene of frantic, unrelenting chaos and smilingly acknowledge it as nothing more than physical comedy? Are we barbarians? Depraved individuals? Horrific forms of natural life with no desire other than to witness our fellow man succumbing to indescribable torture?
Well, sort of.
As I think these thoughts, one single word of Germanic origin keeps flickering across my brain: Schadenfreude. Simply put, this word is defined as “pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune”. It’s a highly appropriate word for this essay, as “misfortune” most assuredly includes one getting himself flattened beneath a giant anvil.
Schadenfreude is not a trait most of us are proud of, but it links directly to a basic human emotion: the need to be the best. We all like to think of ourselves as good, strong-willed individuals, capable of rising above any challenges in our path with a determined mindset and some Rocky-style theme music. In practice, however, it may be difficult to raise ourselves up to the more daunting of tasks, in part because Rocky did all the difficult stuff in a three-minute montage, and real-life work tends to occur at a fairly slower pace. So when we see someone else fail a pop quiz that we did relatively well on, the natural reaction is to congratulate ourselves, even if our own grade was merely average.
This, too, applies to physical comedy. When Charlie Chaplin accidentally steps into a manhole, we laugh because we wouldn’t be dumb enough to do such a thing. When Ben Stiller gets knocked flat on his face by a living dinosaur skeleton, we grin because it thankfully didn’t happen to us. Mel Brooks said it best: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”
So what does this say about us as human beings? Not a lot of good, I suppose, especially when you consider that comedy, to many people, is a form of escapism. Who hasn’t come home from a rough day at school or work, only to make a beeline for the couch and have a good time with their favorite sitcom family? We look to such hilarity for relief from our daily lives – lives in which we are often victimized, by our peers, teachers, and employers. So we seek to channel those feelings of victimization by watching Homer Simpson fall down a cliff and end up in a body cast. Because that, my friends, is comedy.
Schadenfreude is a dangerous word, and not merely because it’s a difficult one to pronounce. It speaks to a deep human emotion that many of us fail – in fact, refuse – to acknowledge. Enjoying the ills visited upon fictional characters may be standard, but it points at our own deeply-relegated fears and insecurities over being good at what we do. Perhaps with proper conditioning and a good sense of commitment, we can stop ourselves from rejoicing at others’ real-life failures. It’s no easy feat, I’ll grant – the human mind is such that it must always be satisfied with its accomplishments, even “justifying” failure if there’s no other option. (If we miss our morning bus, for example, the default response is “Well, at least I’ll have a healthy walk to the office.”) Yet the solution, if not implicitly feasible, exists.
Can we reach a new level of self-confidence, the kind which allows us to abolish the notion of Schadenfreude once and for all? This writer can only hope. Because as much as we all love to laugh at comedy, we must also remember the age-old maxim: It’s only fun until someone gets hurt.