Making Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia Funny: Determining Whether Five Principles of Comedy Derived from Ancient Writers Apply to Attempts at Humor by Contemporary Comedians

Abstract:  After reviewing sources on comedic theory from the ancient world to the present, this research collates five principles which constitute comedy as a category of literature distinct from tragedy.  This study then determines whether the principles apply to contemporary instances of humor attempted by professional comedians on the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

          The ubiquitous “Why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes are an enduring feature of childhood and beyond, and the delight engendered by the jokes seems to depend on one’s chronological development.  A child’s punchline to “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (“To get to the other side”) is easy.  An adult being asked, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” may be met with a political punchline (“Because North Korea’s long range missiles can’t reach that far”) or a severely metaphysical reply, such as “Why am I crossing the road?”  Whether designed for a child or an adult, the chicken-crossing-the-road jokes persist in our sophisticated culture because they are not only simple (they involve a question-and-answer format which is easily remembered), but also innocent.  Although there are some versions of the joke format online which may not be suitable for some, the dominant impression that a chicken-crossing-the-road joke leaves is that it is a category that all ages can enjoy.

          How then did the culture get to the point where comedy includes something much less innocent (or indecent, vulgar, or offensive), like Michelle Wolf’s relatively flaccid abortion joke: “Mike Pence is very anti-choice.  He thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it til you try it.  And when you do try it, really knock it.  You’ve got to get that baby out of there” (qtd. in Romm)?[1]  Similarly, how does one account for the following more aggressive abortion joke by Louis C.K.?

I think you should not get an abortion unless you need one.  In which case you better get one.  […]  I mean, seriously: If you need an abortion, you better get one.  Don’t fuck around.  And hurry!  Not getting an abortion that you need is like not taking a shit[;] that’s how bad that is.  It’s like not taking a shit.  That’s what I think.  I think abortion is exactly like taking a shit.  It’s one hundred percent the exact same thing as not taking a shit.  Or it isn’t.  It is or it isn’t.  It’s either taking a shit or it’s killing a baby.  It’s only one of those two things.  It’s no other things [sic].  So if you didn’t like hearing that it’s like taking a shit, you think it’s like killing a baby.  That’s the only other one you get to have.  (qtd. in Felsenthal)

The above are only two examples of attempts at humor involving the first life issue of abortion.  A quick Internet search will identify not only many more attempts to make abortion comedic, but also jokes involving the remaining two life issues, infanticide and euthanasia.  For brevity’s sake, only three jokes in each of the categories of the life issues will be considered thoroughly in this study.

          For now, though, the astute reader of these attempts at comedy would wonder how these quotes qualify as examples of comedy.  While the popular culture would place these attempts at humor in a subcategory of comedy called jokes, pro-life people would find these feeble attempts at humor offensive and not worthy of the designation of joke at all.  Thus, any interest in comedy and the life issues, therefore, should begin with two areas of research: ascertaining what constitutes humor and determining whether contemporary comedy on the life issues comports with millennia-accepted standards and definitions of this ancient mode of literature.

          An objection can be raised that jokes are entirely different from comedy in general.  After all, maybe the history and the standards for jokes are not the same as the history and criteria for comedy (which is one of two major categories of literature, whether the comedy is conveyed in poems, dramas, or entire novels).  This central objection is easily answered.  All literature is a series of two bifurcations before specifics within the categories can be determined.  That is, literature is first divided into either fiction or nonfiction.  Although nonfiction works could employ irony or jokes to make a rhetorical point, the entire division of nonfiction literature involves the communication of information, data, statistics, position statements, abstract thinking, and speculation on other serious matters.

Similarly, fiction can be bifurcated into two genres, tragedy and comedy.  The specific forms of comedy include comedies proper (as in ancient Greek works such as Lysistrata), written or verbal jokes, or other manifestations of humor.  While the ancient, classical, and medieval worlds considered “literature” to consist of written materials, even of dramas performed and eventually written, our contemporary world includes many more forms of comedy beyond the written word, such as television shows and Internet sources, like Mark Dice’s masterly YouTube commentaries on leftist media and popular culture.  Comedy in contemporary society is still one unified category of literature, albeit displayed in many formats.

          No matter in what format comedic material is found in contemporary culture, the varieties of comedy embody the essential aspects of that category, distinct from tragedy.  A joke is not a nonfiction work like a biography or a philosophical treatise; a joke is such because it partakes of the essential aspects of its parent, comedy.

          What, then, are the essential features of comedy that separates it from its companion genre of literature, tragedy?  Answering this question involves a study of comedy from ancient times to the present.  Although this research is not meant to be an exhaustive compendium of comedic literary critical texts through the millennia, the history and the essential characteristics of that genre have been documented and can be easily ascertained.  Once these essential characteristics or principles are identified, the challenge will be determining whether specific contemporary comedic attempts involving the life issues comport with those principles.

Principles of Comedy from Ancient Greece

          Comedy can boast of a history two and a half millennia old; scholars have identified comedy as an art form which evolved simultaneously with tragedy, whose origin “came into being sometime during the sixth century B.C.” (Casson 3).  Although the exact origin of comedy itself is obscure, most scholars are able to generalize the circumstances behind the historical roots of the genre.  For example, Whitney Jennings Oates and Charles Theophilus Murphy write that “The origins of the form are the subject of an endless debate; but whether the immediate predecessor of comedy was the phallic song (as Aristotle says) or a ‘beast-comos’ with a chorus of revelers disguised as animals is a question which need not be argued here” (383).

          Postwar research continued to provide similar generalizations of the history of comedy.  Lionel Casson notes that “Crude comic performances that formed part of rustic festivals very likely go back to society’s earliest history” (3).  Moses Hadas asserts that “About the early history of comedy we know little—mainly because Aristotle did not like comedy and scanted it in his Poetics—but there can be no doubt that its origins are to be connected with a fertility cult, in which the element of sex would naturally be central” (5).  F. L. Lucas writes that, while “The origins of Attic comedy were already obscure to Aristotle[,] he supposed it to have arisen from phallic processions and dances.  But, until the fifth century opens, comedy has left even dimmer traces of its growth than tragedy” (364).

          What these researchers have in common is a reliance on Aristotle, who established the essential features of comedy, differentiating it from tragedy.  Aristotle provides the following extended definition of “comedy” in Poetics (335 BC):

As for Comedy, it is […] an imitation of men worse than the average; worse, however, not as regards any and every sort of fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly.  The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others; the mask, for instance, that excites laughter, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain.  (1449a 32ff; 229)

Regarding comedy’s history, Aristotle further writes, in a series of negations which may confuse contemporary readers, that “Though the successive changes in Tragedy and their authors are not unknown, we cannot say the same of Comedy; its early stages passed unnoticed, because it was not as yet taken up in a serious way” (1449a 32ff; 229).

Beyond these points, determining what else Aristotle had to say about comedy cannot be accurately determined since “the section of the Poetics dealing with comedy seems to have been written but lost [although] Aristotelian scholars (including Lane Cooper and Elder Olsen) have attempted to reconstruct what a poetics of comedy would be like” (Richter 63).  One can, however, surmise what else Aristotle may have written about comedy.  Since the section on comedy in Poetics is lost, while Aristotle may seem to have little to say about the principles behind comedy, later literary critics and scholars have been able to read much into his work and that of other ancient writers.  For example, Dryden asserts that, “Of that book which Aristotle has left us [Poetics] Horace’s Art of Poetry is an excellent comment, and, I believe, restores to us that second book of his concerning comedy, which is wanting in him” (qtd. in Richter 167).[2]

Although it is interesting that some scholars omit comedy in their discussion of ancient Greek literature,[3] there is sufficient commentary from the last two millennia to identify major principles of this significant area of literature.  One scholarly consensus, for example, is that ancient Greek culture established comedy as an important element of human life, separate from tragedy, and the effort to determine comedy’s chronology acknowledges not only its secular, but also its religious practice.  This first principle should be evident, even if scholars’ claims about ancient Greek comedy may be incomprehensible to contemporary culture, bereft of knowledge of the ancient world because of a deficit in the common knowledge base and, supposedly, ignorant of major religious ideas which form the bases of Western culture.

Contemporary understanding of this first principle may be further hampered if the language of literary critics studying comedy is more florid than explanatory.  For example, Lucas summarizes the ancient origins of Greek comedy thus:

Comedy, curiously enough, is the child of religion.  So is Tragedy; but that seems less surprising.  Yet, after all, to the moods of man Nature herself appears a thing of moods, now grim, now gentle, now gay, now sinister [….]  And since Nature brings forth birth and death—the joy of her inexhaustible fertility, the melancholy of her insatiable massacres—it was understandable that the Nature-worship of primitive Greece should embody both aspects […].  Comedy (k­omoidia) is “the song of the revelers”—of merry mummers for whom grossness was not merely amusing, but a religious ritual to arouse Nature’s fecundity.[4]  And since the primitive temperament is not only gross but also aggressive, these early mummers were not only indecent, but also scurrilous….  (363)

Unfortunately, Lucas’ language could confuse a contemporary reader and obscure the otherwise straightforward explanation of the etymology of comedy and the lucid yet poetically-worded summary of its philosophy.

Lucas identifies two other constituent principles of ancient Greek comedy, the first being the ability to attack an individual verbally with impunity: “One curious result of the ritual element in Old Comedy is the unequalled license it enjoyed in personal abuse.  […]  At all events the Athenian Demos must be allowed to laugh at its leaders; even if it re-elected them to-morrow” (364-5).  This verbal attack was not meant to be mere ad hominem, but was used for the express purpose of political commentary with the expectation of some effect or change in policy.

Oates and Murphy do not merely confirm this ability to attack in their earlier research (“Besides this liberty of personal abuse, early comedy assumed for itself the right to discuss and comment on all aspects of civic life, including politics, education, and art”).  They also extrapolate it as a universal principle of comedy: “Early comedy is filled with outspoken abuse and satire of prominent individuals; it is, of course, characteristic of comedy in all ages to ridicule those who deviate from accepted social standards or who unjustifiably exult themselves above their fellows” (383).

Similarly, Hadas reiterates not only the political element of comedy, but also its call to action as when, discussing “Aristophanes’ mature commentary on perennial problems of political and social life”, he notes that

All the classic poets were looked upon and looked upon themselves as serious teachers  [….]  The tragic poet might explore large questions of the ways of God to man; the comic poet told his audience what was wrong with foreign policy or politicians, or how educationists were corrupting sound learning or neoteric poets corrupting good taste, and he invited immediate action, not merely a change in attitude.  (7) [5]

The second constituent element identifies one activity of human life which is often the basis for much ancient (and contemporary) humor, sexuality: “Where the tragic actor was heightened and padded to heroic size, his comic counterpart in the fifth century was made grotesque, not only by his mask, but also by an exaggerated belly and rump, often with phallus as well” (Lucas 366).  Where Lucas suggests by the use of the adverb “often” that the phallus was optional, Casson asserts that its inclusion was essential: “The actors of comedy, in addition, were grotesquely padded about the belly and buttocks, and, of course, wore the phallic symbol” (6; emphasis added).

Although Oates and Murphy refer briefly to “the essence of the constant and startling indecency in early comedy” (383), Hadas expands the catalog of what is indecent and the cognitive process at work in that expansion:

Intellectual fun, needless to say, is not necessarily lofty.  Pie-throwing and prat-falls are intellectual jokes, not humor.  The basis of the intellectual joke is manifest incongruity.  Very often, as notably in Rabelais as in Aristophanes, the incongruity depends on kinds of word play: a pun is funny because it brings together two meanings of a word that are really incongruous.  But puns are not the only kind of incongruity.  […]  If it were habitual with us to keep the queer members which flap at either side of our heads scrupulously swathed, nothing could be funnier than to see them unexpectedly exposed.  That is why the phalluses and talk about them which are ordinarily discreetly covered are funny when exposed to an audience.  (3-4)

Whether the pun was intended or not, Hadas proves the point by making the reader aware that the two senses of the term “expose” involve both the innocent and the indecent.

          Hadas notes a final “important difference between comedy and tragedy”, which defines comedy’s essence and accounts for its popular appeal:

The personages of tragedy do indeed grieve and rejoice as men everywhere and always have done, else their stories would be unprofitable and indeed meaningless to us.  [….]  Laughter is more direct and more universal than the emotions of tragedy.

The figures of tragedy are sometimes little more than symbols to illustrate some permanent principle of morality; those of comedy have to do with simpler but more immediate problems of making peace, running a school, writing a play.  In comedy alone do men drop the rigid poses they are given in graver kinds of writing and walk and talk on a level with their fellow citizens.  ([1]-2)

It is no wonder, then, that comedy became more popular over the centuries than tragedy, summarized in the following historical note by Casson: by the advent of New Comedy in the fourth century BC, comedy’s “purpose was entertainment, its subject was people, it chief source of humor gentle mockery of the manners of men.  It swiftly became enormously popular [….] New Comedy in a very real way is still alive on stage and screen” (66).

          To recapitulate, the following are principles of comedy culled from ancient Greek authors which shall form the basis of this study’s analysis of contemporary attempts at comedy on the life issues:

  1. Comedy is distinct from tragedy, with which it was born as one of the two major categories of literature.
  2. Comedy allows great liberty in examining and commenting on ordinary matters in human life, ranging from bodily functions and employment to other simple concerns of daily life.
  3. A corollary of the above yet distinct enough to merit being a separate principle, comedy is often bawdy, erotic, naughty, or obscene since sexual topics are freely discussed within the genre.
  4. Comedy often contains a civic or social element, allowing the comedian to criticize politicians and events with great freedom for the purpose of effecting change.
  5. Most importantly, the intent of all comedy is to produce humor, to make one laugh.

While the intent of this research is to focus on comedy, whether the above principles distilled from the scholarship about the ancient world’s view of comedy are valid or not can be justified by comparing and contrasting comedy’s relationship with tragedy, especially as manifested in contemporary culture.  Thus, some further commentary can be provided for each of the five principles.  Moreover, it can be shown that the ancient ideas about tragedy and comedy persist in contemporary literature, “contemporary” here meaning not only literary works of the modern period since the sixteenth century but twentieth-century dramas specifically with which most educated readers are familiar.

On the first principle, it must be granted that tragedy has maintained its distinction from comedy, which not only the ancient Greek authors stated, but also Roman and subsequent comic dramatists considered as a foundational principle.  This strict division between the genres even applies for the Roman dramatist Plautus and literary critics after him who created the “tragicomedy” category.[6]  Objecting to attempts at humor on the life issues by comedians who transgress the boundary between the genres will be an important aspect of this study.

Regarding the second principle, some further comment should be made about the difference between tragedy and comedy in that the former does not “allow great liberty in examining and commenting on ordinary matters in human life.”  Ancient Greek drama displayed the actions of monarchs, characters associated with the Greek pantheon, and aristocratic persons.  Ordinary characters in tragedy represented functions, not common folk; they were servants, messengers, shepherds, etc.  While contemporary tragic drama may not concern the lives of gods and royal persons, even with the dominant realism in contemporary tragic drama dating from the nineteenth century, the audience cannot identify with most tragic characters.  Characters in such dramas—whether in film or television shows—often do not match the ordinary lives of most moderns.  How many persons are as bereft of hope as Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman?  The extreme circumstances, sexual escapades, and financial fortunes of soap opera characters alone are leagues away from most people who are content to have one spouse and a couple of jobs until retirement and who have financial hardships and a few medical problems.  Susan Lucci deserved her Emmy award for decades of acting which involved numerous lovers, financial extremes, and medical problems in All My Children, but how many persons can match the byzantine episodes of her life?

On the third principle, ancient tragic drama involved sexual content, but the content was addressed implicitly, unlike ancient comic drama, where sexuality was addressed explicitly.  Oedipus’ sexual experiences with his mother are not acted on the stage, but related by Jocasta, his mother and wife, as something understood by the ancient audience as an ordinary psychological matter, albeit one which Freud later developed into his theory of the Oedipus Complex.  Similarly, modern dramas undoubtedly engage in sexual content; however, unless the drama dwells on the pornographic, the focus is not on the sexual activity itself, but on the consequences of that action.  For example, if indulging in fornication or adultery may lead to an untimely pregnancy, the contemporary drama addresses such illicit sexual behavior much more seriously than a comedic form would.  Neither Eugene O’Neill’s Abortion (1914) nor Peyton Place in its film or television forms would succeed as comedies because the topics of the dramas could not possibly be comedic.

Fourth, like ancient Greek drama, contemporary comedy does include political persons because they are safe to criticize or excoriate as public servants.  Oedipus was safely criticized in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex for his hamartia of rash anger, but there is nothing essentially comedic about his description of the murder scene of his father and attendants.  Similarly, contemporary audiences would watch in horror as human beings are rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the film Schindler’s List; no one could possibly find anything comedic about the events or fault Schindler in trying to save Jews from the Nazis.

Finally, most obviously, watching a tragedy creates negative emotions (fear, sadness, or something similar) which are purged from the viewer by means of the drama, and this catharsis is essential according to Aristotle.  Unless a reader or viewer were most perverse, who would laugh at the description of Oedipus’ gouging out his eyes or a Christian being beheaded by an Islamic terrorist?[7]  In contrast, comedy is able to induce an audience to laughter, no matter if the work is as old as a Shakespeare situational comedy or how many times a comedy is viewed.  The wooing of Kate by Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592) is still endearing, and it is noteworthy that our appreciation of the humor of the wooing obtains despite decades of feminist attempts to condemn the scenes as manifestations of heteropatriarchal oppression of women.  Similarly, Lucille Ball’s “Vitameatavegamin” episode on the I Love Lucy comedy show maintains its status as a comedic masterpiece, even though television audiences have since enjoyed nearly seven decades of other skits after Ball’s famous episode was broadcast in 1952.

Principles of Comedy After Ancient Greece

The chronology of literary theorists who, while not elaborating, then certainly ratifying or reiterating the essential principles of comedy from its Greek origins can be quickly summarized.  Greek comedy developed these principles over at least several hundred years, and most scholars maintain that Roman comedy merely appropriated Greek dramas and comedies and the theoretical principles behind them to the point of repetition.[8]

By the thirteenth century, however, in his Letter to Can Grande della Scala (1314-1317 or 1319-1320) Dante provides a clearer point-counterpoint definition of comedy for his era:

Comedy, then, is a certain genre of poetic narrative differing from all others.  For it differs from tragedy in its matter, in that tragedy is tranquil and conducive to wonder at the beginning, but foul and conducive to horror at the end, or catastrophe, for which reason it is derived from tragos, meaning “goat,” and oda, making it, as it were, a “goat song,” that is, foul as a goat is foul.  […]  Comedy, on the other hand, introduces a situation of adversity, but ends its matter in prosperity, as is evident in Terence’s comedies.  […]  And, as well, they differ in their manner of speaking.  Tragedy uses an elevated and sublime style, while comedy uses an unstudied and low style, which is what Horace implies in the Art of Poetry where he allows comic writers occasionally to speak like the tragic….  (qtd. in Richter 122-3)

          Two centuries later, after prefacing his remarks on comic poets as those “whom naughty play-makers and stage-keepers have justly made odious”,[9] Sir Philip Sidney defines “the comedy” in his An Apology for Poetry (1583) as

an imitation of the common errors of our life, which he representeth in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one.

Now, as in geometry the oblique must be known as well as the right, and in arithmetic the odd as well as the even, so in the actions of our life who seeth not the filthiness of evil wanteth a great foil to perceive the beauty of virtue.  This doth the comedy handle so in our private and domestical matters, as with hearing it we get as it were an experience [….]  So that the right use of comedy will (I think) by nobody be blamed….  (qtd. in Richter 147)

          Nearly two more centuries after Sidney, Samuel Johnson affirms Sidney’s claims about the coarseness of comedy in his Preface to Shakespeare (1765).[10]  In the early nineteenth century, Percy Bysshe Shelley has stronger words about the decline of the dramatic arts of both tragedy and comedy in his A Defence of Poetry (written 1821, published 1840), focusing on how social decay and obscenity affected the genres.[11]  By the end of the nineteenth century, George Meredith’s 1877 essay expands the study of comedy slightly.  He shifts criteria for the appreciation of comedy from the literary form itself or from the comedian to the audience, and he does so early in the essay, in its second paragraph:

There are plain reasons why the Comic poet is not a frequent apparition; and why the great Comic poet remains without a fellow.  A society of cultivated men and women is required, wherein ideas are current and the perceptions quick, that he may be supplied with matter and an audience.  The semi-barbarism of merely giddy communities, and feverish emotional periods, repel him; and also a state of marked social inequality of the sexes; nor can he whose business is to address the mind be understood where there is not a moderate degree of intellectual activity.

Later in his essay, Meredith clearly stipulates the moral force of comedy[12] and affirms the ancient idea of comedy being concerned with ordinary events in human life: “Comedy thus treated may be accepted as a version of the ordinary worldly understanding of our social life; at least, in accord with the current dicta concerning it.”[13]

Twentieth-century literary criticism of comedy reaffirms the ancient ideas, refining them slightly.  Bakhtin’s discussion of “common language”, defined as “usually the average norm of spoken and written language for a given social group” in a passage from “Discourse in the Novel” (1934-1935), may be most instructive when analyzing the role of the comic as author and his or her audience as the targeted social group (qtd. in Richter 588).  Moreover, if some substitutions were made in the passage below, Bakhtin’s further commentary about the interaction between author and his or her language can be read as directly pertaining to the comic and his or her audience:

The relationship of the author to a language conceived as the common view is not static—it is always found in a state of movement and oscillation that is more or less alive (this sometimes is a rhythmic oscillation): the author exaggerates, now strongly, now weakly, one or another aspect of the “common language,” sometimes abruptly exposing its inadequacy to its object and sometimes, on the contrary, becoming one with it, maintaining an almost imperceptible distance, sometimes even forcing it to reverberate with his own “truth,” which occurs when the author completely merges his own voice with the common view.  (qtd. in Richter 588)

Northrop Frye continues the sexual function of comedy as one of his essential four archetypes, although its categorization undergoes a significant shift.  In the essay “The Archetypes of Literature” (1951), Frye includes the “archetype of comedy, pastoral, and idyll” under the second phase (“The zenith, summer, and marriage or triumph phase”); Richter notes that “In Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye shifted romance to the summer season and comedy from summer to spring” (698).  This shift seems more in tune with the natural order of events, presuming that sexual activity occurs in spring, leading to its fruition of new life throughout the “summer” season.

Late twentieth-century literary criticism on comedy has little to offer the twenty-first century reader regarding how this genre of literature addresses the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.[14]  This lack of scholarly attention is surprising since the life issues became prominent political matters after the violation of the first civil right began in the last third of the twentieth century.  Perhaps critiquing the efforts of comedians who attempt to make the life issues funny is not worthy of scholarly attention, especially since the anti-life sector of the scholarly community is itself aligned with life-denying values.  That is, many anti-life academics think that abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are solutions to topics that academia thinks are vitally more important issues, such as overpopulation (so-called), often referenced as a support for the killing of the unborn child, or concern with one’s quality of life and autonomy—these two concepts often cited in support of killing the handicapped newborn in infanticide and killing the elderly and medically vulnerable in euthanasia.

Even contemporary literary guides either ignore the principles of comedy or ignore them so that comedy is defined simplistically, avoiding the rich detail of ancient authors who defined the genre and subsequent authors who refined it.  For example, M. H. Abrams defines “comedy” in his 1999 glossary as:

In the most common literary application, a comedy is a fictional work in which the materials are selected and managed primarily in order to interest and amuse us: the characters and their discomfitures engage our pleasurable attention rather than our profound concern, we are made to feel confident that no great disaster will occur, and usually the action turns out happily for the chief characters.  (38)

Such a reduction of the purposes of comedy omits several key ideas from the ancient world’s understanding of the genre, and the omissions will have a profound effect on criticism’s ability to evaluate comedic works by persons who oppose the right to life of the unborn, the handicapped newborn, and the elderly.

          Now that some key principles of what constitutes comedy have been identified, the task remaining for this study is determining whether contemporary comedy on the life issues, manifested most succinctly in jokes, meets the criteria suggested by those principles.  Excepting research within the past half century on the “dead baby joke” cycle, and granting that comedy on infanticide is rare,[15] there are a larger number of attempts to make the remaining two life issues comedic.  For brevity’s sake, Louis C.K.’s joke will be considered as an attempt at abortion comedy, five of the dead baby jokes will be reviewed as attempts at infanticide comedy, and the episode involving Teri Schiavo in the Family Guy television series will be analyzed as an attempt at euthanasia humor.

Louis C.K.’s Joke as an Attempt at Abortion Comedy

          Louis C.K.’s abortion joke has been criticized for its stark and offensive treatment of abortion, yet audiences laugh at his humor.[16]  Here again is the joke as recorded by Felsenthal:

I think you should not get an abortion unless you need one.  In which case you better get one.  […]  I mean, seriously: If you need an abortion, you better get one.  Don’t fuck around.  And hurry!  Not getting an abortion that you need is like not taking a shit[;] that’s how bad that is.  It’s like not taking a shit.  That’s what I think.  I think abortion is exactly like taking a shit.  It’s one hundred percent the exact same thing as not taking a shit.  Or it isn’t.  It is or it isn’t.  It’s either taking a shit or it’s killing a baby.  It’s only one of those two things.  It’s no other things [sic].  So if you didn’t like hearing that it’s like taking a shit, you think it’s like killing a baby.  That’s the only other one you get to have.

          Tackling Louis C.K.’s joke according to the ancient principles may be difficult because one is struck immediately by logical fallacies obvious throughout the joke.  The multiple negations in the joke, from the first line (“should not get an abortion unless”) to the simpler “It is or it isn’t”, impede the understanding of the attempt’s possible humor.  Also impeding an easy understanding of the meaning behind the joke is the vulgarity throughout.  Louis C.K. does not use “fuck” as the low register term for marital sexual activity; instead, he uses it as an alternative to “hesitate”, where “Don’t fuck around” means more “Don’t wait” than the sexual denotation of the term.  Similarly, Louis C.K. does not use “shit” as the low register term for excrement.  He uses the terms as interjections, which may appeal to the audience as a shock value, but the terms do nothing to advance the intent of the joke.

          These initial objections aside, considering whether the five principles apply to this joke is relatively easy.  First, the joke falters on an essential point of not distinguishing between the tragedy of abortion and anything which could be comic.  Certainly, some people may find abortion funny; the comedians considered here attest to that.  However, even their attempts at making abortion comedic fail because there is always something which manifests the inherent tragedy of abortion.  Louis C.K.’s joke itself recognizes the inherent tragedy of abortion.  Admitting that one alternative way of thinking about abortion is explicitly naming it “killing a baby” should give even the most jaundiced pro-abortion audience pause.  The term “killing” still maintains its negative connotation, even after nearly five decades of Roe v. Wade’s anti-life ideological attempt to force the positive sounding “pro-choice” linguistic distortion on the nation.

          On the second principle, Louis C.K.’s joke does cover a common bodily function, and one can admit that there could be much humor in the activity.  (Anyone who changes a baby’s diaper will ineluctably find humor in the situation to erase the displeasure of the activity itself.)  However, the purpose of Louis C.K.’s joke is not to comment on the bodily activity, but to compare it with the killing of a human being.  Louis C.K.’s choices offered to the audience are clear: “I think abortion is exactly like taking a shit.”  If the use of the low register term was intended to generate the desire to laugh, then the ability to move from generating the desire to laugh to laughing outright falters.  The bodily function of excreting is not comparable with killing a human being; both cannot be combined in the abstract category of excretion or elimination.  The activities occur in different categories because one is truly a bodily function; the other is a violent act perpetrated on a body.

          Discussing the cognitive dissonance between bodily function and the act of killing a human being which Louis C.K. confuses in his joke leads to an evaluation of the third principle from ancient comedy: the naughtiness of the joke itself.  Here, too, the joke fails.  Is the intent of anything in the joke either “bawdy, erotic, naughty, or obscene”?  Of course, the effectiveness of the power of the terms is not obvious in their alphabetical listing.  Something which is “naughty” is relatively innocent, but something “obscene” is the polar opposite; what constitutes bawdiness or eroticism as items between those poles would occupy much more space than is required here.  It is sufficient to say that there is nothing in the joke which is bawdy, inducing to eroticism, which should be the proper quality to encourage sexual activity between a husband and a wife.  Also, while the act of excretion could be naughty, it is not obscene since it is a necessary bodily function.  The obscenity of the joke resides in connecting a natural bodily function with killing a human being.

          Beyond the obvious (that his joke concerns the contemporary issue of abortion), whether Louis C.K. intended to comment on contemporary political persons or to effect change is unclear.  Perhaps Louis C.K. is arguing that abortion should remain legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever (current US law) since, “If you need an abortion, you better get one.”  Using “better get” suggests that the legality of abortion is tenuous and that the mother who wants to have the child killed should do so before the first civil right to life is reestablished.  However, absent outside evidence, Louis C.K.’s intention cannot be determined based on the words themselves.  Therefore, Louis C.K. fails to meet the fourth principle of ancient Greek comedy.

Finally, although this paragraph of commentary may seem redundant (repeating the first principle), it is important to note that, if the intent of all comedy is to produce humor, then it is not possible to read or to hear Louis C.K.’s joke and laugh.  There must be something funny about the joke, a judicious reader may ask.  Perhaps.  The indecisiveness of the speaker could be comical.  The hesitation between asserting one choice over another can be laughable.  The humor in the joke, therefore, is not about abortion itself, but the dramatic effect of the presentation of the joke.  Can anything else be humorous about the joke?  Answering that question must be relegated to others whose ability to deconstruct pro-abortion nonsense and agitprop is better than mine.

“Dead Baby Jokes” as Attempts at Infanticide Comedy

          Alan Dundes’ research on dead baby jokes is noteworthy not only for having collected several popular jokes in the cycle, but also for providing commentary on the sociology behind such jokes.  Dundes notes that the jokes are delivered as riddles, often beginning with the interrogative “what”, as in that example which he identifies as “probably the most common dead baby joke […] What’s red and sits in a corner?  A baby chewing (teething on, eating, sucking on)[17] razor blades” (151).[18]  Gruesomeness is characteristic of these jokes, as in the following example, which aligns itself with the innocuous joke which begins this study: “How did the dead baby cross the road?  He was stapled to a chicken” (Dundes 152).

          Sociologically, Dundes tries to attribute the popularity of such jokes as a reaction to “the visual reporting of the Vietnam war with its unending pictures of carnage and death” or to “the growing fear of technology” (153).  “But the most obvious interpretation of the cycle,” Dundes argues,

would seem to be a protest against babies in general.  The attempt to legalize abortion and the increased availability of improved means of contraception, e.g., the pill, have brought the debate about the purpose of sexual activity into the public arena  [….]  Women’s liberation ideology may have contributed too by insisting that women’s place was not necessarily in the home and that motherhood was not the only career open to women.  More and more, babies were perceived as a perfidious male plot to keep women subjugated.  “Keep ‘em barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen” is a folk dictum expressing this male chauvinistic point of view.  Thus for women to be liberated, they need to keep from getting pregnant, or if they become pregnant, they might wish to consider abortion as a means of retaining their newly found freedom.  (154)

Dundes’ conclusion about the dead baby jokes is trenchant: “Folklore is always a reflection of the age in which it flourishes and so whether we like it or not, the dead baby cycle is a reflection of American culture in the 1960s and 1970s.  If we do not like the image, we should not blame the mirror.  If anything is sick, it is the society which produces such humor” (155).  It is not anachronistic, but prophetic to say that this statement applies to the culture of 2020 as much as it did to the culture of 1979 when his research was first published.[19]

          The following are five jokes discussed by Dundes which will be evaluated according to the five principles derived from ancient Greek comedy.  For easy reference, the jokes are arranged in alphabetical order:

How did the dead baby cross the road?  He was stapled to a chicken.

What’s harder to unload, a truck full of bowling balls or a truck full of dead babies?  A truck full of bowling balls because you can’t use a pitchfork.

What’s more fun than nailing a dead baby to a wall?  Ripping it off again.

What’s red and sits in a corner?  A baby chewing razor blades.

What’s red and swings?  A baby on a meathook.

The first matter to address regarding the above sample dead baby jokes is that they are not entirely about infanticide since they concern mutilation of corpses of newborns.  The first three jokes meet this criterion while the remaining two properly involve a born child being killed or in the act of dying; whether the narrator is a participant in the killing is irrelevant.[20]  Thus, on the first principle from ancient Greek comedy, it could be correct to place the jokes in the category of comedy instead of tragedy since the death of the human being, the newborn child, has already occurred.  That is, it is “safe” to find humor when the person who might suffer from the attempt at humor is no longer living.[21]  The ability to classify these jokes as comedy is enhanced because, like many abortion jokes, the dead babies are not named.  That is, the joke does not involve the threat to the life of an actual human being named Miroslav when he plays with razor blades or to the dying or dead body of an actual human being who is or was once named Catherine which is impaled on a meathook, but a nondescript, unnamed baby, identified only by either the definite or the indefinite article.  Even with such tortured rationalization, however, abuse of a corpse is inherently a tragic and not a comedic act.

The dead baby jokes nuance the second principle (commenting on ordinary matters in human life) since they invariably place ordinary objects in extraordinary situations.  This juxtaposition is a typical comedic strategy, where the expected use of an object becomes unexpected and therefore humorous.  For example, the many uses of a whipped cream pie include displaying it in a bakery window, eating it, having it accidentally fall onto the floor, etc.[22]  Comedy results when such a pie is not being eaten but thrown into the face of one of the Three Stooges.  In dead baby jokes, however, the extraordinary placements of things like staples, bowling balls, pitchforks, nails used to affix things to walls, razor blades, and meathooks are used not within, but beyond their ordinary classifications.

          While the dead baby examples are not bawdy, erotic, or naughty, they are gruesome like contemporary horror films which do not hesitate to show the act of killing or blood gushing from a victim’s body.  In this way, dead baby jokes fit the designation of obscene in the etymological sense.  In the ancient Greek theater, anything “obscene” was, literally, “off stage”, unlike the contemporary denotation of the term which restricts it to pornography.  An obscene event was something which occurred off stage and was related on stage by a messenger or servant.  Think, for example, of the servant in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, who relates not only how Jocasta hanged herself, but also how Oedipus gouged out his eyes using the brooches from his mother’s dress.  In the ancient Greek mind, these horrifying events could not be performed on the stage; one hopes that contemporary viewers would not desire to see these bloodthirsty events occur on stage, on their televisions, or on their streaming devices.

Similarly, the dead baby jokes involve actions on the babies’ bodies which should never be shown on stage, on televisions, or on streaming devices.  Stapling a baby’s body, thrusting a pitchfork into a baby’s body, nailing a baby’s body to a wall, or meathooking a baby’s body are actions which are irredeemably gruesome and horrifying—in short, obscene.

          Determining the implicit “civic or social element” of the fourth principle should be left to scholars like Dundes, but some commentary can be provided about the political intentions of the dead baby jokes from a pro-life perspective.  For example, although many, including Dundes, might see the jokes as manifestations of feminist ideology gone awry or a greater need for artificial contraception to prevent babies being born in the first place, I suggest that the dead baby jokes give those who read them a perception of infanticide killers that they never would have entertained.  That is, what person is so cruel that he or she would staple a baby’s body, or thrust a pitchfork into it, or not only nail a baby’s body to a wall once but then delight in extracting it from its nailed condition, or, worst of all, meathook a baby’s body as though the body of that child were equal with an animal’s?  The reader of the jokes would rightfully conclude that the hidden actors of the dead baby jokes, the agents who perform the infanticides or mutilations of the corpses, should be condemned, ostracized, imprisoned, or institutionalized for the criminally insane.  Such psychopaths do not have a place in a life-affirming society.

          Finally, regarding the fifth principle, the question asked of the abortion jokes generates a significant reply here regarding infanticide.  Is there anything funny about the dead baby jokes?  Can the jokes induce one to laugh?  While a direct answer is no, quite possibly, the dead baby jokes illustrate how easily comedy can be frustrated.  That is, with the exception of the first three sample jokes which explicitly mention “dead baby” in the interrogative portion of the riddles, the jokes follow the expectation that such riddles will be amusing and clever, so the auditor or the reader is already predisposed to finding the joke humorous.  However, the second portion of the dead baby jokes deflates the expectation of humor since the punchline is anything but comical; as was explained above, the gruesome actions against the bodies of the babies do not merit humor or even the slightest snicker, let alone laugh.  If this interpretation is accurate, then the essential cathartic value of comedy is frustrated, and the dead baby jokes become unfulfilled opportunities either to effect change or to delight readers with humor.  The opportunity that the dead baby jokes can fulfill, however, is being documentary evidence justifying Dundes’ claim that, “If anything is sick, it is the society which produces such humor” (155).

The Teri Schiavo Episode in Family Guy as an Attempt at Euthanasia Comedy

          The episode on the television comedy Family Guy which mocks Teri Schiavo is now infamous in the litany of broadcast media attacking pro-lifers and those who are victims of the euthanasia movement.  The visual component of the attempt at humor in the episode is as important as the verbal, just as, no doubt, the performance of the comedians cited above as they joked about abortion may have contributed to the reception of the joke.

Although the visual rhetoric of the show must be relegated to future research, since this study is focused on determining if the five principles culled from ancient Greek comedy apply to this contemporary example of euthanasia humor, considering the linguistic component only must suffice.  The following is a transcription of the opening sequence of the episode:[23]

Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): Hi Doctor, it’s me, Michael Schiavo.  How’s my wife doing?

Child 2 (Doctor): She’s a vegetable.

Child 3 (Doctor): I hate vegetables.


Child 2 (Doctor): Don’t worry about her, Mr. Schiavo.  She’s being kept alive by medical science.

Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): Gee, look at all this stuff.  How does it all work?

Child 2 (Doctor): Well, I’ll tell you.

This one keeps her liver clean.

This one checks her pee.

Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): How about this one over here?

Child 2 (Doctor): Oh, that’s just the TV.

Chorus: Ha ha ha

[Child 2 (Doctor):] This one checks her heart rate.

This one checks her veins.

And this dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains.

Chorus: Oh oh oh

Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.

What a lively little bugger.

Bass child doctor: Maybe we should just unplug her.

Chorus: Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.

The most expensive plant you’ll ever see.


Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): There’s only one solution.

It’s in the Constitution.

We’ve got to pull the plug!  (“Terri Schiavo: The Musical”)

          Whereas it might be possible to classify the dead baby jokes as comedy because the dead babies were not named, the attempt to classify this example as euthanasia comedy fails significantly, for the person dishonored in the joke was a real human being who was starved to death.  Even the depiction of Schiavo as a cartoon character does not eliminate the inability to classify the joke as an example of comedy; the audience sees a cartoon character, but the audience also knows from common knowledge that the cartoon is based on a real human being.  Thus, regarding the first principle, this attempt at euthanasia humor exists not in the genre of comedy, but of tragedy; nothing comic can be said about the starvation and dehydration death of Schiavo.

          The episode violates the second principle of trying to create humor in two ways: first, Schiavo is simply reduced to an entity whose bodily functions are monitored by medical equipment; second, Schiavo’s medical condition is such that the machines used to assist her were viewed not as ancillary means of supporting her physical life, but as crucial instruments of her being.  Therefore, although medical technology often intervenes in the ordinary lives of ordinary people, the severity of Schiavo’s situation does not fall within the realm of humor; if anything, a respectful attitude towards the seriousness of her medical condition is warranted.

Also, while some bodily functions can generate humor, the impossibility of humor in this situation is predicated on the disrespect towards the integrity of the person at the center of the joke.  That is, no human being is merely an entity on whom a machine works to “keep her liver clean”, “check her pee”, or “check her veins.”  The ultimate insult against Schiavo’s humanity precedes all these technological assertions when the cartoon character of Schiavo’s husband reduces her to a “vegetable” (to which the audience in the episode eventually laughs).  Dehumanizing Schiavo with the vegetable metaphor continues when the doctor describes a machine which “dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains.”  A final consideration for this second principle is that Schiavo is recognized not as a human being endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, but as “The most expensive plant you’ll ever see”, an additional dehumanization, varying the vegetable metaphor.

          The same opportunity to designate the dead baby jokes as obscene, a term used in the third principle, occurs in the Schiavo episode as well with an important qualification.  The Schiavo segment aired on national television on 21 March 2010, so the audience knew that Schiavo was starved and dehydrated to death five years earlier.  Unlike the dead baby jokes, where unnamed babies either were dying or were killed, this circumstance clearly identifies an actual human being who was starved to death and whose legal situation was debated and broadcast continuously on American media.  In a sense, then, even though she was imprisoned in the seclusion of a tightly guarded nursing home room, Schiavo’s killing was obscene in that it was not committed “off stage” (the etymological sense of “obscene”), but “on stage”, if one considers that television and streaming services provided immediate communication of Schiavo’s condition and conflicts between protesters for and against her killing.  There was nothing private about the starvation and dehydration which Schiavo endured, and the joke does nothing but add to the tragedy of her killing.

          The fourth principle derived from ancient Greek comedy suggests that this attempt at humor does indeed “comment on current political persons and events with great freedom for the purpose of effecting change” in a significant way.  However, the political criticism of the joke affects the cartoon character of Schiavo’s husband, Michael, and condemns him for his sheer ignorance.  Towards the end of the song, Michael ignorantly claims that “There’s only one solution. / It’s in the Constitution. / We’ve got to pull the plug!”  Michael’s character is blissfully unaware that he is engaged in an either/or logical fallacy, thinking that Schiavo’s medical condition warrants only the two choices of either “pulling the plug” or not.  Factually, of course, the US Constitution (the term is lower case in the original transcription) does not contain a provision of allowing the starvation and dehydration of human beings, yet Michael thinks that he has the constitutional authority to exercise control over Schiavo to the point of securing judicial approval of her killing.

          Regarding the fifth principle derived from ancient Greek comedy, is it possible that the attempt at euthanasia humor in the Schiavo episode could produce enough humor to the point of making people laugh?  I argue that this is not possible because what could have been humorous is deflected in every case.  A doctor’s response to Michael’s question about Schiavo’s condition contains the commonly misinterpreted and medically inappropriate abbreviation of “persistent vegetative state” to “She’s a vegetable”; this reply then becomes another doctor’s petulant declaration, “I hate vegetables.”  Why is it necessary to deflect Schiavo’s medical state to a declaration of another person’s distaste of a food group?  Further in the song, a doctor replies to Michael’s question about the function of a medical device with the casual “Oh, that’s just the TV.”  Confusing a medical CRT screen with a television is possible, but how likely is it that a presumably intelligent adult like Michael Schiavo, who had been around medical equipment to assist his wife for a long time, could confuse the two?  A final example from the song involves another machine which “dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains.”  That a doctor would utter such an admittedly illogical statement and try to pass it off as a joke in a serious medical environment is not humorous, but reprehensible.

          This examination of attempts at humor on the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia by contemporary comedians has documented specific examples showing that such efforts have failed.  Not only that, but modern comedians’ attempts at comedy on the life issues indicate that what passes for humor on these issues is inconsistent with basic principles derived from ancient Greek comedy, the source for the theory on which all comedy rests.  Granted, twenty-first century life may be technologically, materially, and culturally different from how humans lived in the ancient world, but the psychology behind comedy as an art form providing education and entertainment different from tragedy has not changed over the past two thousand years, an insignificant amount of evolutionary time in which humanity’s essential nature could have changed.  Moreover, the addition of vulgarity and illogical statements presented by contemporary comedians as decisive argumentation to advance the killing of the unborn, the newborn, or the elderly or medically vulnerable in lieu of logical and creative literary effort neither adds to nor negates the five principles of ancient comedy discussed here.

Perhaps contemporary comedians are simply ignorant of what constitutes comedy.  If so, then modern comedians need to study the fundamental principles of their profession; they could begin their ascent from leftist indoctrination by reviewing the cartoons of Wayne Stayskal, cartoonist of the life issues extraordinaire, especially those found in his “—Till Euthanasia Do You Part?”: Cartoons.  Perhaps contemporary comedians are simply hack partisans in a life-denying movement which believes that adherence to leftist ideology devoid of respect for human life replaces established principles of comedy and logic in the creation of literary items meant to create laughter.  If this is the case, then modern comedians need to abandon their illogical anti-life positions and support the lives of their fellow human beings—which is the existential purpose of all great literature, in either category of tragedy or comedy.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed., Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Aristotle. Rhetoric; Poetics. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater, Modern Library, 1984.

Brunschwig, Jacques, and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, editors. Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge. Translated by Catherine Porter, Belknap Press, 2000.

Burbach, Harold J., and Charles E. Babbit. “An Exploration of the Social Functions of Humor among College Students in Wheelchairs.” Journal of Rehabilitation, vol. 59, no. 1, Jan. 1993, p. 6. EBSCOhost,

Casson, Lionel. Masters of Ancient Comedy: Selections from Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, Terence. Minerva Press, 1960.

Dundes, Alan. “The Dead Baby Joke Cycle.” Western Folklore, vol. 38, no. 3, 1979, pp. 145–157. JSTOR, Accessed 13 July 2020.

Felsenthal, Julia. “Is Now the Right Time for Louis C.K.’s Abortion Jokes?” Vogue, 4 April 2017.

Hadas, Moses, editor. The Complete Plays of Aristophanes. Bantam Books, 1962.

Hays, Gabriel. “Comedian Michelle Wolf Jokes Killing Her Baby in an Abortion Made Her More ‘Like God’.”, 17 Dec. 2019,

LaughPlanet.  “Hilarious Abortion Jokes: Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Bill Hicks.” YouTube, 29 Feb. 2020,

Lucas, F. L. Greek Tragedy and Comedy. Viking Press, 1967.

Meredith, George. “An Essay on Comedy.” Project Gutenberg, 13 May 2005,

Mulder, Tara. “Female Trouble in Terence’s Hecyra: Rape-Pregnancy Plots and the Absence of Abortion in Roman Comedy.” Helios, vol. 46, issue 1 (spring 2019), pp. 35-56.

Oates, Whitney Jennings, and Charles Theophilus Murphy, editors. Perseus Digital Library: Greek Literature in Translation. Longmans, Green, 1944.

Plautus. Amphitryon, or Jupiter in Disguise. Henry Thomas Riley, editor. Greek and Roman Materials,,0119,001:1:prol#note-link5.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Romm, Cari. “How to Make an Abortion Joke.” The Cut, 2 May 2018.

Stayskal, Wayne. “—Till Euthanasia Do You Part?”: Cartoons. Baker Book House, 1993.

“Terri Schiavo: The Musical.” Family Guy Wiki,

Watson, Walter. The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics. University of Chicago, 2012.

[1] Gabriel Hays’ study of Wolf’s attempt at humor is a lucid analysis of how having aborted her child made Wolf feel “like God.”

[2] Since later literary critics have affirmed and elaborated only slightly the ancient principles of comedy, relying on Aristotle’s lost book may be unnecessary.  However, future researchers may be interested in Walter Watson’s The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics.

[3] For example, the 1,025-page Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, edited by Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University (2000), virtually omits comedy in its review of Greek literature.  The briefest mention about Aristotle and comedy occurs on page 456, while the balance of the section on Greek poetics discusses tragedy.

[4] Aristotle expounds on the etymology of “comedy” at length in Poetics, focusing on the competing interests of the Greek city states in claiming the origin of the genre; see 1448a 30ff (226).  Dante includes the etymology of “comedy” in his Letter to Can Grande della Scala when he discusses why his poem is titled Divine Comedy more simply: “To understand the title, it must be known that comedy is derived from comos, ‘a village,’ and from oda, ‘a song,’ so that a comedy is, so to speak, ‘ a rustic song’” (qtd. in Richter 122).

[5] Horace notes in his The Art of Poetry that the ability of dramatists in Old Comedy to engage in such civic-minded criticism eventually ended because of its inherent freedom to critique policy:

            These tragic arts

Were succeeded by Old Comedy, whose many good points

Should be noted.  From freedom that form declined into license

And fell upon violent ways that required regulation.

The law was obeyed and the chorus then lapsed into silence,

Deprived of its right to insult and abuse its victims.  (qtd. in Richter 90)

[6] Plautus is credited with the concept of a “tragicomedy” when Mercury begins the prologue to Amphitryon, or Jupiter in Disguise (190-185 BC) with the following:

Now, the matter which I came here to ask, I’ll first premise, after that I’ll tell the subject of this Tragedy.  Why have you contracted your brows?  Is it because I said that this would be a Tragedy?  I am a God, and I’ll change it.  This same, if you wish it, from a Tragedy I’ll make to be a Comedy, with all the lines the same.  Whether would ye it were so, or not?  But I’m too foolish; as though I didn’t know, who am a God, that you so wish it; upon this subject I understand what your feelings are.  I’ll make this to be a mixture–a Tragi-comedy.  For me to make it entirely to be a Comedy, where Kings and Gods appear, I do not deem right.  What then?  Since here the servant has a part as well, just as I said, I’ll make it to be a Tragi-comedy.

Sir Philip Sidney later summarized the “tragicomical” category in his An Apology for Poetry (1595) thus: “it is to be noted that some poesies have coupled together two or three kinds, as tragical and comical, whereupon is risen the tragicomical” (qtd. in Richter 146).

[7] This rhetorical question was suggested by Horace two thousand years ago in his The Art of Poetry when he addressed the essential emotional differences between tragedy and comedy:

            A good comic sequence

Just won’t submit to treatment in the meters of tragedy.

Likewise, Thyestes’ feast resents being told

In strains more nearly like those that comedy needs

In the vein of everyday life.  Let each of the styles

Be assigned to the places most proper for it to maintain.  (qtd. in Richter 86)

[8] Casson summarizes the chronology of the ancient world thus: “Ancient comedy had three great periods, each about seventy-five years long: Old Comedy between roughly 475 and 400 B.C., New Comedy between 325 and 250, and Roman Comedy between 225 and 150.  By 250 B.C. the creative spirit of Greek comedy and, a century later, that of Roman comedy were exhausted” (423).

[9] Sidney later refutes the charge that “They say the comedies rather teach than reprehend amorous conceits” with the reverse proposition: “not […] that poetry abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry” (qtd. in Richter 151).

[10] Discussing comedic playwrights of his day, Johnson writes: “In his comic scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm; their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners” (qtd. in Richter 222).

[11] Shelley writes that

in periods of the decay of social life, the drama sympathizes with that decay.  […]  Comedy loses its ideal universality: wit succeeds to humour; we laugh from self-complacency and triumph instead of pleasure; malignity, sarcasm and contempt, succeed to sympathetic merriment; we hardly laugh, but we smile.  Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life, becomes, from the very veil which it assumes, more active if less disgusting: it is a monster for which the corruption of society for ever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret.  (qtd. in Richter 353)

[12] Meredith supports the moral force of comedy as enunciated by the ancients, albeit itself couched in joking terms:

Whether the puppet show of Punch and Judy inspires our street-urchins to have instant recourse to their fists in a dispute, after the fashion of every one of the actors in that public entertainment who gets possession of the cudgel, is open to question: it has been hinted; and angry moralists have traced the national taste for tales of crime to the smell of blood in our nursery-songs.  It will at any rate hardly be questioned that it is unwholesome for men and women to see themselves as they are, if they are no better than they should be: and they will not, when they have improved in manners, care much to see themselves as they once were.  That comes of realism in the Comic art; and it is not public caprice, but the consequence of a bettering state.  The same of an immoral may be said of realistic exhibitions of a vulgar society.

[13] My concern with contemporary comedy rendered as jokes more than lengthy dramas or entire novels is supported by examples from Meredith’s essay, the following being a four-line joke to illustrate Meredith’s commentary about Congreve’s “surface wit” in The Way of the World.  Meredith writes that Congreve

drives the poor hack word, “fool,” as cruelly to the market for wit as any of his competitors.  Here is an example, that has been held up for eulogy:

Witwoud: He has brought me a letter from the fool my brother, etc. etc.

Mirabel: A fool, and your brother, Witwoud?

Witwoud: Ay, ay, my half-brother.  My half-brother he is; no nearer, upon my honour.

Mirabel: Then ’tis possible he may be but half a fool.

[14] Exceptions occur, of course, and include Harold J. Burbach and Charles E. Babbit’s 1993 research, documenting how humor fulfills seven social functions for persons who use wheelchairs, the third being turning tragedy into comedy.  Their research contributes a new idea to comedy: “The primary function of this kind of humor is to build morale for groups who are enduring a severe hardship by joking about their predicament” (8).  Thus, comedy as a lifesaving strategy is new in the literary criticism of the genre.

[15] Scholarly research on infanticide comedy is rarer.  An exception would include Tara Mulder’s research on Terence’s drama Hecyra.  This Roman work is apparently the only drama in the ancient world which attempted to make infanticide humorous.  Perhaps the topic is rare because the ancients knew what twenty-first century moderns apparently do not: there is nothing funny about killing a newborn child.

[16] While the joke to be considered here is not contained in a compilation of jokes about abortion posted by LaughPlanet to YouTube on 29 February 2020, the segment which features Louis C.K.’s routine is apparently appreciated by the audience, either for its vulgarity or for the political content of the jokes.  It should be remembered that, although analyzing the written words of these attempts at humor gives both the researcher and the reader certain advantages unavailable to an audience, the absence of an audience responding immediately to the presentation of the comedic effort is a distinct disadvantage.  Hearing an abortion joke is not the same as reading it.  The laughter which Louis C.K.’s joke generates from the audience may be unconscious; one must admit that even the darkest and most brutal dehumanizing joke could generate a spontaneous reaction like a giggle or a laugh.  Of course, the audience could simply be either ignorant of the political impact of his humor or inebriated, in which cases they would not be culpable for transgressing the moral implications of laughing at the killing of fellow human beings.

[17] These parenthetical variations are provided by Dundes.

[18] An older “what” dead baby joke is even more gruesome, especially for pro-lifers who are familiar with the Woodland Hills tragedy, where thousands of aborted babies’ bodies were discarded in a dumpster: “What’s harder to unload, a truck full of bowling balls (or bricks) or a truck full of dead babies?  A truck full of bowling balls because you can’t use a pitchfork” (Dundes 151).

[19] Dundes’ final sentence of his research is just as prophetic: “Having sexual relations without wishing to have babies or even the very knowledge of the fact that abortion clinics are a part of modern society has provided a source of anxiety which I believe is clearly a factor in the generation and transmission of dead baby jokes” (157).

[20] Dundes does include specific infanticide jokes which identify the person who commits the crime, such as this Harry Graham poem from 1899:

O’er the rugged mountain’s brow

Clara threw the twins she nursed,

And remarked, “I wonder now

Which will reach the bottom first?”  (qtd. in Dundes 147)

[21] I trust that the use of the modals “could” and “might” qualifies this conjecture and shows that I would defer to moral theologians to evaluate whether it is proper to laugh after someone has died.

[22] See the quote above by Hadas on pie throwing.

[23] Lines from the website have been retained, errors in capitalization and direct address have been corrected, and terminal punctuation for each line has been supplied.

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