Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Great Victor Borge

Last week in a broad discussion of character and disposition, we discussed the Roman concept of comitas as relief from overwhelming seriousness. We concluded that a balanced disposition, predominately serious but relieved by humor, would be ideal. Let us consider the objects of humor. There would seem to be two choices: what you don't approve of and what you do. In the former case one is of course at great liberty to ridicule, satirize, and so forth. This can range from light mockery of the object to a devastating lampooning. Yet how does one see humor in something which one essentially takes seriously?

For example, of course we expect an artist to have a "serious" commitment to his craft and we expect him to have principles by which he creates his work. Whether the work is comic or serious we expect the artist to have a consistent vision for what he can, ought to, and wants to achieve. We would not like it if he had a trivial view of his craft, thinking his work disposable, ineffective, or slipshod. We expect a seriousness and consistency of purpose, or constantia.

Relief from this overwhelming seriousness, then, would have to be of a particular nature not to demean the craft. It would have to refrain from trivializing and not turn the craft into a farce. Humor at art's expense ought to poke fun at what is already odd or esoteric instead of turning its virtues into vices. One ought not mock its purpose but rather the often idiosyncratic means of the craft. 

Enter Victor Borge

Our discussion continues below, but only read after you've watched the video.

Part I | Part II

First, the jokes are not broad but of a specifically musical nature. It is odd that in opera you sing the same thing over and over, it is odd that you sing a word with all sorts of effects, and it is odd when you're playing that you start to hum and sway. It's funny to see him call attention to curious conventions by doing something "wrong." He points out the oddness that what is really just a name becomes and immortal symbol, that Joe Green becomes "Giuseppe Verdi." We see the wacky gestures of conductors and what we all pretend makes sense in musical theater (see videos below.)

Other details simple tickle the funny bone, "Oh you don't tune," his shock when she bursts out singing, changing his playing style, and substituting a tune here or there.

Pardon this detailed look at comedy, but it seems we don't often analyze what we laugh at. I'm not sure why when we so painstakingly look at "serious" works, but it seems prudent to take closer look at least to make sure we're not trivializing something we do find important. For example, none of the conventions of performance Borge makes fun of are of value in themselves, but only at the service of performance and opera, i.e. artistic expression, which he does not mock.

Lastly, he pulls off the whole routine without either pretentiousness or vulgarity, and without demeaning his craft. It's not mean-spirited or divisive. He's a gentlemanly pianist just wondering why this lady's standing next to his piano and screaming. Oh, and he's hilarious.

See also:

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