We tend not to take artists too seriously if they make us laugh. Comedians, we assume, are there to divert us from the struggle of daily living—and the very word “diversion” suggests a departure from the prescribed path, the one we are supposed to follow toward our edification and maybe even our salvation. The canonical accounts of Yahweh’s justice and Christ’s mercy are notably short on amusement. On the other hand, the modern clowns we love—Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the young Evelyn Waugh, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, John Belushi, Monty Python—are notably short on solemnity. There are of course comedians who aspire to some higher purpose, often having to do with easy pathos or liberal enlightenment—the political grandstanding of late-night talk show hosts comes readily to mind. Still others may make us wince at our follies and failings but leave us no better than they found us. Of these, it is striking how many have come to grief themselves—witness Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams.

But there are also colossi of comic genius down the ages who tower over even the best of those named above: Mozart (with his operatic librettists Lorenzo Da Ponte and Emanuel Schikaneder), Molière, Cervantes, Shakespeare. Their sublime comedy raises audiences to heights unapproachable by more common laughter. They give us pause and make

Subscribe for access This article is reserved for subscribers.