12. May 2022

From Romanticism to Slapstick From Romanticism to Slapstick: On the trail of the comedy theorist Stephan Schütze

On the trail of the comedy theorist Stephan Schütze

My mate just told me he failed his exam in Aboriginal music. I said, Didger redoo it? (Pause for laughter) Did you smile? You are not alone. But why do we laugh? What are the origins of slapstick? Prof. Johannes Lehmann and Dr. Alexander Kling from the Institute of German Language and Literature seek answers to these and other questions. As part of a DFG funded project, they have been preparing a new edition of Stephan Schütze’s theories of comedy. Publication is expected for early 2022 . Eleonora Grammatikou caught up with them for an interview about the previously hidden sources of comedy.

Dr. Alexander Kling and Dr. Johannes Lehmann have rediscovered Stefan Schütze.
Dr. Alexander Kling and Dr. Johannes Lehmann have rediscovered Stefan Schütze. - Schütze was the first person to consider how a stiff body, a certain action, or repetition could be funny. © Photo: V. Lannert / University of Bonn
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You are both conducting research into the comedy theorist Stephan Schütze, but what is comedy theory?

Kling: Comedy theory makes the attempt to describe when things are funny or explain why people laugh when they do, so when things, events or persons have a comic effect and stimulate laughter. Some people deny the possibility of a general theory of comedy. They doubt whether we will ever be able to express this whole issue within a unitary theory and think that we should restrict ourselves to individual descriptions. Thinking about what is funny is comedy theory, and we can trace its roots back to antique times.

You consider Stephan Schütze to be an important figure in comedy theory, but he is relatively unknown. Why is that?

Kling: Several of well-known theories of comedy were developed during the romantic period. For example, the German writer Jean Paul (1763 – 1825) concentrated in the subjective side of comedy and focused on its human element. Jean Paul argued that comedy is rooted not in objects but human actions and perceptions. For our part, we would argue that this is not the only reason as to why we laugh, and that Stephan Schütze’s slapstick theory provides a much more plausible explanation. Schütze was an important figure in Weimar’s cultural life during the time of Goethe and was heavily involved in the Weimar publishing scene for 30 years, both as a writer and editor of paperbacks and journals. He also developed an important theory of comedy, an aspect of his output that we would like people to re-discover.

What is the focus of your forthcoming book on Stephan Schütze?

Lehmann: First of all, we would like to make his treatise available to modern researchers. We contend that Stephan Schütze was a central figure to the development of comedy theory; as such we aim to correct the prevailing view of him as a peripheral figure in this regard. We have written an introduction to and detailed commentary on his treatise and seek to place it in the context of 19th century comedy-theory.

Where does his theory represent a point of departure from the views of romanticism?

Kling: Romantic theories of comedy focus strongly on the human intellect and its efforts to produce nonsense. Schütze on the other hand, located humor in a funny posture and similar elements. As such, the focus moved from the cerebral to the physical, for instance the restrictions which our bodies place on us.

Physical comedy, like slipping on a banana peel or falling down on stage in general, has a long tradition in the history of comedy. The Commedia dell’arte (editor’s note: a form of theater from the16th to18th century) always drew a laugh from one actor hitting another; Schütze was the first to take what today we would call slapstick, seriously and incorporate in his theory.

So Stephan Schütze is something approaching the founder of slapstick theory?

Lehmann: We would say yes, he was. If you ask who first formulated something approaching a theory of slapstick comedy, we would have to say it was Stephan Schütze. He was the first person to consider how a stiff body, a certain action, or repetition could be funny. For example he said that five people walking across the stage one after each other is funny. His contemporaries on the other hand, merely shook their heads. They were unable to understand what he was talking about. Schütze had a great awareness of the physical and material conditions of comedy, an intriguing aspect of his work, which is underappreciated by current research.

What are the key aspects of slapstick comedy?

Kling: There are two principal types of slapstick. One brand of slapstick is an art form; an example is provided by the Loriot sketch “the picture is crooked”, in which an accident is staged that looks very accidental while in fact a high degree of artistry is being employed.  The humor is generated by the staging involved and the character themselves, the human figure which Loriot portrays. He plays an obsessively orderly person, a sort of librarian figure, whose need for order–indicated by his straightening of a picture–triggers the very chaos which he is struggling to prevent. The other brand of slapstick is the sort of comedy that we can see in our everyday lives. The classic example would be someone slipping up or tripping over something.

Is humor necessary to conduct research into comedy theory?

Lehmann: Of course! I attempt humor in my lectures from time to time, but unfortunately it usually doesn’t work out that well, or at least the students don’t understand my humor (laughs).

Nevertheless, I would define humor as a form of intelligent, alert observation of the world which helps to identify the naturally occurring amusing aspects of life. Humor requires a certain suspension of morality, which acts to inhibit laughter. The current trend towards preachiness makes people exceptionally humorless.

Humor requires us to retain a sense of the comic, which includes everything contradictory and ambivalent. Schütze would say that humor results from the interaction between our minds, bodies, freedom and the aspects of life that we are unable to determine. As such, laughter is both a release from and a reflection on the things that we cannot control. I think that we could all profit from a sense of humor, today more than ever.

The picture is crooked! Dr Alexander Kling tries to straighten the picture–like Loriot.
The picture is crooked! Dr Alexander Kling tries to straighten the picture–like Loriot. © Volker Lannert / University of Bonn
Stefan Schütze had a reputation as an oddity and belonged to Goethe’s circle.
Stefan Schütze had a reputation as an oddity and belonged to Goethe’s circle. - Born in Olvenstedt on November 1, 1771, Johann Stephan Schütze studied protestant theology, then worked as a private tutor and court administrator before going to Weimar to establish himself as a writer. He soon developed a reputation as an oddity, rooted in part in his shyness and short stature. Schütze corresponded with Arthur Schopenhauer and was a member of the circle around Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Schütze died on March 19, 1839. © cc0

The new edition of Stephan Schütz’s Versuch einer Theorie des Komischen (Attempt at a Theory of the Comic), edited and with a commentary by Alexander Kling and Johannes F. Lehmann, was produced as part of a DFG project in collaboration with Justus Beyerling and Alessia Heider and will appear in the Philosophische Bibliothek at Meiner in the fall of 2022.

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