The Prophetic edge to Comedy

Last year I read Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Halprin. This is an interesting story about the Prince and Princess of Wales being sent to re-conquer the United States. I won’t tell you if they are successful or not, that would ruin the fun. And they weren’t given an army to do it, they were dropped in via parachute (into New Jersey industrial lands), incognito, no money, nothing, and had to shift for themselves – like a giant survivor game, only in civilization, and without an emergency out.

The book is extremely funny, in the “this is ludicrous” sense. The names of the characters give you as sense of the sort of silliness I’m talking about: Lady Boylinghotte, Lord Cecil Psnake, Jus d’Orange ( a French military attaché), and Dewey Knott, the Republican Presidential candidate. The Prince’s dog wins the price for the most ridiculous name, Pha-Kew. Really. In one scene the Prince chases the dog, who has gone missing, and runs around town calling for the dog at the top of his lungs. Picture that.

One of the issues the book discusses is sanity. Prince Freddy’s interest in George III, who was infamously insane, makes sanity or madness idea come up frequently – as does the general worry, fed by the Press, that Freddy is himself insane. It runs in families after all, and George III is an ancestor. Freddy wonders (and so do we) what is sanity? What does it mean to be sane? Are we all insane in some way?

Freddy and Fredericka is extremely silly. It is so ridiculous that, a couple of times, I almost stopped reading. But then I didn’t. Something would happen and I’d be hooked again. Part of the hook comes from the interesting questions – like sanity, one of the clearer questions – and the social & political commentary the book makes. The book’s ridiculousness has an edge: Helprin uses comedy to tell us hard truth, softening the blow by making the hard truth look a bit ridiculous.

Helprin does as loads of questions and make comment on political systems in both the USA and UK. But it is hard to pin down exactly what he thinks things should be like instead. He tells us difficult things and makes us laugh, as any good comedian does, but then what do we do with this hard truth? Is it also the comic prophet’s job to give direction forward having pointed out the problem with the past?

I’m sure Helprin didn’t intend readers to muse on the function of the comic prophet in society after reading his book, but such things are out of an author’s control. Lots of comedians function as prophets in the West – they are almost the only people who can speak truth to power. In Canada, we’ve got 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer among others. They speak true things about the way things are, but do they always speak truly about the way thing should be? And does speaking truly about the future move away from comedy? I’m not sure.

What about prophets in the church? Should they bring in a comic edge to be better heard? Or does laughter drown out the truth?

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