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From Cathleen – A Serious Look at Humor

November 22, 2011

As we at Touchstone don our Christmas onesies, learn Busby Berkeley-esque choreography with shopping carts, and put finishing touches on re-written early 80s rock ballads, I’ve been thinking very seriously about the subject of “humor.”

It seems I am not alone. I recently stumbled across this fun and illuminating short essay by The New Yorker’s Bob Mankoff, which traces the etymology of “humor” from to its Latin root (humorem, meaning fluid) to medical practices of the ancient Greeks. From Hippocrates to Roman and Islamic physicians, “Humoral medicine” predominated medical thought until the advent of modern medicine in the 19th century (leeches, anyone?) and held that the four “humors” of the body–phlegm, blood, yellow and black bile–were responsible for a person’s health. Mankoff goes on to reveal:

“Humoral medicine eventually morphed into humoral psychology. Having your humors out of whack could make you dull, tetchy, overly hopeful, or a sourpuss.”

Dully, tetchy, overly hopeful, a sourpuss….sounds like an interesting bunch, at least from a theatrical perspective. Oh, wait…

“These characterological deviants were called “humorists,” and the people who mocked them were called “men of humor.” I know, I know, it should be the other way around, and in due time it was.”

The Old Guy, a hobo-politico of the yellow bile variety

Might I introduce some the cast of this year’s Christmas City Follies XII? Consider Bill George’s Old Guy (yellow bile), a cantankerous hobo-politico, with a fiery tongue to match his squeaky cart. The good-natured sanguine type (blood)– in both color and disposition– is clearly Follies’ beloved silent clown, Little Red. The melancholic of this year’s show may be Teresa, a cubicle-dwelling office cog moping out of the office party to wax nostalgic on childhood fancy, or perhaps even…Panda? We’ll see if he’s gotten out of his funk from last year’s Christmas Eve break up.

Teresa, an office-working melancholic

Along with his playful illustrations, Mankoff fills in the gap to the word’s modern-day usage:

“In the interim, the idea caught on that by throwing odd characters together on the stage, or in a book, you would have the ingredients of comic conflict. Conflict between different personality types is unpleasant in personal life but funny when exaggerated for comic effect.”

Every year, Christmas City Follies is truly a mixed bag, combining both verbal and non-verbal sketches, dance, live music and, at times, poignant reflections on the holiday season. Yet, it is in returning beloved characters year after year that cause Lehigh Valley children to grow into adults who, in turn, return as audience members with their own families. The ancient Greeks once sought to understand the complexity of human “personality” as a function of physical processes; we as actors create larger-than-life characters in an attempt to capture the essence of human “types” that make the world an interesting place, and through which we recognize the “out of whack”, oft-hidden, unsavory parts of ourselves… the sour, the gullible, the grumpy, mope… and laugh.

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