Someone once efficiently said that the difference between comedy and tragedy could be visualized as an arrow in a triangle. In tragedy, the arrow starts from the base and goes to the tip, the point of no return. In comedy, the arrow starts from the narrow point and moves to the base line, restoring a sense that all’s as well as it can be.
A good actor knows how to excel in both modes but likely will say that comedy is the more challenging. If tragedy fails, it’s sentimental melodrama or soap. If comedy fails, it’s disaster.
Despite his heroic embattled stance against invasion, lies, death threats and censorship, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is still being referred to as a former popular comedian, with YouTube showing snippets of him dancing with the stars. The implication, of course, is that he was out of his element as a statesman, that he was inexperienced as a politician, and that he lacked the gravitas needed to see the world through a glass darkly, and deal with it.
Perhaps true — but what’s the point in continuing to evoke an image or sentiment that has been put to the existential test and shows the mettle of a performer who understands the tragic sense of life that lurks beneath a comic surface?
As Mel Brooks popularized an old (Russian?) proverb in “The Twelve Chairs”: The comedian, especially a Jewish comedian, “hopes for the best, expects the worst.” Especially in a country with a legacy of ethnic violence.
Dictators are too narcissistic to have a sense of humor, even if they think they do when their pathology takes a sadistic turn. Comedy seeks some kind of reform or restoration of a social context. It turns on multiple perspective — the projection of contradiction, irony, ambiguity, absurdity.
Zelenskyy was a serious performer with a gift for sitcom humor and camp. In “Servant of the People,” he played a high school history teacher caught on camera railing against Ukrainian corruption, who becomes his country’s president. When Zelenskyy decided to run for president, he named his real political party “Servant of the People.” Zelenskyy got 70 percent of the vote.
Even short clips on YouTube show a man in charge of his craft and image. He’s both in and slightly out of script, with the action and with us, the watching world; a protagonist who is aware he’s part of an ensemble but also of his audience.
It’s this last achievement, of leading and being part of a people, his people, that has earned Zelenskyy not only respect but affection. A professional, whose training as well as faith in the arrow moving toward the base line inspires him. And us.
One fine body…