Politics & Media
Feb 09, 2024, 06:27AM

What’s Funnier Than Das Kapital?

Look below for the surprise answer.

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A playwright reads over a manuscript by an amateur with strong leftist tendencies. His verdict? “It’s half as long as Das Kapital and only twice as funny.” That’s a good line. My father, on hearing it, thought the line should’ve been the other way around, as in “It’s twice as long as Das Kapital and only half as funny.” Still good, but not as much.

The second version takes the gag approach. It uses “funny” to mean laughable, whereas in the first version the word means to contain laughs, the way a good play may contain laughs—good wisecracks, comic situations that work, and so on. The second version is a slambang, straightforward putdown. In the first version, the long-suffering playwright isn’t just uncorking a good one. He’s reporting on the manuscript, sizing it up as an entertainment property, and in doing so he finds that Das Kapital provides the only point of reference.

The same idea operates in either edition: that’s one dull, preachy, didactic, draggy, overlong, excruciating left-wing play. But the gag version lets you know we’re dealing in hyperbole, and hyperbole’s an easy thing to take in stride. The original version leads the mind by the back ways, and all of a sudden we’re contemplating a manuscript that might actually exist, and what a gross manuscript it is. Twice as long as Das Kapital? Impossible as a sky beyond the sky. But half as long? A playscript like that, or something close to it, might be sitting there on somebody’s desk, glaring at him. The poor man has to read the thing and pretend to weigh its viability for production. How spiffy and entertaining is this manuscript? Well, more so than the nearest competition, which would be a landmark philosophical treatise by a radical penpusher who filled several volumes with what he read at the British Museum. In other words, it could use some punching up.

As far as I know there isn’t any term for the effect I’ve tried to describe, that of the sweeping putdown that hits harder because it’s deliberately throttled back from being outrageous. In fact, I can’t think of another example except the one here, which is from a Tom Stoppard play. Maybe there’s no other example and Stoppard’s an inventor. If so, no surprise—he’s a talent. The play the line comes from, The Real Thing, is a superior comedy-drama about people and their problems. One-third the length of a White Lotus season and perhaps 50 times funnier. Which sounds like hyperbole but isn’t meant that way.


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