Researched Proof That Waiting for Godot is Funny: Proving My Mother Wrong
by Emily Drouillard
Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot is one that the mother of the author of this essay detested. She saw the 2009 Broadway production starring the famed actors Nathan Lane and John Goodman. Her remarks to her daughter condemned it for being boring, hard to follow, and ‘kind of weird. ’ How could two actors of such comedic esteem work on a production so unfulfilling? Upon reading it in her college Cultural Foundations III class, the author was astounded to realize that the play was not only enjoyable, but also hilarious. She struggled to understand how one play could be seen so differently until she watched one of her favorite humorous videos online and realized it paralleled a scene from Beckett’s play. It all became clear. Waiting for Godot is not humorous in a conventional or typically commercial way. It is a comedy built on irony, absurdist humor, and repetition. The play is classified as a tragicomedy, and fully lives up to its comedic title. Despite having heavy topics, Beckett uses humor to make even situations that would not seem the least bit funny into something that can be laughed at.
Riddled with inappropriate jokes, much repetition, and nonsensical dialogue, the play is still relevant today and the witticisms still poignant and funny because – like the first act of this play – jokes are recycled. The humor in Waiting for Godot is slightly absurd and not typical humor, but the play is comedic beyond its time. Despite being written over 60 years ago, it uses types of humor that are heavily influential today. While the Bard may be known for dubbing the play as the thing in Hamlet, it would not be unbelievable if Beckett declared the joke as the thing in Godot. For the purposes of brevity and not turning a sophomore year college paper into a debate over what humor is and what even makes something funny, things that are deemed to be ‘funny’ or are described as such with other words that also mean funny are things that are seen as funny by the author. If the reader finds none of the subsequent evidence for the comedic prowess to be humorous, then the reader is invited to view the entire paper as a form of irony. If that is unsatisfactory, then
the author apologizes that the reader must go through a life so devoid of light.
The entire play is filled to the brim with repetition. It is present on the small scale, such as the repetition of words or phrases during quick conversation:
It’d pass the time. (Estragon hesitates.) I assure you, it’d be an occupation.
This type of short repetitive exchange can be found throughout the play. It is simple and becomes funnier as this type of repetition is repeated. This type of world play builds into quick and sometimes irreverent humor, such as when the men decide which of them, logically, should hang themselves first. Small-scale repetition is also used even more directly with the line ‘Waiting for Godot. ’ The two men have the same conversation about leaving and Godot being the reason they must wait multiple times throughout both acts of the play save for one exchange in the second act in which Estragon for once remembers their purpose. (Yates, 440)
This is also seen in the last lines of the two acts, which are the same.
Well, shall we go?
Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
This smaller repetition of the pre-curtain exchange is a part of the larger cyclical repetition of the acts themselves. Despite details changing such as leaves on the tree and Pozzo’s ability to see, the two halves of the play mirror each other. Both begin with the return of Estragon returning to Vladimir and some time spent watching them converse. Eventually Pozzo and his servant Lucky enter and antics ensue, and upon their departure a boy with a message from Godot arrives. Eventually just Vladimir and Estragon remain and, despite voicing their decision to leave, they make no efforts to depart.
Repetition itself admittedly does not seem like a deciding factor in the appraisal of comedic achievement, but it takes just one look at any popular website today realize that it is a prevalent facet of current comedy. Not only is the same piece of humorous content shared and posted and texted to people over and over, but also it is often recycled over and over through reiterations of the same joke. This phenomenon, called the meme, though arguably repetitive enough to cause frustration, is the most prominent current rendering of this form. From the French word for ‘same,’ the meme has no other purpose but to repeat. Different templates for popular visuals, usually indicative of a mood or type of person, are shared on sites, waiting to be captioned with funny and relevant short comments. The same joke or punch line can also be applied to a variety of different situations, adding an element of ironic humor to the situation, depending how relevant the adopted joke is to the (often) visual context. For example, there are videos that show some sort of collision, usually painful-looking. When the collision happens, the sound from the video is replaced with a beat, the first beat of which is timed to sound like the impact. As the beat continues, the collision is shown over and over again, matching the beat of the song. These videos are often less than ten seconds and immediately replay after they end. Not only do the videos have visual repetition in the brief but numerous replays of the collision, but also the entire clips themselves repeat, and are shared repeatedly. In an age where technology and instant gratification are so prevalent, brevity is sacred.
The repetitive and quick nature of Godot is a more sophisticated form of the present comedic currency. The same jokes are set up over and over, but are varied upon throughout the show. Beckett, much more subtle than the iPhone wielding preteens that (it feels like) comprise most of the force behind the popularity of memes, expertly uses this style. His comedic repetitions are dryer and seasoned with cynicism, making them less obvious. Humor, as often observed, is generally a lack of the expected. Repetition as a form a comedy and especially in Godot, it could thus be argued, derives its humor from both the unexpected repetition of a line and, in more drawn out jokes, not stopping the cycle. It would be expected to eventually stop repetition, but it continues on and on, day after day as Beckett implies often throughout the play, thus making the expected also the unexpected. (Yates, 445)
This type of humor is most obviously used in the film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray, in which a day repeats endlessly until the main character realizes the error of his ways and rights them. The comedic use of repetition serves a purpose in the film, as it does in Godot. Beckett’s repetition is the main platform from which his views on futility, religion, and life are exhibited.
Perhaps the repetitive nature of both the play and those paragraphs is unappealing. Beckett’s humor should not be pigeonholed into one type of comedic expression. He also utilizes a type of humor that, rather than being even more relevant today, has been a backbone of comedy since its birth: the dirt joke. Beckett actually refers to the play itself as “this dirty joke” in a correspondence with the director of the opening performance of the play, Roger Blin (Lowe, 14). As N.F. Lowe observes in his writing on the play in The Modern Language Review, there are two prominent jokes of this form to be found within Waiting for Godot. The first begins after Estragon makes note of the way the English pronounce the word ‘calm,’ a dirty pun in and of itself. This leads him to begin to tell the story of and Englishman in a brothel: “An Englishman having drunk a little more than usual proceeds to a brothel. The bawd asks him if he wants a fair one, a dark one or a red-haired one. ” He is stopped at this point by Vladimir, which leaves only the implication of a dirty joke to rest in the audience’s minds. Even though this scene is dramatic and the joke is used to create tension as Lowe notes, it is still done through subtle humor. The joke remains unfinished in the play, but is interesting to investigate further as it helps grasp the complexity of Beckett’s humor. It is clearly intelligent comedy, such as repetition to highlight the laughability of endless waiting for fulfillment and futility.
The joke of the Englishman has two possible endings according to Lowe. The first, a simple joke on the Englishman’s behalf, which is unsurprising coming from the Irish Beckett. It is the generally accepted ending of the joke written by Ruby Cohn, an authority on Beckett and his work. The joke follows that instead of choosing a girl by the color of her hair, he requests a boy. Upon hearing this, the owner threatens to call a policeman, to which the Englishman responds, “O, no, they’re too gritty. ” (Lowe, 14) Lowe argues that Beckett may have had another joke in mind, however, as a joke with the same opening was popular in England and France for some time. It should be noted here that Beckett wrote Godot in French originally, so the French wordplay of the joke would be relevant. In this version, the Englishman chooses a hair color, say redhead, and enters a door with that label. He then must choose between small, medium, and large. After going through that respective door, he is faced with the final choice between ‘grans cons’ and ‘petits cons. ’ Con is a French word with two meanings, one being female genitalia. The man goes through the ‘grands cons’ door, only to find himself on the street. The other meaning of ‘grands cons’ is translated to the same word, but now in a derogatory rather than anatomic sense. (Lowe, 14) The use of ‘cons’ would explain the quick jump from Estragon over-pronouncing ‘calm’ with an English accent to telling the joke, as well as directly tie back to Estrogen’s quote in the original French, “Les gens sont des cons” which was translated to the tamer “People are bloody ignorant apes. ” (Beckett). Vladimir references this joke again later while enquiring about the color of Godot’s beard and finishes the exchange with a plea to Christ for mercy which echoes that of the crucified thieves that were a point of discussion earlier (Lowe, 14). Beckett’s complexity with this small dirty joke shows just how intrinsic humor is to the play.
The second dirty joke of note begins with:
End of the corridor, on the left.
Keep my seat.
Quick! (Pozzo gets up and goes over beside Estragon. Estragon points off. ) Look!
(having put on his glasses). Oh I say!
It’s all over.
Enter Vladimir, somber. He shoulders Lucky out of his way, kicks over the stool, comes and goes agitatedly.
He’s not pleased.
(to Vladimir). You missed a treat. Pity.
This joke references an old theatre joke in which, as Lowe explains (16), two men are bored at the theatre. One leaves to go to the bathroom, asking the other to save his seat. The other instructs him to go down the corridor. Eventually the man, unable to find a bathroom, relieves himself into a potted plant found behind a door. Upon return, his friend tells him what a shame it is that he missed the best part in which a man urinated into the potted plant on stage. This further blurs the line between comedy and tragedy, making a joke out of Vladimir’s embarrassment. Beckett has done here what he does with the entire play, and turned misfortune into something comical. Lowe notes that making people find humor in what should evoke pity or compassion could be Beckett’s reasoning for labeling the play a ‘dirty joke. ’
Beckett’s humor, filled with absurdities, filth, and repetition is not the only one of the sort. Enter the creative minds of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, best known for their Adult Swim shows Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Their humor is often bizarre and it would not be surprising in the least if they made a show with as much repetition as Godot. There is a scene in act two the revolves around the trying on of hats:
“Estragon takes Vladimir’s hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky’s hat on his head. Estragon puts on Vladimir’s hat in place of his own which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Estragon’s hat.Estragon adjusts Vladimir’s hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Estragon’s hat in place of Lucky’s which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Lucky’s hat. Vladimir adjusts Estragon’s hat on his head. Estragon puts on Lucky’s hat in place of Vladimir’s which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes his hat, Estragon adjusts Lucky’s hat on his head. Vladimir puts on his hat in place of Estragon’s which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes his hat. Vladimir adjusts his hat on his head. Estragon puts on his hat in place of Lucky’s which he hands to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Lucky’s hat. Estragon adjusts his hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Lucky’s hat in place of his own which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Vladimir’s hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky’s hat on his head. Estragon hands Vladimir’s hat back to Vladimir who takes it and hands it back to Estragon who takes it and hands it back to Vladimir who takes it and throws it down. ”
This scene is very similar to a scene in which Tim, Eric, and their common collaborator and guest star Zach Galifianakis are drinking glasses of water. Zach mentions needing more, prompting Eric to pour the entirety of his water into Zach’s glass. Tim then comments that he could use some more water, and asks from some from Zach, eventually pouring all of the water into his glass. This gets repeated between the three for quite some time. The simplicity and absurdity of the humor used in the hat scene is present in the water scene as well. The jokes, though old, are still alive today.
Comedy is not the same for everyone. Some jokes appeal to certain types of people based on class, gender, age, or any other number or dividing characteristics. Some require investigation to understand the context and be appreciated. Others are simple, quick, and unashamed, able to be appreciated by almost everyone. Beckett’s 1953 play Waiting for Godot contains all of these. It is multi-dimensional humor that goes beyond searching for laughs from the audience. It is humor that evokes emotion, promotes themes, and is timeless. The play itself is joke according to its own author. While the topic of the show is theoretically boring, bleak, and futile, it is truly a comedic work through Beckett’s use of humor. He truly has created his own large dirty joke: compelling audiences to watch to men sit around, wait, and represent the futility of life, and – here comes the punch line, always the unexpected – making it something to laugh at.
Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot.” Waiting for Godot. The Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources and Links Pages, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
(No page numbers were used as an electronic version of the play was used, with no page distinctions.)
Lowe, N. F. “The Dirty Jokes in “Waiting for Godot”” The Modern Language Review 90.1 (1995): 14-17. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
Yates, Andrea L. “ABANDONING THE EMPIRICAL: Repetition and Homosociality in “Waiting for Godot”” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui 14.After Beckett / D’après Beckett (2004): 437-49. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.