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WHAT'S FUNNY ABOUT DOCTORS* WALTER BLAIRf Since laughter is a subjective reaction, different groups are sure to disagree concerning what is funny about doctors. Patients, for instance, who feel that physicians have peculiar (not to say inconvenient) ideas about their life-styles, can't believe that physicians know; and physicians badmouth the notions of patients. I'll therefore avoid evaluations and merely report what humorous writers, practically none with medical training, have indicated they believed. A striking fact is that, from ancient Grecian days to the present, most comic picturings of doctors have been quite similar. Those wise old Greeks who instructed the world about so many matters discovered, defined, and portrayed two everlastingly comic types, and humorists identified medical men with one of them. One type, the eiron, pretends to be less knowing or capable than he actually is. An immortaljoke goes this way: A self-effacing, uneducated, unimpressive fellow turns up. Some smarty—or several smarties— decide that he isn't much and try to put him down. The ironic man outsmarts his detractors. Or someone who looks abysmally stupid proves that he's no such thing by coining wise and witty sayings that are quoted for centuries. Socrates, if Plato is trustworthy, was an ancient example. Cervantes immortalized the type when he created earthy Sancho Panza. (Sancho, who said, "I'm a fool," also said, "The proofofthe pudding's in the eating," "All is not gold that glitters," and "Honesty's the best policy .") In our country, Franklin's Poor Richard was an early bird of this sort. (He also said, "Honesty's the best policy," and he made other profound remarks, such as: "Let thy maid-servant be faithful, strong, and homely," and "There's more old drunkards than old doctors.") The type has been a great favorite in the United States from Ben Franklin's day through the days of Hosea Biglow, Josh Billings, and Will Rogers, down to the era of Senator Sam Ervin, Ann Landers, and Erma Bombeck. For some reason, humorists during several centuries didn't tend to ?Adapted from an address delivered to the American College of Physicians Associates, Chicago, June 1976. tProfessor Emeritus, Department of English, University of Chicago. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine ¦ Autumn 1977 89 think that doctors belonged to the self-deprecatory but canny group. Instead, they made them members ofa second comic class—the opposite of the eirons. Greeks called their ilk alazons. A modern critic defined the alazon thus: "A deceiving or self-deceived character, an imposter, someone who pretends or tries to be something more than he is." Aristophanes put a specimen into The Frogs, and Plautus used versions in seven comedies. Claiming "to be more than he is" in a.number of ways, the bluffing braggart in several guises got laughs down through the ages. In one popular incarnation, the type was a soldier who boasted about his bravery until he faced the test, then quickly showed he was a farcical coward. (Shakespeare's Falstaff was the most famous example.) Or the alazon put on a show of knowing more than he actually did know—and this was the role which comic writers constantly assigned to doctors. Look at the type as he was pictured by a very popular group of actors from the middle ofthe sixteenth century to the middle ofthe eighteenth century—that long era's equivalent of today's stage, movie, comic strip, and television idols combined. For actors of the commedia dell' arte—"the comedy of experts"—charmed not only Italian audiences at home but also British, French, Austrian, German, Polish, and even Russian audiences away from home; and their comedy strongly influenced that of Molière, Jonson, and Shakespeare. Every one of the many companies had a specialist who throughout his career played the stereotyped role of "the Doctor"—"practically the same character," as a scholar says, "as had been portrayed in the preceding centuries." That means that he was prissy, pompous, and pedantic, and that he let on that he was a jack-of-all-scholarly-trades who knew everything. He impressed less-learned people by flinging around foreign words and phrases or sesquipedalian coinages that...


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