So far this distinction has been discussed in terms of its internal semiotic mechanisms, especially the way in which meaning is organised by the interaction between narrative and the structure of the joke. However, it is well known that the distinction between farce and comedy also has a social value: farce is part of ‘popular’ or ‘mass’ culture (depending upon the period under discussion); comedy readily forms part of ‘culture’ in the sense of ‘national’, ‘high’ or canonical culture. For this reason, comedy readily forms part of the literary canon, and appears on academic syllabi and national theatre pro-duction lists-Molière, Shakespeare, Beaumarchais, Wycherley, etc. The reasons (or at any rate the justification) for this distinction are readily found in the semiotic analysis: it is comedy’s greater claim to aesthetic value based upon truth and narrative complexity that allows it to take its place in canonical culture. Correspondingly, it is the subordination of everything in the text to the pleasure of laughter which is responsible for the relegation of farce to mass culture. In general comedy shares with other canonical forms a particular guarantee of ‘superiority’: a taste for them in some way improves their user. This comment

by Michael Ignatieff in the course of a recent debate in Britain about the value of popular culture is typical of a century of such judgments, from Matthew Arnold onwards:

(Ignatieff, 1991; cf. Williams, 1958:125-36)

Clearly we must ask whether such a distinction is justified (see below, Conclusion), but it is nonetheless certain that this situation is historically local, at least where comedy is concerned, since in the Middle Ages the institutions of comedy were not divided in this way: all comedy was basically farce, albeit that farce had profoundly serious meanings, deriving from the medieval sense of ‘folly’ (see above, Chapter 3). The opposition to comic forms on the part of the Church was not derived from the sense that ‘serious comedy’ was more ‘improving’ than farce-other considerations apart, the notion of ‘improvement’ was close to blasphemy. At the same time it is clear that the new situation fundamentally affects the nature of comedy and mirth creation, since the split into two levels of funny/comic texts is responsible for the internal structuration of each. How did this new situation come about?