One of the most popular J. B. Priestley quotes is:
Comedy, we may say, is society protecting itself—with a smile.
https://literature.stackexchange.com/users/18841/kate-bunting correctly identified the context of the Priestley quote as Priestley's biography of George Meredith. She also said that one can find it if one searches for 'protecting', but Google seem to be only providing very short extracts now, and it's difficult to tell much about the context. And all of that is true.
Fortunately, https://literature.stackexchange.com/users/3003/gareth-rees, in a comment, linked to the quote in the original context of the entire biography which is stored on the Internet Archive:
In case you don't already know these tricks, the Internet Archive is easier (at least in Windows) to read, firstly, in single page mode, and secondly in full screen mode, and thirdly when the size of the text is adjusted by placing the mouse pointer on the text while holding down the control key and then turning the mouse wheel. Also, the Windows Screen Magnifier (Windows Key held down while equals sign key is pressed) magnifies everything.
Having read the three or so pages leading up to the quote, and the three or so pages following it, I am still in the dark as to what the quote means, if it even means anything. I mean, it seems entirely, or at least almost entirely, a bunch of pretentious academic obfuscation i.e. bafflegab.
The quote is not necessarily a statement of Priestley's own opinion on comedy, but rather seems to be his summary of his speculative interpretation of Meredith's supposed opinion of comedy. Furthermore, "comedy" here may not mean exactly what it means today: it is capitalized even when not at the beginning of a sentence, suggesting a special new sense, and it is contrasted with "Humour" (the British English spelling has two "U"s) also capitalized all the time, which supposedly is a different kind of funniness. There are numerous other terms with initial capitals, and I can't tell which are terms with special new meanings and which are not. For example, "Essay" is capitalized, but seems to just mean "essay", while "Humour", "Comedy", "Comic Spirit", "Comic Stage", "Irony", "Folly", and "Comic" seem to be capitalized to indicate that they mean something different from the uncapitalized versions of these terms.
Here's a fairly typical claim using such terms:
The Comic Spirit, then, unlike Humour, preserves its detachment, content to throw a beam of clear light on some incongruity.
Here's the last part of the argument concluding with that claim:
Thus, Irony is treated as if it were something more than a mode of expression and, as such, one of the instruments of the Comic Spirit. Incidentally, it is too often assumed that Meredith, in this Essay, is describing the spirit in which his own work is conceived and not discussing a literary form. In places he is, but actually his own work far transcends the limits imposed by him upon the creator of pure Comedy. (Richmond Roy, for example, is a humorous creation.) The Comic Spirit, then, unlike Humour, preserves its detachment, content to throw a beam of clear light on some incongruity.
Note that "humorous" is not capitalized while "Humour" is, which suggests a cavalier disregard for consistent use of terminology. See how "Essay" is capitalized but seems to mean just "essay".
Furthermore, there are numerous phrases that are not capitalized that nevertheless seem special. At least, I cannot understand them, and have never seen them before, such as "real humour".
The meaning is obscured further by Priestley's statement that Meredith may be wrong, and maybe not as funny a writer as he thinks himself to be:
An absurd fashion of dress or speech or the like, seeking applause but finding itself ridiculed on the Comic Stage, perishes at a touch ; and if Meredith’s theory went no further than this, it would be true, but not exactly new. It is his larger claims that are too sweeping, particularly those he would make for the Comic Spirit informing his own work.
Anyway, the quote now seems to me to be what Priestly is saying Meredith might be, rightly or wrongly, claiming about his own work, or possibly not his own work. In any case, I still cannot see what it could possibly mean.
That part of Priestley's biography of Meredith containing the quote I am asking about here contains many references to Meredith's supposed comedic ability and in particular a novel by Meredith called The Egoist, which, thanks to Wikipedia, I found is available in it's entirety, the copyright having expired, here https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/1684 which could be useful for seeing how funny or not, and if the former, in what way, Meredith actually was.
I've wondered for many years what the Priestley quote means. George Orwell is quoted as saying,
Whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie... a dirty joke is a sort of mental rebellion.
This is another quote I have been thinking about for many years, and this one makes perfect sense to me, and it would seem to contradict Priestley's saying. The Orwell quote, if I understand it correctly, sees humor (comedy would be simply one type or use of humor) in the way Nietzsche saw what he called a "philosopher" (according to quotefancy.com):
What I understand by “philosopher”: a terrible explosive in the presence of which everything is in danger.
Orwell and Priestley knew each other and Orwell denounced the latter as being pro-communist which makes me wonder whether one quote was explicitly designed to undermine or contradict the other, and which came first. I wonder whether Priestley and Orwell had an argument about what humor or comedy was, spawning both the quotes at more or less the same time.
There's nothing about it, or about comedy, in the Wikipedia article about J. B. Priestley
After quoting Priestley as saying this, https://www.tribuneindia.com/2003/20030216/spectrum/book11.htm wrote:
A robust sense of humour is imperative for us to evolve into a self-confident, mature entity. The ability to look at the funnier side of life helps combat negative impulses. For this a certain amount of irreverence is required. To bring down the high and mighty to the level of the ordinary mortals through satire is an age-old practice. Though some place comedy on a par with sodomy as an unnatural act, one would rather go along with W. Somerset Maugham when he observes, "Impropriety is the soul of wit."
This is worth reading, but it didn't bring me closer to finding an answer to my question which is, what does the Priestley quote mean?