As I have explained in another place over the last year I have consumed an inordinate amount of comedy (often stand up comedy) because I am working on articulating a theology of laughter. The reason I have subjected myself to the tedium of the overly ironic, the blasphemy of incredulous wit and the imaginary cymbal chimes that inevitably follow after bad punnery is because I think comedy and by extension irony and ridicule are extremely powerful social tools for persuasion and sadly also for keeping people alienated or ‘in their place.’ I think its a shame that more stand up comedy doesn’t give us hope or energize us to change what they themselves criticise.
The last year of research was often very amusing, educating, though at times I realized that I was, in the words of Joe Moran, pursuing laughter as an end in itself and not something beyond laughter. I think many of the comedians I saw were doing the same. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival I wondered whether the people who go to so many shows over the month of August because they are the professionals, or the reviewers, suffer from withdrawal symptoms? They could either miss the rush of standing up ahead of an audience, or as an audience member because they enjoy the comedy others produce. Take away the endorphin induced pleasure and you feel a bit down. But its not just the physiological effects of the giggles that I think might be problematic. Stand up comedy lacks a critical lens. It’s just consumed without thought. The creativity which goes into the show often does not drive others to be creative about solving problems.
Moran observes that stand up comedy in the UK has become one of the dominant art forms much like the novel did in the last century. This seems true if one looks at the EFF schedule, which is mostly comedy and is far larger than the original festival. Many west-end theaters offer stand up rather than drama or musicles. Mock the Week, Have I Got News For You or Nevermind the Buzzcocks regularly top the BBC i Player most played list, while stand up comedians such as Jimmy Carr, Michael McIntyre or Bill Bailey are household names. They’re like rock stars. But as one of the dominant forms of art and entertainment in the UK, Moran says it is often produced and consumed without a critical lens. Comedy is fun and distracting but it is quite rare that the consumer takes a step back from the punch line to worry about what the implications of the jest actually are. This is partly because the comedy on offer is just not trying to do anything but entertain. There is nothing wrong with seeking entertainment or making a living out of gags, I just don’t want that to be all comedy does. In a show I want to hear a shout from the audience like when some rap artist or singer song writer makes a comment about society and from somewhere in the back a burly masculine voice says: “Preach it!”
Similarly another commentator at the Guardian and a Christian, Theo Hobson, points out that stand up comedy has its tradition in the “essential performance-art of our Protestant past: preaching”. While I am not sure that this is completely true it does offer up a good comparison. By holding an audience in rapt attention the preacher, whether of the humorous variety or not, joins a group of listeners into a body willing to hear some swine pearls. I think what Hobson should have said is that both preaching and stand up comedy have there roots in rhetoric, something we will get to a little later.
Hobson is not as hopeful about stand up comedy as he is about preachers. He basically argues that preachers educate or chastise the audience in some way, hopefully growing the maturity of their flock. Stand up comedians on the other foot tend to use preconceived prejudice to draw the crowd into the reals of haha-bretherenhood.
I am not sure that the distinction is true. Leaving aside the dismal quality of canned cornball jokes many preachers make, lets be fair. Some preachers can be funny but play into prejudice (whether they are trying to be funny or not) just as much as some stand up comedians, whilst the best stand up comedy I have heard enlarges the quality of thought and hopefully wisdom of those in the audience listening for it just as much as any lecture a preacher (or Rabbi) might give. But I am not sure that anybody goes to a stand up show out of devotion to God. The religious have something to offer, namely a soft chastising of those that hear the sermon (but that’s another point). Most people who go to stand up just want to have a good time.
This doesn’t mean that stand up comedy shouldn’t stand for something. Too often it offers only cheap, simple gags. Stand up comedians are aware of this criticism. In the latest installment (ep3) of Russell Howard’s Good News on the BBC, a topical news program, Howard does take up the issue of how much a comedian can do to change things practically. In a quality sequence about MPs expenses (the Christopher Kelly report came out that week) Howard mentions a conversation he and his Dad had. Chating with him on the computer his Dad suggests that a male MPs nether region danglers should be dipped in gravy and then the MP should be chased through a wolf enclosure. The punch line delivered to Howard by his Dad being: “see what you can do about it!” Howard tries to wrestle with the problem by bringing up the issue and making a joke out of the MPs’ misbehavior, and his Dad’s expectations. In doing so he sets out what the limits of stand up comedy are we should recognize this, but more can be said about the outcomes.
Howard’s is a show that I like watching, not necessarily because of the juvenile body and toilet humor, but because he is clearly intelligent and self reflective about his work. He has a critical lens and isn’t just doing his routine for the gags, though these help to bring the audience along. He ends his show by setting up his listeners to expect a cynical joke about a lovely (I mean almost sappy but not quite) story of humans overcoming some sort of ill in their life. He then deliberately and with a fairly stern face fails to deliver a punchline but calls the story good and worthy of joy. This jolts the consumer out of his expectation and almost inverts the way humor works, causing a perplexing, but enlightened ending. Whether the ‘Good News’ title is a nod to the Christian version of the same words isn’t important to me, but the fact that he always ends his show in this unusual way shows that he has given thought to his vocation and its effect. Russell Howard wants us to think about what it means to be happy for somebody else, rather than to engage in ceaseless sneering.
Another example of the preacher-comedian I like is Taylor Mali who brings us back to the rhetoric point. He is a teacher, part time poetry slammer, stand up comedian and speaks about the art of rhetoric in some of his poetry. His mission is to get 1000 people to teach because of his poetry. Have a look at what he does here: Taylor Mali
There are a number of thoughtful stand up comedians out there who are the exception to the rule that comedy is just about some shallow laughter.
Please let me know who you think defies the norm.