Saturday, 31 March 2018

From Abraham and Sarah to French and Saunders: Comedy's Ethics

May I let you into a secret? I had a dream. I would be a stand-up comedian, clowning in the limelight, adored by audiences. Their laughter would ripple in waves down to the front row. Then, in front of real audiences, my eyes were opened and I was but a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.

I had no shame. I didn’t need the audience to laugh with me, so long as I could at least get them to laugh, even at me. That’ll do nicely. At one gig, my opening joke was met by a room of swelling silence. Quick as a flash in the pan, I quipped, “Okay it was a crap gag but you’ve got to start somewhere”. They loved it. Bolder again, I launched into my rehearsed routines. The laughter disappeared, as if in a puff of magic smoke, leaving me alone on stage.

I'd known the self-deprecating stuff went down well with audiences for some time. I had been in a double act where I loaded the script with self-mockery, only to see it being struck out when my comedy partner marked my drafts studiously. He said very seriously that if we invited people to think we’re rubbish, they would do. Who can you laugh at? What can you laugh at? The ethics of comedy start at home.

Laughter sets our sympathies on a roadmap. Laughter at those less fortunate than ourselves caused the great thinkers of old to spill much ink. Their questions abound. What do we think of someone who laughs at the tottering pensioner inching her paisley trolley to the corner shop? Is it safer to laugh at the drunk who can no longer remember how to act appropriately in front of a policeman? Who decides when it’s okay that something is seen to be funny? Are we embarrassed to laugh at those less fortunate? Why?

Embarrassment at our own laughter is nothing new. Take the father of the Jews, Abraham. Be careful who or what you laugh at, according to the Bible. God told Abraham that his elderly wife Sarah would bear a son, on hearing which “Abraham fell on his face and laughed”! She meanwhile said she didn’t laugh, and God more or less said, “Oh yes, you did!” God delivers the elderly couple a son like a punch-line. Abraham showed that he now knew better, choosing for the son a name that means “he laughs” (Isaac).

The art of humour is to direct laughter in fresh directions.

Life in some places, communist states for instance, while barely a laughing matter, does seem to produce some good jokes aimed at the powerful by the powerless, taking the ruling elite down a peg or two. Laughter is therapy for the powerless, especially when it’s forced underground. It is so potent that the powerful dread it. We all know this. Afraid of the bank manager? - consider him a fat man slipping on a banana skin. Laughter dictates that he won’t command the same fear anymore. Open your mouth to laugh and you’ll swallow a fresh perspective. Laughter is powerful, and derision difficult to recover from. The powerful worry about it, it impinges on their airbrushed image, their controlled PR machine, it upsets their propaganda and their pretensions. Money and power can’t inure them from its potency.

In 1980s Britain a new wave of comedians voiced the ethical concerns of their generation. The ‘alternative’ comedy agenda in the UK, purporting to be a non-sexist and non-racist brand, went off in search of new targets, everything from the children’s books of Enid Blyton to the Thatcher government, even aiming at its own audience when no jokes were to be found elsewhere. Comedians who were deemed sexist (Benny Hill) or racist (Bernard Manning) found that television didn’t want them any more.

In time the new wave of comics found themselves heckled by the ethical thinkers whose aspirations they had previously embodied. No-one judged Britain’s top female duo, French and Saunders, so harshly as feminists. The feminists took as betrayal the sight of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders lampooning women in the day of oppression. The more po-faced that the complaining feminists appeared, the less fashionable they seemed to become in the day of fun. Laughter brought the news with a potent clarity that some feminists seemed taken aback by.

Though the ethical fervour of 1980s comedy dimmed, it changed the comedy landscape, making way for different attitudes and targets, and even paved the way for the Dawn French comedy “The Vicar of Dibley” to publicise the Make Poverty History campaign in quite a serious way.

But we still find it easy to laugh at much the same things as we ever did. We know this because the ancient Greeks left their mark on the comedy landscape. The Greek philosophers were fascinated by the power of laughter. Aristotle famously observed that man is the only animal that laughs. Tickle a giraffe, or play a practical joke on a camel, if confirmation be needed.

The Greek philosophers, like the feminists, became quite worried about public laughter. It presents problems for anyone trying to construct an ideal civilisation.

When the populace was laughing instead of taking its leaders seriously the philosophers fretted. Instead of joining in the laughter, they got more serious. They, like the feminists, sought to legislate the problem by asserting moral authority. They recognised the problem that high spirits and mockery are a potent combination, as unwelcome to them as it is unwelcome to the teacher in the classroom.

Plato had a Platonic relationship with laughter - so far and no further. He was all for refined wit. It had a place in his ideal civilisation. The raucous laughter of the unschooled masses on the other hand did not. He considered unrestrained laughter an enemy of the state, as it could so easily undermine political correctness.

So the Greeks began to strip the object of study, laughter, down to its basic components and then to build it up again to new heights. What is laughter? What is it for? And ought we really to do something about it?

Aristotle took Plato’s ideas and colonised the ancient Greek theatre with them. Theatre up till then had been a happy place for the masses. Lots of crowd participation, lots of noise, frankly rude humour, and laughter at many a target. A bit like pantomime. The afflicted were often the butt of the joke. How the philosophers winced. Aristotle moved in. His influence matured humour into the art of rhetoric. Carefully scripted comedy was performed from a raised stage while the masses were expected to sit quietly and listen to the clever jokes. Nicomachean Ethics anyone?

The invective of much comedy shocked Aristotle. Comedy should not cause real pain to its targets, he taught. The butt of the joke should be able to enjoy it too, taught Plutarch. By all means ridicule faults and failings but don’t go beyond good taste. A bald man with a bent nose was in their sights for ridicule, a blind or deaf person was not. Consider what promotes civil unity, the philosophers insisted. Political correctness to you and me.

We have our own pretensions. Is civilisation itself a tottering statue at which laughter chips away? Is that a clue why we are embarrassed to be caught laughing at the vulnerable?

The classical dichotomy of the safe and the subversive was made concrete by two Latin writers, Horatius and Juvenal. Horatius wrote humorous Odes that suggested he saw the world as a benign but ridiculously funny place, a bit like a Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. For Juvenal on the other hand, imperial Rome was a bitter experience to be torn apart by his comic teeth, to such a degree that you wonder if he didn’t enjoy life every much, a bit like the late chain-smoking Bill Hicks.

To this day, that classical split broadly persists in comedy. Which is more ethical? Sharp-edged satire that shows up the status quo as a down-and-out dressed in filthy rags? Or light entertainment that peace-loving citizens do not find disturbing? The unbalanced prophet or the well-mannered wit?

Ironically, in the wake of Aristotle, neither style won in the Greek theatres. Perhaps it was a case of ‘a plague on both your houses’. Ribald, carnival-like fun returned to town. Forget institutionalised ethics, pantomime was back. A new breed, the Mimes, had their finger on the comic pulse. The auteurs of their day, they burst onto the stage with a mission to entertain. Just what the philosophers dreaded.

Next time you are leafing through the TV guide for something to make you laugh, it might strike you that the debates of old are being played out today in the schedules, the safe and the subversive thoughtfully vying for place, only to lose out to the carnival of pantomime. Anyone for Big Brother?

This article was first published in

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