What Is Comedy For?
Although many of us like comedy a lot, it feels odd to ask basic questions about its purpose. ‘What is comedy for?’ sounds like a leaden inquiry directly opposed to the spirit of humour.
But really it is a way of getting more ambitious about what laughter can do for us. Intuitively, we feel that comedy is one of the things that helps us cope with the difficulties of living. A clue can be found in the fact – which at first sounds a bit surprising – that we don’t laugh at things unless they cause us very serious problems at other points in life. We can see this in the standard category of jokes: about relationships, family, sex, money, impotence, bowel movements… We laugh most readily around things that in other ways are very distressing. A good joke invariably has a relationship with darkness, anxiety and pain.
David Brent taps into a deep source of anxiety: making a fool of oneself at work
Comedy offers us a way of having a better time around things which, otherwise, can feel pretty disastrous. Ideally, in the utopia, comedy and its therapeutic potential wouldn’t be left to chance. Humour would be deliberately cultivated as a benign response to a range of entrenched difficulties. Previously, certain countries had an elaborate carnival season devoted to enforced comic activities. For a brief time, the weak could boss around the powerful, priests and nuns were supposed to hold obscene rituals in their churches, serious people were required to get drunk and throw bags of flour over each other’s heads. Humour wasn’t just left to those who felt so inclined: it was a kind of duty.
Equally, the idea of the court jester – an officially licensed and salaried comic – was built on the importance of humour to the mental health of the powerful. Even if in the council room or around the dinner table, the leading people didn’t feel much like joking, the jester was required to make barbed, witty and perhaps mocking remarks to deflate pomposity and restore perspective.
Comedy is so important, its presence should be embedded in the calendar and in the fabric of institutions. It’s a requirement – like having our teeth checked or doing the accounts. There are perhaps six key ways that comedy offers us therapeutic help.
One: Comedy as Therapy for Despair
Many of our gravest problems don’t have viable solutions. We suffer, and then die. Work is painful, but we can’t escape it. There is no happily ever after in love…
A common artistic response has been to accept the darkness, to express it with dignity and to nudge the audience towards greater compassion for self and others. This is the spirit of Velazquez’s rendition of the dying Christ:
A comic attitude doesn’t deny misery, but it has a very different relationship with it.
Defiance in the face of suffering
Black humour is infused with a mood of defiance. One is going to laugh at, rather than buckle in front of, the miseries of existence. In The Life of Brian, the closing song brazenly states the worst about existence: ‘Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it’. But instead of making us more aware of our feelings of sorrow (as tragedy does), the mood is mocking; there is a refusal to be gloomy:
‘Always look on the bright side of life… purse your lips and give a whistle’.
In 1940, when Britain was in a precarious military situation, with the evacuation of Dunkirk and nightly bombing raids, a song mocking the Nazi leaders became wildly popular:
Hitler has only got one ball,
Göring has two but very small,
Himmler has something sim’lar,
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.
The comic mockery didn’t remotely depend upon it being thought literally true. The enemy’s power was all too terrifyingly apparent. The point was simply that keeping cheerfully defiant was centrally important to the task of facing up to something very frightening indeed.
Black humour works on the assumption that we tend to despair too soon: that is, the situation feels more hopeless than it really is. It’s genuinely bad, but we experience it as truly catastrophic. We give up hope and thereby surrender our capacity to do what we still can to make things a little better. By mocking dangerous things, humour emboldens us. It helpfully paints what is potentially very frightening as deeply ridiculous.
Two remarkably small testicles
Two: Comedy as Therapy for Humiliation
Life is filled with things which threaten our dignity. We’re never far from being reduced to complete mockery. In the children’s television series Peppa Pig, the father – Daddy Pig – is always doing things that could be seen as absurd, humiliating or embarrassing.
In the opening sequence, he makes loud, rather obnoxious grunts. On a very hot day, he falls asleep in the sun and gets very red; Mummy and the children tip the contents of the paddling pool over him. Generally, around the house, he likes to do a bit of DIY and put up shelves: but everything he does is a bit wonky. He tends to get lost when driving the car. He’s overweight. He can come across as lazy. It would be extremely easy to make a very negative assessment of his character. That’s the kind of thing we tend to do for ourselves and other people: we regularly rehearse the case for the prosecution.
In the cartoons, though, this very flawed creature is presented as somehow both flawed and extremely lovable: his wife and children are deeply attached to him and think he’s lovably clumsy. They don’t get to this positive verdict by not noticing his failings. They’re clearly very conscious of them – and they do tease him about his incompetence and tendency to take things a bit too easy. They do see him as a bit of an idiot. It’s just that they love him as he is. In their eyes he is a lovable fool. That’s what a lot of comedy helps us with. It turns people (ourselves included) who could just be seen as idiots into lovable fools.
If we happened to walk down the road and saw a man called Basil Fawlty bashing his car with the branch of a tree, we’d feel he was just some awful, furious, bloke venting his anger in a crazed, destructive way. We’d judge him a thoroughly unpleasant fool.
Losing your temper doesn’t have to mean you’re an entirely bad person
Fortunately for Basil Fawlty, he’s not in real life but in a comedy by John Cleese and therefore, he isn’t just an idiot, he is a lovable fool. His vices are introduced alongside some deeply ingratiating qualities. The show teaches us to really like someone whom in real life we might have cursed. When we watch the show we’re on Basil’s side: we don’t withdraw our sympathy. The show is getting us to try out the unusual experience of simultaneously accepting that someone is crazy and still quite nice. We accept that Cleese’s character is sly, selfish, mean, incredibly tactless, snobbish and rude. And yet we like him. It’s a remarkable achievement on the part of the comedy team. We’re rehearsing a move we need to make with others and – most importantly – with ourselves.
Daddy Pig and Fawlty Towers are developing an idea initially sketched by Jesus Christ. Christianity introduced the idea that a person could be of low social status, of ignoble appearance, lack talent and yet be fully deserving of love and consideration.
Jesus was setting an example of liking people who could be seen as very unimpressive, because, seen in a particular light, pretty much everyone can be made to look a fool. The question is whether we have to see foolishness as inviting derision and contempt, or might come to view it as fully compatible with tenderness and affection – in fact, with love.
Three: Comedy as Therapy for Self-disgust
It can be pretty hard to live with ourselves; we’re so painfully aware of the gap between our ideals of how we’d like to be and the reality of how we actually are. So often we’re left feeling lonely with our flaws, failings and rather sordid ways.
She’s lazy about the laundry and rubbish at loading the dishwasher
Confessional comedy works by someone standing on stage and admitting in public that they have all the kinds of faults which we normally feel embarrassed and ashamed about. They interrupt our loneliness by admitting that they too get shy in public WCs and don’t know whether to shake hands with or hug acquaintances. We laugh with relief, as the pent-up anxiety is safely discharged.
They dismantle the secret fear of our own freakishness: and by making things feel more normal they make them more bearable too. Michael McIntyre makes public the little failings of parental life: how he can’t get his children to get their shoes and coats on, how he lazily hopes to get away with merely putting the dishes ‘near the dishwasher’ when cleaning up (‘would you pee near the toilet?’ he asks himself). They are often tiny, trivial things of course. That’s the point. Officially everyone manages just fine. Only in fact we don’t. And by portraying what he’s really like – rather than what an adult is meant to be like – Michael McIntyre is offering an antidote to self-disgust.
Four: Comedy as Benevolent Stereotyping
If someone says ‘You’re a bit of a Woody Allen’, it’s a benign alternative to thinking: ‘you’re a deeply annoying, over-intellectual neurotic nerd’.
Across his career, Woody Allen showed how quite negative characteristics could be reframed in a more endearing light. He provided a new – more kindly and insightful – way of stereotyping people. The problem with stereotypes is not so much that they generalise, but that they so often generalise unfairly and unkindly.
If parents get entertained by Harry Enfield’s character, Kevin the teenager, they can move from the panicked thought ‘our son has turned into a monster’ to the more constructive and less frightening idea that ‘my son has temporarily become Kevin the teenager’. It breaks the potential isolation and misery.
It’s the reverse of bad stereotyping. Comic characters almost always hold onto our sympathy.
To say that a work colleague is a bit of a David Brent isn’t merely to point out that they are tactless and insecure. It’s also to reframe those failings. Because we come to feel tender towards David Brent too. We see his vulnerability – not just his idiocy; we become good at recognising that it’s his anxiety about not being liked or respected that leads him to do deeply embarrassing things.
Larry David is always getting angry and abusive. He is incredibly combative and rude to waiters; he gets into huge arguments with people at the dry cleaners; he tells his friends what he thinks of their partners; he speaks his mind, even when it is totally inappropriate. But at the same time, he’s very charming. He’s a successful man, he has a lovely smile, he can be very sweet. So we’re reframing the ‘grumpy old man’ as ‘the charming, very engaging old man who is – frequently rude too.’
The comic move is to guide us to a benevolent conception of these people – and hence to the parts of ourselves and those close to us who share some potentially very annoying characteristics. As a society, we need a lot more benevolent comic characters to be created – to help us cope with the infinite variety of maddening people around us.
Five: Comedy as Therapy for Power and Powerlessness
It’s hugely reassuring to see the powerful laughing at themselves. Finding oneself comical is a token of maturity. It means being able to see one’s faults, without being too defensive about them.
The thing that intimidates us isn’t actually power. It’s power that looks like it’s going to be inhumane: insensitive, unkind power. So we’re intently interested in things that reveal a mature, kindly sort of power.
Humour often provides a mechanism whereby the powerless (or at least the less powerful) can give constructive but pointed feedback to the powerful. Monty Python was particularly focused on this task.
The Philosophers’ Football Match mocks the great figures of intellectual history. It’s funny because we’ve been intimidated so deeply in the past by intellectual bullies who made us feel small with their references to Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer. And now these great totemic figures of intellectual life are shown as completely rubbish at football. The sketch is an attempt to show academic philosophers that they’ve needlessly frightened people and cut themselves off from the general public. The sketch is really a coded plea to philosophy to be kinder and more relevant. Monty Python have to be funny about philosophers because so far philosophers have been stubbornly bad at being funny and human about themselves.
Six: Comedy as Therapy for Losing Perspective
We lose perspective all the time: a problem that is of moderate, manageable size can easily start to look much bigger than it really is. We get into a huge panic, or feel very endangered and react in ways that make the situation worse. Without meaning to, we exaggerate.
The comic technique for dealing with exaggeration is to exaggerate so much that our own inflated ideas come to seem small by comparison. It’s natural, for example, to worry that one’s conduct is inappropriate: that everyone else knows what you’re supposed to do and does it easily, while you don’t know the right thing and inadvertently make a fool of yourself.
You might clap at the wrong moment in a concert hall; laugh during a speech at something that was meant to be serious; mistake the drinks waiter for your host, or say something that everyone else thinks in appalling taste. You can, however, not possibly reach the levels of cringe-worthy behaviour of Mr Bean. By comparison with him, your faux-pas is bound to look small. That’s part of the consolation of comedy. It exaggerates so much, it restores us to a sense of our own normality.
The savage comedy The Thick of It presents the political world as infinitely dysfunctional.
The characters are utterly incompetent and lost or hideously brutal. Like Mr Bean it presents us with a strategic exaggeration. Our tendency to despair of politics and politicians is not simply taken seriously, it is magnified and multiplied. By comparison with The Thick of It, actual political life looks fairly reasonable and sane. We don’t ever have to feel envious of high-ranking politicians. They are all awful, and our own lives rather nice by comparison.
We tend to see comedy through the romantic lens of the one-off inspired comic whose unique view of the world is entertaining. But the focus on the individual witty voice misses the gigantic, political nature of the task of comedy. Comedy isn’t just a bit of fun. The comic perspective fills a central need of every society; it enables us to cope much better with our own follies and disappointments, our troubles around work and love and our difficulties enduring ourselves. Comedy is waiting to be reframed as a central tool behind the creation of a better world.
At The School of Life, we are taking our first steps in comedy with these films: