I don’t care who you are, that’s funny: on some confusions in comedy

So, I was thinking about comedy lately. I was thinking in particular about comedians who specialise in saying stuff that they know that their audiences are likely to find offensive, but who say it in such a way that they can get their audiences to laugh at it. (The crucial thing here is the plural: ‘audiences’. Not all comedians have the same audience. We’ll get back to this.)

Now, one of the basic axioms of our understanding of modern comedy is that its fundamental function is to make you laugh. You can find it articulated here, in this archive review from 2007, on the website of my current employers, of a show by Australian comedian Jim Jeffries: ‘Through all of this, Jeffries’ humour borders on the visceral, but you can’t write him off as simply a shock merchant; anyone can be gratuitously offensive but Jeffries never forgets that his prime task is to make us laugh.’ I think that this is something that most comedians, and most lovers of comedy, and most comedy critics, would agree about: the ultimate function of comedy is to make you laugh.

Now, here is where I depart from the consensus. I think that most comedians, and most comedy lovers, and most comedy critics, are mistaking the medium of comedy (or, perhaps, ‘genre’, but let’s go with ‘medium’ for now) for the functions of individual comedians.

I think that, to claim that the ‘prime task’ of any comedian is to make us laugh, is like saying that the prime task of any novelist is to assemble words into sentences that compose an extended narrative sequence, or that the prime task of any painter is to produce canvases with paint on them. Saying that comedians are supposed to make people laugh, only describes how it is that comedians do what they actually do.

Making the audience laugh is not the prime task of the comedian. Making people laugh is just what distinguishes comedians from non-comedians. Making people laugh is what Michael McIntyre has in common with Stewart Lee, and what Jim Jeffries has in common with…okay, well, any comedian you can think of who is exceptionally family-friendly. The prime task of the comedian varies, depending on whatever it is that that particular comedian is using the medium of comedy to do.

The medium of comedy is that you go up on stage and make people laugh. But the reason why comedy is still in so many ways such a confused, immature and thoughtless art form, is that too many comedians still think that all they really have to do is make people laugh, By Any Means Necessary. This is why comedy reviews are usually so fucking boring. The reviewer sits there and reports on whether or not a show was, In The Reviewer’s Opinion, funny, without usually taking the effort to describe what the comedian was doing; what the comedian’s stance was with respect to the audience; whether the jokes were intended to bring the audience in or drive them off; whether the jokes were jokes on the comedian or jokes that enlisted the audience with the comedian, at the expense of some third party, etc. And the reason why most comedy reviews don’t talk about stuff like that, is that most comedians haven’t thought about it either.

Of course, there are some comedians who have thought about it. Stewart Lee is probably the most glaring example, but really, any great comedian has confronted these questions on a visceral level, and with any great comedian’s act, I would submit that their solutions to these problems become very complex. Lenny Bruce, at his best, offered himself up as a kind of sacrificial lion to the priests of bigotry, rhythmically deploying the N-word and other offensive phrases in a noble if doomed attempt to defuse their power. Richard Pryor made comedy out of his own almost helpless self-destructiveness. Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and other black American comedians made comedy out of their rage.

Eddie Izzard makes comedy out of his own weaknesses as a performer. I once attended a discussion on performance at which Phelim McDermott was one of the speakers. Phelim McDermott talked about classes he’d once given on improv, which a young Eddie Izzard had attended, and Eddie had been, by Phelim’s assessment, seriously bad at them, and everyone had felt bad for him and wished he’d stop coming, but Eddie kept coming and kept doing what he was doing and kept honing it, and after a while, Phelim realised that what Eddie was doing was polishing the appearance of ineptness, until finally the very fact that Eddie couldn’t do accents and couldn’t really become anyone else convincingly was what became incredibly funny: part of the whole point of Eddie Izzard’s act is that he takes the least possible effort to convince you that he is now someone else. His Darth Vader impersonation consists solely of putting his hand over his mouth and being a bit more assertive than usual. He constantly drops the thread and picks it up again, pretends to take notes on any moment that doesn’t get a laugh, etc.

But this brings me back to my original argument. Stewart Lee’s comedy keeps people’s attention by making them laugh, but his prime task is to make them think about comedy and about society. Larry the Cable Guy’s comedy keeps people’s attention by making them laugh, but his prime task is to reassure them that it’s okay to have their prejudices. Jim Davidson’s prime task is the same as Larry the Cable Guy’s. Jo Brand’s prime task, by contrast, is to bluntly confront the audience with its own prejudices. Victoria Wood’s prime task as a stand-up was to tell stories about vulnerability and failure. Michael McIntyre’s prime task is to maximize his brand potential by being no better than his audience thinks it would be if it tried its own hand at stand-up. And so on. The title of this post, ‘I don’t care who you are, that’s funny’, is one of the catchphrases of Larry the Cable Guy. If you insert the words ‘the fuck’ between ‘who’ and ‘you’, you can begin to see the anxious aggression of the comedian who is becoming uneasily aware that the audience is beginning to wonder why, exactly, it’s laughing.

If we laugh, we tend to think that the comedy has been successful, even if it goes against our better instincts about whether or not we enjoy hearing what the comedian has to say. I may or may not find Andrew Lawrence’s delivery funny; I do, however, find what he has to say toxic, bigoted, entitled, self-pitying and depressing, and my sense of humour is not so well-formed that I laugh at him anyway. I just want him to shut the fuck up and go away.

However, Andrew Lawrence, although not in the same league as the aforementioned comedians, is an interesting case, because he proves my argument. When he was younger, his relative youth and extremely dark take on comedy placed him with supposedly similar young comedians of a similarly dark disposition. But Lawrence’s early success as a comedian was based on his performance of tortured guilt about having the kind of opinions that he had. He would deliver up his gags as if he felt bad about making them. (Sample joke, actually pretty funny: ‘I admire these phone hackers. I think they have a lot of patience. I can’t even be bothered to check my own voicemails.’) But as he’s got older, he’s become less and less apologetic.

As Lawrence has entered his late 30s, he’s become more and more honest about how he’s just a right-wing bigot. This is, of course, his right as a human being. What’s surprising is that he’s so bitter that his audience has abandoned him. They liked being teased by his hints at how dark he was, as long as he was willing to look like he felt guilty about it, but let’s face it, all along, he would have been way happier telling racist jokes at Ukip fundraisers to florid middle-aged men in blazers, instead of to Fringe audiences who didn’t agree with him about the EU. But it goes to show that if the comedian’s prime task (which, in his case, has become to unapologetically vent his bigotry) is completely at right angles to the audience’s own sensibilities, then they will no longer find him funny.

So how does he prove my argument? This Independent article from last year quotes him: ‘If you present yourself as a comedian, your job is to be funny, not to educate audiences…Just make me laugh.’ If Andrew Lawrence truly believes that his job is to be funny and not to educate audiences, then you do have to wonder why his Twitter feed as of the third week of June 2016 has become nothing but a conduit for Brexit propaganda.

The only conclusion is that comedians do comedy for lots of different reasons. Some, to pull everyone together. Some, to divide people up. Some, to heal. Some, to wound. The only thing that unites them is that the medium by which they do this involves making people laugh, for one reason or another. It’s when the laughter stops that the failing comedian has to face the difficult questions. And the fact that we still talk about comedy as if it was solely there to get a laugh, is the reason why so few of them ever do.

 

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I don’t care who you are, that’s funny: on some confusions in comedy

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