Sunday, 4 August 2013

Violence in Comedy

Did you hear about the shrimp that went to the prawn's cocktail party? He pulled a mussel.*


I've had it on my mind for a while now how strange it is that the language of comedy draws so heavily on the language of violence – primarily fighting, warfare, rape and murder. A punchline is never recited; it is delivered, like a blow to the audience. A salvo of rat-a-tat jokes is aimed with razor-sharp accuracy, with quickfire delivery. Uncompromising performers pull no punches and their jokes hit their targets.

On arrival, an audience who is unprepared to laugh have their guard up. These defences must be broken down, bit by bit, until they are left helpless with mirth. They're at the comedian's mercy. They're being slaughtered. They're killed. If the routine fails, however, then it's the comic who dies on stage.

Successful shows are often a knockout, a hit, a smash, a smash hit.  A mega-successful show is a "blockbuster", using the word for the large aerial bombs used by the Allies in the firebombing of Hamburg in the Second World War, each literally wiping out a city block.

I find there to be something a little unhappy about the way the aggression metaphor is pursued so relentlessly. Sometimes I wonder if there exists any other way to describe the way comedy works. Must an audience be beaten into submission to get a laugh? Is this trend a reflection of a macho sexism that persists throughout the comedy scene? Or are comedians, all haunted by an impossible dream that impels them – the dream of a perfect joke, a perfect show – merely acting out the scenario of reaching their goal at last, and only by invoking the finality of death can they adequately express it? A desperate and dark fantasy, that.

I'd be intrigued to know if the same language is pursued among non-English speakers. Either way, whenever I read a tweet bragging that "We killed it last night,"  or "I nailed it," or "We stormed it," from someone who in real life is the sweetest, most generous person you've ever met, I shudder slightly.

* Ken Dodd, of course.

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