Friday 31 October 2014

Can Comedy be Taught?

"Comedy cannot be taught; you're either funny or you're not."

I read that sentence the other day for the umpteenth time. Whenever I read this sentence, I sigh, frown, scratch he back of my neck and move on.

I used to agree with that statement more than I do now. I used to think that some actors and funny people were simply gifted, because it was impossible to identify what it was that made them special. Today this nebulous star quality is sometimes referred to as the 'X-Factor'. And if the skills required to amaze and to amuse cannot be identified or named, let alone transmitted from one person to another, then it seems to imply that those skills are innate.

But that's a completely monstrous inference, because it implies that plenty of us, by a genetic predisposition entirely outside of our volition, are not funny and never will be. Worse still, it's safe to say that many of us never-to-be-funny people are condemned to go through life with a burning desire to make people laugh – out of either a selfless need to spread joy or a personal desire to gain approval – but they never will.

I suppose that many comedians will at some point in their careers go through a phase of imagining that they are one of these tortured souls, whose curse is to wish desperately to be funny, while lacking sufficient God-given funniness. They will rage like Salieri in Amadeus, pointing an accusatory finger up at Heaven for having ordained such an unjust state of affairs.

It seems to me that we are all not only funny, but hilariously funny, because we all participate in the deep, universal irony of life, matter and things. According to my best attempt at a personal cosmology, Jokes are (along with Music, Stories and Games) the fundamental constituents of the universe. For some, being funny will come naturally, but everyone's comedy is unique and special, and it can't be expressed by trying to amuse other people. Rather than access the funny in ourselves, we often strive to imagine what other people might find funny, and attempt to replicate that. To be oneself is ridiculous, which is why the best comedians seem as though they were born funny: they are themselves. Is it possible to learn to be yourself? I suppose so.

After all, just because a quality cannot be broken down and transmitted, that doesn't mean it cannot be acquired. Comedy could be thought of as a virtue, like generosity or courage. No one would ever say: "Courage cannot be taught; you're either brave or you're not." Anyone can learn to be brave, yes, not by being taught it but by allowing themselves to become it. The same is true of comedy.

Of course, there are plenty of classes to be taken in stand-up comedy (and improv sometimes seems to consist entirely of classes). But it is worth remembering the limitations of these teaching situations. They can only teach you the paraphernalia of the craft, and nudge you into the correct state of mind for being yourself. If you treat comedy, improv or self-discovery as though they were skills that can be paid for and obtained in a classroom from a teacher, then you are shirking the responsibility you have to draw on your own resources, which are vastly more unimaginably unimaginable than you can possibly imagine.

For "Comedy cannot be taught; you're either funny or you're not," I propose the following: "I suppose that you are inherently and spectacularly funny; no one can uncork the source of your comedy but you."