Laughter and Silence

Most comedy doesn’t work. This isn’t because most people aren’t funny – most people can be very funny, and it’s easy to make people laugh. In their ‘Lazy Comedy Slags’ feature, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring revealed basic comic staples, including the classic ‘… And Then I Got Off The Bus’. (Example: ‘I woke up this morning, naked, really hungover, I’d soiled myself, I had a traffic cone up my arse… and then I got off the bus, aaahhh…’)

Yet I can’t think of anything more pointless to be than a humorist or professional comedian. Comedy is everywhere, but it only works when it’s routine and background. Make comedy a stated, upfront purpose, and it falls apart, which is why most TV panel shows aren’t worth watching.

Reviewing Mock the Week, Nick Cohen hits upon a darker truth:

The best way to picture Mock the Week is to imagine six men, with a low-grade but undoubted comic talent, late at night in a pub. Drink has dissolved their inhibitions and each is determined to push the others aside and prove he is top dog. The blatancy of their competitiveness sets them apart from other TV comics. Status anxiety torments performers in all panel games. But you never see Ian Hislop look resentful when Paul Merton comes up with a good joke on Have I Got News for You, or rush out his gags so he can be sure that he can get them on air. No veneer of conviviality hides the contestants’ jealousy on Mock the Week. They don’t laugh at each other’s jokes. They visibly struggle for money and fame as they interrupt each other and race to snatch the microphone in the middle of the studio. As tense and mirthless as saloon-bar fighters in the moment before the first punch is thrown, they will do anything to establish their superiority.

Nick notes that, although the show is billed as satirical, the panellists’ targets aren’t remotely political: the edition Nick watched focused mainly on women and old people. His conclusion:

Mock the Week feeds on resentment. Pornography has many consequences, but the clearest is to increase male resentment of women who, apparently, are giving sex freely to everyone except those numb, hollow-eyed masturbators staring at them on their screens.

As Irvine Welsh said, laughter is not always that of ‘adults conveying that they had heard something funny’; too often it’s ‘the nervous laughter of frightened children trying to keep on the right side of the school hardcase’.  It’s at adolescents that we first become aware of status and social hierarchy; likening this to brute selection, Michel Houellebecq writes that:

Animal societies, for the most part are organised according to a strict hierarchy where rank relates directly to the physical strength of each member… Combat rituals generally determine status within the group; weaker animals can try to better their position by challenging those above them. A dominant position confers certain privileges: the dominant are first to feed and have the right to couple with females in the group… weaker animals suffer acts of gratituous cruelty. This tendency is at its greatest in primitive human societies and among children and adolescents in developed societies. 

Houellebecq generalises a little: time has moved on and women are less impressed by physical violence. But he explains why comedy is still very male dominated: comedians are strutting peacocks, and every man is a comedian.

Many writers talk about making the bully laugh to avoid a kicking, but when I was growing up laughter was a tool of intimidation, not a defence against it. Punishment was meted out by making the group laugh at the individual. I was no better: I quickly developed a sharp tongue that I used to humiliate people I disliked.

As society becomes more infantilised Nick’s article shows that the laughter of cruelty is increasingly carried over into adulthood. Comedy is about laughing at those weaker than yourselves. Most of the classic 1990s sitcoms centred on poor, sexually frustrated males. There were classics – Bottom in particular was brilliantly written and performed – but they thrived because they allowed people to develop a sense of superiority by comparison. 

And there is no escape. Comedy is no longer happy misunderstandings. Comedy is wasted opportunities, diabolus es machina, the unhappy ending. Victims formerly seen as off limits are now fair game. How many times have you heard a joke about sexual assaults and Stephen Hawking’s voicebox?

Houellebecq saw the trend years ago. His 2005 novel The Possibility of an Island – essentially Atomised with the dial turned up to eleven – introduces us to Daniel, a comedian who has got rich through cheap, ‘politically incorrect’ one-man shows with titles like ‘We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts’ and ‘Munch on my Gaza Strip’. He knows that ‘a comedian, who was known as a comedian, was able to move easily into the domains of cruelty and evil.’

Daniel’s entire financial and sexual success derives from an ability to amuse, but at the peak of his fame and powers he simply burns out on his own misanthropy: ‘what I could no longer stand was laughter, laughter in itself, that sudden and violent distortion of the features that deforms the human face and strips it instantly of all dignity.’ Touring becomes a nightmare:

Every time the audience laughed (and I could predict it, I knew how to dose my effects, I was a consummate professional), I was obliged to turn away so as not to see those hideous faces, those hundreds of faces moved by convulsions, agitated by hate.   

Like Michel Djerzinski in Atomised, he becomes obsessed with a utopian vision: ‘I also understood that irony, comedy and humour were going to have to die, because the world to come was the world of happiness, and there would be no longer be any place for them there.’



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