November 17, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
Comedy is no Laughing Matter
‘The art of comedy’ is an expression that sometimes gets used but I’ve never known how seriously it’s meant to be taken. It’s far from obvious that comedy is respected as a credible art form and, just as the theatre of war is not a real theatre, talk of the art of comedy does not ensure comedy is a real art.
Much great art seems intended to be viewed in a sombre and solemn way. I would feel rather conspicuous if I walked around an art gallery laughing at the paintings. I might be asked to leave. Even with works by Gilbert and George, many of which I think are meant to be very funny, you are supposed to gaze at them seriously and thoughtfully. And there are some Picasso portraits I find hilarious but I wouldn’t dare reveal that in a gallery setting. Art and humour seem opposed in many of these contexts.
We sometimes see comedy films that are skilfully shot, paced and acted. But one feels that the comedy aspect is regarded as a further factor additional to, and therefore separate from, the film’s artistic credentials. Now of course there are great comedies by Oscar Wilde and even the great Shakespeare himself; yet I’ve sensed even here that in search of profound artistic experiences you are supposed to seek out the tragedies. The comic is enjoyed, and the skill of it acknowledged, but is it specifically an artistic acknowledgment? It’s worth remembering that ‘comedian’ is still sometimes used as a term to denigrate someone or their work.
Nevertheless, successful comedy requires creativity and a deep understanding of human psychology. Without empathy, I doubt anyone could create good comedy. How could one make another laugh unless one understands how they think? Good humour also requires novelty. Repetition occasionally works – which explains the success of comedy catchphrases – but jokes are clearly funniest on first hearing, when the punch line delivers the unexpected. Comedians must ever be seeking new material with the power to produce the laugh.
Laughter is so important in my life. I sometimes do it at the most inappropriate moments. My uncle used to play a trick on me saying “I bet I can’t count to 3 without you laughing”. Every single time I would crease up no later than the count of 2. So perhaps more than others I’ve thought that comedy seriously enriches life and ought to be regarded as an art form on a par with any other. It has various formats: live stand-up, plays, books, film and TV. The latter works particularly well. The most daring and innovative shows are my favourites: Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mitchell and Webb’s Peep Show, and the absurdist Brass Eye from Chris Morris. Who is to say these ‘comedians’ are not among the great artists of our time?
Finally, I’d love to hear who you think are the great comedians and the funniest shows. But, be warned: your sense of humour reveals a lot about you.