Monday, June 10, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
We have means of criticising singers or actors who are not good at their craft. We can note how flatly they say their lines, how poorly they project their voices, how off-key they are and so on.
But how do we criticise comedians who are not good at their craft?
Just saying that we don’t find their material funny sounds lame, and is open to the obvious rejoinder that humour is a very personal thing anyway. It is doubly difficult to criticise comedians if you find their material in bad taste. Current received wisdom says that comedy should be challenging, should be uncensored and should get people to think, especially when it aspires to be satirical. Wave an accusation of bad taste, and you are in danger of being called censorious, prudish, out of touch and lacking a sense of humour.
Now that I’ve cleared my throat, let me get down to cases.
There are some current clichés, related especially to stand-up comedy, which I am finding more and more tiresome.
The clichés are “edgy”, “pushing the envelope” and “pushing the boundaries”.
Whenever I am told that some aspiring stand-up person displays these qualities, I heave a big sigh and know the sort of ordure I’m about to hear.
De-coded, “edgy”, “pushing the envelope” and “pushing the boundaries” all mean that the comedian’s material is scatological and/or sexually explicit and/or specifically designed to offend minority groups and cultures, racial or religious. The sick joke – if it indeed succeeds in being a joke – rules, and audiences are supposed to congratulate themselves on their sophistication in not complaining or objecting. The comedian’s cleverness resides only in his/her getting away with it.
By way of example – there is one woefully unfunny middle-aged New Zealand woman stand-up comic, who expects to get laughs by the mere mention of menstrual periods and tampons and sanitary pads and menopause. At these magical words, the audience is meant to fall around on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. The problem is that, beyond these words, her material isn’t particularly funny.
Part of what is at work here is the old “Pee-Po-Belly-Bum-Drawers” syndrome, as analysed in the famous Flanders and Swann song half a century ago. Little children get a buzz out of saying naughty words. So do some grown-ups. This is esteemed wit. Nor is there anything new in the phenomenon of audiences laughing at naughty or forbidden words. Three centuries ago, in his poem “MacFlecknoe”, John Dryden spoke of the theatres for which an inept playwright wrote “where sold he bargains, “whip-stitch, kiss my arse”, / promised a play and dwindl’d to a farce”. Then as now, having characters saying naughty words (“kiss my arse”) was a way of getting cheap laughs.
But the “Pee-Po-Belly-Bum-Drawers” syndrome is only part of the modern stand-up problem. More destructive is the fact that (thanks to the internet; thanks to Youtube) comic quips and naughty jokes have such wide and rapid exposure that young comedians have more and more trouble capping them. Result? They resort to obscenities, but lack the real wit to turn them into jokes.
Just as vitiating, there is the assumption that satire equates with shock. If the purpose of satire is to “reform manners” by holding the ridiculous up to contempt, then I hear virtually no real satire among present-day stand-up comics. Certainly I hear lampoons of specific individuals (hear how funny John Key talks etc.) and I hear political comments designed to flatter what the audience already thinks. But when did you ever hear a stand-up comic have a go at what really ails society? Materialism or consumerism in general, as opposed to trivial examples of specific people’s peccadilloes?
By all means make jokes about controversial material so long as you are actually capable of making jokes. If your “joke” is simply mentioning such material, then find another metier.
“Edgy”, “pushing the envelope” and “pushing the boundaries”? Bollocks. It usually means just more tiresome showbiz sensationalism.