Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What do we laugh at?

We are what we laugh at


Robert L. Fielding

“We are what we eat,” is a common enough saying – what we devour, scoff, nibble or gulp probably does dictate our shape, weight and waist measurement, but what determines our mental shape – or maybe that’s putting the cart before the horse – maybe we should follow psychological orthodoxy and look at what we do, how we behave to give us insights into our mental health or lack of it.

I reckon that what we as a nation find amusing – what tickles our funny-bone – is a good indicator of how well we are mentally speaking.

Popular comedy shows on TV are popular because everybody – mostly everybody who watches them thinks they are funny – at least that’s how it’s supposed to be.

So let’s take the view that the public gets the comedy it wants – instead of the mirror view that we get what we are given and learn, eventually, to find it comical – also an instructive viewpoint.

First of all, let’s start with a universal sort of truth – slapstick – custard pie humor has always been popular, and will always continue to be so – bring on ‘Mr. Bean’ to demonstrate the truth of this statement – or go back a couple of generations to Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and co.

All that falling over stuff’s still funny – hilarious in fact, but what has probably changed since the little tramp flitted across our screens is our (relative) impatience to enjoy our belly laughs – continual ones. Do we need plots or do we just need to cut to the proverbial custard pie in the face? – regardless of who is throwing it or why.

True, ‘Mr. Bean’ gives us scenarios – a man trying to put his swimming trunks on without showing too much of himself to a nearby onlooker – and that’s it – until the very end when it turns out that the man on the beach is blind.

The rest is up to ‘Mr. Bean’ – we share the awkwardness of his dilemma at that particular point in his day – hardly a plot, is it?

Plotted slapstick probably came and went with Laurel and Hardy and the rest. ‘Mr. Bean’ is a ‘one-act play’, a short story, a brief encounter with inanity – a quick fix of laughs for people who haven’t the time or desire to think about their comedy – very little thought is needed to find it funny.

Still, the essence of slapstick remains the same – we laugh at someone’s misfortunes because we’re jolly glad it’s not happening to us – at least that’s Ronnie Barker’s opinion of why we find banana skin hum or funny.

Come right up to date now with ‘The Office’ and the brilliant ‘Extras’ – bring on Ricky Gervais – interested among other things, or so he tells us, in the minutiae of human behavior – the bits that make up embarrassment.

Now we’ve got plotting back with a vengeance – or is it plotting or contrivance – is there a difference? With ‘The Office’ and now more so with ‘Extras’, we do not just have embarrassment – cringe – we have situations we say we would die in if they happened to us. We identify strongly with those embarrassed on our screens.

If Mr. Barker is right – that we laugh because we’re jolly pleased it’s not us – how much gladder are we that the faux pas committed by others don’t involve us.

As well as the feelings of embarrassment we avoid ourselves in slapstick or cringe, there is another factor that comes into both – it is the voyeurism, our voyeurism, in both – the custard pie is thrown right in front of us, the faux pas at the next table, so to speak.

That brings me to the most hilarious of sit-coms – ‘Fawlty Towers’ – which for me is a sort of midway between slapstick and cringe with huge portions of Whitehall farce thrown in – arguably the biggest proportion of the mere 12 episodes.

Basil Fawlty’s antics are even more hilarious because they are usually viewed through the eyes of a near onlooker – a hapless guest or long suffering member of staff, usually both. He blows his top in front of almost disinterested passers by at times – and that adds to the hilarity – not only do we have our own feelings of incredulity, amazement and annoyance to endure, but also that of those staying in the hotel.

Back now to my notion that what we have found funny and what we now find funny signal something of the changes to our collective national psyche.


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