What is the role of the comedian in our society?
|June 28, 2012||Posted by Ellys Sugarman under entertainment|
What is the comedian’s role in our society?
It would be simple to say, “to make people laugh” – that’s what comedians do, it’s true and obvious. But is that their sole purpose? Or is there more to it?
In our British society it’s certainly more; the role of a British comedian hasn’t changed since Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale written hundreds of years ago. Comedians question everything, from the things we say to the laws passed by our government; that’s what comedians do and have done for a long time.
Their role is to take all the stupid, dark things that litter our society and use them to make people happy; to take the things no one is supposed to say, and say them; to take a taboo, break it and say, “Hey, it’s fine, come on, it might be bad but hell we can enjoy this.”
The comedian’s role is to break the rules, call us stupid and insult things we may care about – and make us love them for it.
There are hundreds of roles and hundreds of meanings, messages and subtexts. But comedy is not one thing, it is many, as I will highlight below.
Lets look at slapstick comedy, one of the oldest forms, which dates back further even than Shakespeare with his Malvolio, a steward to Olivia in Twelfth Night. In more modern times, however, Charlie Chaplain is probably one slapstick icon. Chaplain (April 16, 1889 – December 25, 1977) was a British comedian, actor and director from the very early 20th century. Most of his works (created in the 1920s) were silent and he is most famous for these, although he did create films long after the creation of “talkies.” He is most famous for his character “the tramp,” who was introduced in the film Kid Auto Races At Venice. Chaplain used his body rather than his voice to get laughs, a great achievement that very few people have managed to match, though Rowan Atkinson has done very well with his Mr Bean. There are lots of people who hate this character, claiming it makes Rowan look stupid and that people focus on this very dim character, forgetting the brilliantly witty characters he played in Blackadder. I think these people are wrong. It’s true that people tend to forget about his earlier characters, his verbal characters, but Mr Bean is actually a far greater challenge because comedy is all about the timing; while it’s very easy to throw a quick quip and get a laugh, bodily comedy is a different discipline in every way. The writing is different, the performing is different, and the reaction is a world away from that of satire.
Slapstick doesn’t require you as an audience to think – just laugh.
One of the most popular comedy branches, satire is everywhere and is woven into our history, deeper than fish and chips. Dating from as early as William Hogarth with his Rakes Progress it has always been popular, as it allows us to be horribly mean to our leaders without getting into too much trouble.
Spitting Image is a fantastic example. First aired in 1984, it was a satirical puppet show that used caricatures of politicians and other famous people to create some obscene sketches, which included a portrayal of Thatcher as a crossing tyrant who used the male toilets, had a Hitler-esque opinion of the French, and was once shown throwing an apple out of the window simply because it was from France. The show, which was outrageous and controversial, didn’t stop until 1996.
Satire is a very powerful type of comedy, mostly boasting comedians with very strong opinions, which are often very sick and dark. Frankie Boyle, the Scottish satirist, is a great example: he has a very quick mind and a ruthless sense of humour, he is controversial at best, and will shock and horrify his audience to get laughs. For example, when Barack Obama was giving his speech after being elected as president, he had to do it behind three-inch-thick bullet-proof glass.
I thought that was a bit harsh – just because he’s black doesn’t mean he’s going to shoot anyone.
– Frankie Boyle
Sitcoms are an extremely popular form of television comedy. Famous shows include Friends, which is arguably the most popular sitcom ever produced – it ran for 10 years and has been repeated for more than 20. It’s about six friends living in New York and the show is considered so brilliant because although sometimes very silly it was always believable and easy to relate to. Other shows include The Simpsons, which is unusually an animated show but follows the conventions of a sitcom. Based on a family living in the American town of Springfield, the show started back in 1989 and is still running. It is the longest running American sitcom and the longest running American animation show.
Frasier is a show about a psychiatrist living with his father and his help in Seattle, which ran for 11 years (1993 – 2004) and saw Kelsey Grammer as Frasier become for a short period the highest paid TV actor as well as earning the title for playing the same character for the longest time (20 years) until he was beaten recently by the principal cast of The Simpsons. Oddly, despite all of the above Frasier was a spin off from Cheers, however it is the most successful spin off of all time.
Sitcoms have always been popular because they show relatable characters stuck in completely un-relatable situations, but also because they require less thinking than most comedies and offer an attachment to a character, which I believe helps.
A situation commonly follows the domestic lives of a small group of people, not unlike a soap opera in that it allows the viewer into the most intimate details of someone’s, usually unaware, life. They become funny when the characters who are supposed to be utterly relatable enter a situation completely alien and attempt to handle it in their regular fashion. This is most notable in the show Father Ted, though it could be said Irish priests aren’t all that relatable for most people.
I think, and I may be wrong, that the role of a comedian is to do what ever he or she feels is necessary to make you laugh. People may argue that it’s to question society or to point out faults, but that’s wrong: that’s just what they do to create a laugh.
That’s their role. Or so I believe.
Perhaps this is the wrong perspective. The posed question was, “What is the role of the comedian in our society?” when perhaps the answer lies in a completely different, but possibly more accurate, question: “What is the role of our society in a comedian’s life?”
You see, most people think a comedian does his job to make people laugh. But this is the wrong angle. Read interviews on the internet, not necessarily with famous comedians but with the real ones, gigging every night. They gig not to make people laugh, but to hear people laugh – obviously they want to be the one making the laughter, but this is not for the benefit of the audience but themselves, as laughter makes the comedian feel good. Look at comedians, on TV and on the circuit: the majority are odd in some way. A nasal voice, oddly tall, oddly short, ginger-haired, bald, fat. But physical oddities are just a quick example; the real understanding of my point comes from the knowledge that all comedians are insecure. Their need to make people laugh comes from an inward desire for acceptance or social power.
It is widely known that in social stature he who is funny ranks above he who is strong but thick, but the strong and thick appear above those who are clever and funny. It’s very complicated and there are many many differentials. But the insecure clever and funny comedians (I use the word clever offhandedly because though some comedians may appear thick a lot of hard work went into that appearance) feel like the beta, the second best, but under the skin of societies appearance, the beta hold the power.
Let’s take a look at perhaps the western world’s biggest irrational fear: unattractiveness. I would like to point out that this isn’t a piece of sexism on its way – bear with me and I shall explain. Imagine an attractive woman is at a bar and she is being chatted up by some big hulky guy, but he’s not funny and has nothing to talk about. Then along comes another guy, who is not as attractive or as muscular, but he’s funny and can hold an interesting conversation. Most of the time the funny guy will come out on top – it is a basic human instinct buried deep within that causes us to latch onto something or someone funny. It’s partly the instinct to find an interesting partner to copulate with and create a better, more intelligent and therefore ultimately more useful child. But most people only recognise it as an attraction caused by the endorphins released by laughter. This works the other way, too: people will also be attracted to someone who finds them funny.
Making someone laugh creates the feeling of being the alpha; unconsciously it is the feeling of immense power. My previous example was on its way to opening up the next idea: On a larger scale, someone who is funny and has charisma can control a group of people like putty, and people will follow the interesting one like sheep.
In short, comedians become comedians to fulfil the gap created by their insecurities. They are driven by a need for power, admiration, attraction and acceptance, all of which are grasped by making a group of people laugh, even if it lasts just a short while.
We must conclude that people ultimately become comedians for themselves first, mostly to fight their on insecurities, and they make people laugh to fulfil this. This doesn’t mean that they don’t want the crowd to enjoy themselves. It simply means that the comedian is not there to be a wise, philosophical crowd-pleaser, but to make people laugh. Therefore, that is their role.
I would like to state that I do not own any jokes used as examples in this text, nor do I necessarily agree with any opinions expressed in said jokes.