It's an obvious point but occasionally, people, things and ideas make us laugh but why? Why did the Chicken cross the road? Was it lost?
Laughter can be viewed in many different ways. It can be a response to something that we find funny or it can be indicative of mental illness. It is an extreme response to external and internal stimuli. However, it is viewed, it is a release. It can make us feel better or it can cause us to tire. For example, I remember being at school and whilst attending a 'Life Skills' class (these are a funny conceit too but not a subject for discussion now), one of my class who consistently made people laugh decided to hide in a cupboard at the back of the room. Bear in mind that I am referring to a floor level cupboard, not a full size one. Someone prevented his escape from the cupboard by placing a table in front of the cupboard. The teacher came in and when he called the register, a banging could be heard from the cupboard. We all laughed as the table was removed and he came out. Even the teacher laughed. The punchline being that laughter is tiring and I think this is the point that I realised this essential truth. I like laughing and humour but you try being in the company of someone who cracks jokes every thirty seconds and see how you feel by the end of the day. Maybe, that reveals more about me?
Anyway, I slightly digress... I think that most people would agree that different types of comedy like everything in life appeals to different people. What has interested me is how types of comedy are very much of their time. I am thinking of various situation comedies that are now deemed 'politically incorrect' and even stand-up comedians whose material remains sexist and racist. I generally do not condone censorship. Indeed, if you look at the cultural trends over the years, the comedy that is created is of the moment and watching certain programmes thirty years on is more revealing of the times in which the programmes were made. Personally, I do not like 'Rising Damp'. Something about the programme always got under my skin but that was essentially the point. Rigsby is an awful character. A seedy, self-regarding unpleasant landlord with racist views. Interestingly, it doesn't seem to be repeated that often. The same is true of 'In Sickness and In Health', although Alf Garnett is a recognisable archetype in most public houses.
Another programme (and comedian) that wound me up as a kid and still does as an adult was 'The Benny Hill Show'. Benny Hill essentially took the fun out of slapstick and lacked the originality of 'The Goodies' and the likes of Norman Wisdom plus he chucked in a dose of sexist humour in the form of 'The Hill's Angels'. Yet, posthumously, he remains popular in America and in various European countries. His show is also televised in India.
So what does make me laugh? Well, I do like some situation comedies. 'Open All Hours' set in a corner shop and starring Ronnie Barker as Arkwright, the shopkeeper and Granville, his young assistant played by David Jason still generates a warm feeling inside. Something about the setting and an understanding of the time in which it was set. 'Porridge' also still features high on my list of situation comedies that have stood the test of time. I guess 'Only Fools and Horses' also features somewhere on the list. Thinking about it, most situation comedies whether they are set in the future, 'Red Dwarf' or in the weird nightmarish setting of Royston Vasey, 'The League of Gentlemen' stand the test of time much more successfully than some stand up routines. Stand up comedy is at its best representative of the moods, foibles and errors of the moment. Seeing Seventies' stand-up comedy programmes with their proliferation of patriarchal jokes involving Mother-In-Laws and 'ugly wives' leaves me cold and grim faced.
Comedy can age very badly as perhaps, it should. If you get the chance, please read or see the play 'Comedians' by Trevor Griffiths, which is set in a classroom for aspiring working-class comedians and effectively offers an overview of the comedy scene in the Seventies and where it was heading. One of the aspiring comedians preempts the alternative comedy scene that became popular in the Eighties.
So where is comedy going now? The answer seems to be nowhere in particular. Everything seems derivative, retrograde and even stand-ups are losing their connection with the audience by playing ever bigger venues. This situation should not be seen as terrible as there will always be something to make people laugh but personally, I need to be challenged, so I will continue to seek out new comedians or comedians that believe in the material they deliver.
I conclude this blog entry with a joke, why did the Chicken cross the road wearing a banana skin with a Hedgehog? The Chicken needed someone to help him change the light bulb and the banana skin ensured that there would be no unfortunate accidents.
Barry Watt - 24th February 2013