Stand-up comedy, eh? What’s the bloody point of it? As friends, lovers and people I met once while drunk can tell you that is a question I can talk at interminable length about. So, um, that’s what I’m going to do here. But don’t worry because it will be interspersed with videos of people being funny. Deep breath, everyone. Here we go.
There are many theories about what humour ‘is’ and its social function. A common one is ‘relief theory’. According to relief theory humour is a way to overcome sociocultural inhibitions. This stems from Sigmund Freud who thought that laughter released psychic tension. In other words, although we all swan around pretending to be sane, healthy human beings deep down inside we are writhing masses of sexual perversity and anti-authoritarian rage. healthy people, of course, are those whose sexual perversity and anti-authoritarian rage is on the surface. (Note: that is not necessarily Freud’s view.)
The point is that from a relief theory perspective the role of the stand up comedian involves revealing what lies beneath our social facades. This could be purely political (anti-authority) or scatological (‘perverse’, or rather, concerned with our innate animalistic nature as horny and defecating beasts that have miraculously learned to talk). For this reason comedy has always had a devalued role to some extent. Sam Friedman’s interesting sociological analysis of British comedy (found here) informs us that:
Academic deliberations concerning the place of comedy date back to Ancient Greece and Aristotle’s Poetics (335BC), where comedy was first discussed as a form of drama. Notably, comedy was defined in relation to its opposition with tragedy, a distinction that has proved remarkably persistent in British literary culture (Stott, 2005). Whereas Aristotle saw tragedy as an “imitation of all action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude” (Aristotle, 1996:10), he viewed comedy as a representation of the ridiculous and unworthy elements of human behaviour. Comic characters were presented in Greek Drama as “disgraceful” figures that failed to uphold moral values, and were characterised by vulgarity and inferiority (Critchley, 2002: 88). Indeed, for Aristotle, the opposition between comedy and tragedy symbolised the wider conflict between the two aesthetic capabilities of the human character; tragedy representing the transcendental goals of “high-art” and comedy the “low” counterpoint of vulgar entertainment .
This low position was further emphasised by comedy’s focus on the shitting, farting, pissing, sweating human body. This was, and remains, in counterpoint to the beauty, poise and control required of ‘civilised’ body/society. Laughter can be a threat to the established order of things. Indeed, at certain points in history laughter has been considered a danger. Friedman notes that,
hostility to laughter within cultural circles derived from early Christianity, where all sensual pleasure was considered suspicious and antithetical to the pursuit of pious abstinence. The more a person’s body was closed to the world, the more it was considered open to god
And that furthermore,
Such ethical opposition to laughter remained strong in clerical circles throughout the early modern period and by the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries extended to exclude laughter more firmly from ‘official culture’
One edict of the 18th century even implored that ‘men of quality’ did not laugh on grounds of breeding. Laughter, which had once been a barrier to Godliness was later to become seen as a threat to intellectual enlightenment. The 18th century English essayist Jospeh Addison went so far as to claim that “Laughter slackens and unbraces the Mind, weakens the Faculties and causes a kind of Remissness, and Dissolution in all the powers of the soul’. Laughter and comedy then are potent tools of subversion. Laughter is evidence that someone has seen through the veil of illusion. Laughter is the sound of truth being recognised. As noted above there are two main (overlapping) ways that this can be done-mocking authority or emphasising vulgarity. These amount to the same thing in some respects. Fist of all, here is a video of the late, great George Carlin demonstrating the first style.
And here is an example from comedian and activist Mark Thomas.
Let’s call this the comedy of ‘consciousness raising’ because that’s got a nice hipppy ring to it whereas ‘political satire’ sounds a bit snooty. For Thomas stand up comedy is about, “expectation and defying expectation, and if you can’t make that political and change people’s minds, then you’re in the wrong fucking game“, and that
the whole point about this is that it should be fun, but it should also have significance. if you can’t play with these big ideas, then …what you’re saying is that some things are sacred, and we can never change them. And as soon as you say that, it’s just like you’ve become part of the obstacle…the whole point is it’s open to change…change occurs all the time. It’s about whether you can shape or change or influence its direction (quoted in Quirk)
As a general rule such comedy depends on a certain amount of intelligence and expects a certain amount of intelligence from the audience. ‘Authority is a fucking sham’ says the comic, ‘and here’s a smart and funny bit that proves it’. The second, vulgar brand of comedy however does that job much more quickly. Not that jokes about piss, shit, knobs and fannies don’t have intellectual pedigree too. The literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin elaborated upon this in his analysis of the early comic novelist Francois Rabelais (1494-1553). As Friedman writes,
Bakhtin characterises the early modern period in terms of two opposing cultures, the sombre, Church-driven ‘Official’ culture, and the popular, boisterous culture of the common people. Bakhtin argued that this popular culture could be characterised as a spontaneous expression of ‘natural’ feeling, where people were unmediated by expectations of bodily formality. In particular, the main vehicle for this popular voice was ‘Carnival’, a special period of sensual indulgence before the Lenten fast, which involved a temporary suspension of all social rules and etiquette. For Bakhtin, the carnival operated according to a “comic logic”, where graphic and humorous descriptions of bodily functions and sexual activity represented a deliberate mocking of the dominant order
As Bakhtin himself put it, ” Wherever men laugh and curse, their speech is filled with bodily images. The body copulates, defecates, overeats and men’s speech is flooded with genitals, bellies, urine, disease, noses and dismembered parts’. In other words, the comic was means of turning the social order on its head, of saying the unsayable whether that was mocking authority or jokes about wanking. All that was high was bought low, the sacred and transcendent made profane and base. A reminder that the King, or the Pope or even Jesus, still had to poo out of their bumhole. Stand-up comedy can be seen as a ritualistic experience like Bakhtin’s carnival. The baseline of comedy. To illustrate, here is the clever, articulate and ever excellent Stewart Lee talking about farts.
And just for fun, Eddie Murphy doing Richard Pryor talking about shit:
Here’s a third example of carnival humour, not about poo or farts but just as wise and crude in which Doug Stanhope overturns the social order by reminding us that, “your sins are the only interesting thing about you”. Amen.
The question remains, why is the comedian allowed to say such things? What is it about the space of the performance that makes people laugh at utterances that, if they heard them at work, or from the mouths of their children, they would be appalled? For some, this ability to say the ‘unsayable’ derives from the comic’s license inherited from the days of Fools and Jesters. A temporary autonomous zone where deviance from social norms is allowed full reign. Lawrence E. Mintz suggests that
the pleasure the audience derives from this sanctioned deviance may be related to the ritual violation of taboos, inversion of ritual, and public iconoclasm frequently encountered in cultural traditions. If, as freud posaited, there is a battle going on between our instincts and our socially developed rules of behaviour, comedy provides an opportunity for a staged antagonism” (1985:Page 77)
But we could just as well go beyond the simply political and begin to question all of our assumptions. Mock the foundations of ‘reality’ itself. Build ourselves a comedy metaphysics where the comedian becomes a shaman. Such a metaphysics might begin with an acknowledgment that laughter itself is sacred, Indeed, laughter does seem to be a part of being human that transcends barriers of race, creed and colour, part of what laughter researcher Robert Provine calls our “universal human vocabulary”: Laughter is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of . There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way.” Perhaps Pablo Neruda was on to something when he called laughter “the language of the soul“. For G. K. Chesterton, “Laughter has something in it common with the ancient words of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes people forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves.” If this be the case then the comedic ritual does not simply have to be a matter of the audience letting off steam, of mere catharsis, a safety valve in which repressed thoughts and desires can be expressed and then forgotten about until next time, thus keeping the social order exactly as it was. Laughter can be spiritual, as well as revolutionary force.
In Comedy: a geographic and historical guide, Volume 2, Maurice Charney claims that, “stand-up is surely the oldest, the most basic, and the universal form of comedy. Its roots are in the shaman, the fool, the jester and the clown“. Fools and Jesters were employed by royalty and aristocracy in middle and renaissance ages. Their job was not simply to entertain though but to actively take the piss out of their masters and mistresses and their friends. Fools and Jesters were granted a license not extended to the general populace to behave in odd and extreme ways and to voice ideas and opinions that would get others thrown in the stocks or worse. Fools in particular were thought to be ‘touched by god’ and their mad ravings as divinely inspired. As if to emphasise this otherworldly connection the Fool is also the first card of the Major Arcana in Tarot. The fool is depicted as about to step of a cliff, as Wile E. Coyote so often was. Jimmy Carr and Lucy Graves have linked the comedian to the archetype of the trickster, of which Wile E. coyote may be a modern variation. As Sophie Quirk puts it:
the trickster is easily equated with the subversive and challenging functions of the comedian, for both expose our weaknesses and undermine and question those ‘truths’ which we take for granted. Yet it is healthy to confront and come to terms with the natural instincts buried in our shadow; the trickster is equated with the saviour, just as the comedian liberates through his challenges to convention
Charney is not alone in linking the comedian with the figure of the shaman. For example Mintz writes that, “as part of the public ritual of standup comedy, he [sic] serves as a shaman, leading us in a celebration of a community of shared culture, of homogeneous understanding and expectation”. For comedian Tony Allen, the comedian is a shaman because they, “take risks and investigates the dark side”, the comedian serves the tribe by serving as a cipher, asking fundamental existential and spiritual questions such as, “who are we? What are we doing? And is this the interval?” . As Quirk astutely observes:
the very existence of the above theories demonstrates that we intuitively assign a mystical or special status to the comedian. Thus, when we talk about the comedian’s license, we are talking about the license granted to one who is perceived to operate over and above, or in the margins of, our own plane of existence
Robert Anton Wilson once joked that, “Reality is the line where rival gangs of shamans fought to a standstill”. The comedian as shaman is the creator, destroyer or transformer of cultural signals. Not just poking holes in the story of consensus reality but showing us better ones. Constructive nihilism: “yes this is all shit, but now we all agree on that lets build something better”. Perhaps the comedian who most explicitly embodies this approach was Bill Hicks. Hicks was strong on both anti-authoritarian and vulgar comedy. The video below on sex in advertising is a neat fusion of both of these strands:
But there was also a marked spiritual aspect to Hick’s philosophy (one facilitated, it should be added, by judicious use of psilocybin mushrooms). In one of his letters in the book Love All the People Hicks declares himself a shaman: “I am a Shaman come in the guise of a comic, in order to heal perception by using stories and ‘jokes,’ and always, always, always the Voice of Reason.” Hicks’s work is strong on questioning consensus reality. never more so than in the parting monologue from Revelations
In a more measured register Stewart Lee has drawn comparisons between stand up comedy with fooling and clowning traditions. A passage in his novel “The Perfect Fool”, describes the Native American Clown tradition as a shamanic one:
The Hopi clown is not like a comedian or rodeo circus performer. He is a Perfect Fool, showing the people that man can never be perfect. He teaches us how man clowns his way through life, and hopes that this knowledge will lead man to some sense of right. He opens a door into a greater reality than the ebb and flow of everyday life. ( Quoted in Groggy Squirrel interview)
In 2006 Lee flew to Taos, New Mexico to make a radio documentary on the Peublo clowns (or sacred clowns). This excellent documentary can be heard on Stewart lee’s website here, and is well worth your time. Elsewhere on his website Lee writes that one of the reasons for his four-year self-imposed sabbatical from stand up comedy was
Partly why I gave up stand-up amongst other things for four years was because I felt, when reading about pueblo clowns, that there was sort of something there that was really vital. It wasn’t cynical. I felt all the stand-up I did in the 90s was tending to be sneering about things and when I came back to it, I wondered if there was a way that I could complain about things in a more energetic fashion and perhaps leave people with a broadly positive feeling somehow. I think again that was partly about reading all this stuff and it’s difficult to say how it all influences you but just that feeling that comedy could be a good thing, rather than just bitter.
A bit later Lee writes that
I think there’s something very romantic about pueblo clowns and they seem to believe that turning things around is a sort of end in itself. To make beautiful people ugly and at the same time also romanticise and praise the people who are the outcasts. This way of making fun of people that everyone liked and being kind to people that everyone was uncomfortable about was reversing the order of everything. This is what the essence of comedy is – to overturn the rules.
The full article is available here . There is more to discuss but since its been a while since the last video-and I don’t want to lose anyone; come on! we’re almost there!- here is modern clown and “21st Century protest singer” Doktor Cocacolamcdonalds:
There are good ‘scientific’ reasons for thinking about the comedian as shaman. Well, maybe not good, but good enough for now. The job of the comedian-shaman involved marking out the boundaries of a consensus reality, pissing all over them, and opening the doors of perception onto new ones. In fact, the idea that some evolutionary psychologists hold about humour seem to back this up. Geoffrey Miller argues that humor emerged as an indicator of human intelligence and other traits that were of survival value. As such although he says humour would have had no survival value for early humans, he believes its status as an indicator of intelligence means it evolved by sexual selection. In short, early humans, like modern humans, wanted to bone people who were smart and funny. More interestingly, the authors of Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind argue that humour emerged as a way of detecting mistaken reason in existing belief structures. As opposed to Miller, these authors argue that humour had a survival value beyond just indicating intelligence. Humour offered a pleasurable kick of endorphins to enhance the fun of thinking, giving us an added incentive to detect mistakes in our reasoning. in short, comedy made us smarter.
That pleasurable kick of endorphins did not just help to encourage early humans to build up their neural circuitry either. Laughter is good for us. In 2005 researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center reported that laughter causes the dilatation of the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, which increases blood flow. When not contributing to the healthy function of your blood vessels laughter is causing your brain to release endorphins, boosting antibody-producing cells and enhancing the effectiveness of T-cells, leading to a stronger immune system.
So now then…
The historical role of the comedian is both noble and stupid, with a lineage that goes back through jesters and fools to an even older, more mystical, shamanic tradition. It reminds us that we are dirty, human meat-sacks, but it also reminds us that it is not for those with power to decide what dirty, human meat-sacks are capable of being and doing because even those with authority are also dirty, human meat-sacks. Comedy can reveal the lies and stupidities that keep us small and stunted, it can heal perception and enhance physical functioning. It can do all those things, but that doesn’t mean it always does.
So in part two, whenever that comes, I will try to establish a highly contentious, deeply prejudiced, personal and wholly arbitrary distinction between shamanic comedy and non-shamanic (let’s call it ‘fascistic comedy’ for fun). This ridiculous and wilfully snobbish hierarchy will be bolstered by drawing on the same lazy research and lack of theoretical rigour displayed in this post, thus giving it just enough of an intellectual veneer to appear vaguely plausible. As a prelude to that, and end to this, I quote the words of Stewart Lee (from this interview): “I just went and saw a clown ritual at Taos Pueblo, one of the few whitey’s allowed into [it], and finally experiencing it was extremely important to me”, he says. “Modern culture doesn’t so much devalue the role of the comedian… comedians have done it to themselves. What are you? Inheritors of the shaman-clown tradition, or people that sell beer and shoes?”
See you all in part two.