Comedy criticism: Where did it all go wrong
Spencer Brown on the over-intellectualising of stand-up
OK - let’s get to it: comedy criticism is screwed. There, I said it. Having a career is overrated anyway.
So what’s the problem? Comedy criticism seems to have developed a bias away from stand-up towards a kind of joke-peppered spoken word and it’s leaving stand-up as the poor relation of the comedy lecture. Whenever you’re not being funny, or setting up something that’s funny, you’re not being a comedian. Of course – that’s OK – you don’t have to be a comedian all the time. But the trouble is that many of the shows that are lauded today are being lauded for these spoken word sections rather than the jokes at the end of them. Likewise, comedians who have managed to somehow capture these same ideas into jokes are considered ‘mainstream’ and lowbrow.
As such, the critical community is devaluing jokes: seeing them as cheap devices, rather than the heart of comedy and beautiful things in themselves.
To people who think like this, a joke is a mere joke, but as Orwell said, ‘Every joke is a tiny revolution,’ and like a fair few things he said – it’s true. Every joke can be unpacked and analysed for meaning: what is it highlighting about the world and the way we think? But the critic’s head comes in and starts looking around the joke, searching for meaning and as such they are looking in the wrong direction. Couldn’t the critic see it as their job to find the meaning within the joke rather than looking outside of it? Of course, the audience doesn’t need to do that as deep down they’ve already grasped the meaning completely – that’s why they’re laughing.
This disrespect towards stand-up also seems to show a lack of understanding of how difficult good jokes are to write, especially compared to mediocre philosophy. Listen to Seinfeld talk about writing – there’s an attention to detail that would make a poet proud. Stand-ups have always strived to get to laughs as quickly as possible, and to cut out the padding. But now it’s the padding that is celebrated more than the jokes themselves.
So how has this happened? Part of it is due to the fact that the critic expects a comedian to explain their own material: ‘By the way guys, that joke was about mental illness.’ There’s nothing wrong with this if it serves the comedy, but this should be a choice, not an expectation.Just because comedy is an immediate art form, there’s no reason it should have to be a literal one. Why do we expect comedy to spell out its meanings and themes to give it value? Would we expect this of a novel? Of a film? Do we think any less of a poet because they haven’t written their own footnotes?
The whole debate about highbrow and lowbrow comedy (according to the critics) seems to revolve around cultural capital. But this is not a debate about comedy – it’s about how people appropriate comedy to define themselves. Comedians, is that really what you want to be? Someone else’s ‘cultural capital’? We should not think in terms of lowbrow and highbrow - just in terms of making what we want to say as funny as possible. To steal another Orwell line, ‘The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.’ To aspire to being highbrow seems to go against this completely.
Unfortunately the critical community is attempting to create an imaginary divide between the accessible and the intelligent. The desperation of the comedy critic to elevate comedy (and thus their own standing) to the position of high-art has meant that they are failing to appreciate much of its inherent value and also moulding it into something specific to their tastes.
Every stand-up who is cracking original jokes is showing intelligence and insight – the only question should be have I heard this before? If we’re searching for intelligence in humour, can’t we look towards the comedy itself, rather than requiring a comedian to show their intelligence when they’re not being funny? And, if you’re going to judge this stuff guys, pay close attention to the details and don’t just lump it into the nearest rough subject category in an attempt to create some kind of journalistic narrative*.
Real intelligence and originality isn’t always flashy – it isn’t always extreme points of view, and highfalutin references. These are, to mangle a line that I’ve heard written about Stephen Fry, ‘a stupid person’s idea of what intelligence is like.’
Could stand-up be in danger of becoming an ‘intelligent’ art form, in the same way that jazz did? Did you know people actually used to like jazz? Then, in the 40s, an intellectualised form called bebop took over as the cutting edge and jazz lost its populist appeal forever.
I don’t think this is going to happen with comedy, but it’s the way it’s being pushed. And of course, there’s a place for the ‘highbrow’ comedy that the press seem to love – I love weirdo jazz, but to see it as the only valuable approach is blinkered and superficial. It’s time to re-evaluate the critical approach, and celebrate comedy in all its forms, learning to understand the many places where intelligence and originality can reside.
There: I managed not to be a comedian for a while, and in probably the least successful way in terms of garnering critical approval. Oh, and come and see my solo show on Wednesday – after all, that’s why I wrote this. Unless, of course, you’re a critic, in which case don’t - you’ll probably hate it.
* I am aware this whole article could be subject to this criticism. It definitely doesn’t apply to all critics, particularly outside of the Edinburgh festival scene. So, for the record, please be aware there’s a good chance I don’t believe a word I’ve written.
Posted: 29 Sep 2014