What are you all laughing at? What’s wrong with you? | James Smyth wants more depth in comedy criticism

What are you all laughing at? What’s wrong with you?

James Smyth wants more depth in comedy criticism

Comedy is subjective. This is a truism that all but the most hard-headed of us must learn to accept. Laughter is, after all, in many cases, a reflex action, determined by cultural prejudice and personal preference, and by the ineffable workings of neurological circuits, hidden deep down in an individual’s psyche. Maybe you find a man falling down a manhole hilarious. Perhaps a comedian’s face, before he even says a word, can have you in paroxysms. There is no rationale for this. There’s no right or wrong. It’s just funny to you. Each, as they say, to their own.

But dear me, isn’t it difficult to accept sometimes? Which comedy-goer has not sat stony-faced through a set, surrounded by gales of laughter, and had to fight down the urge to stand up and scream, ‘What are you all laughing at? What’s wrong with you? This isn’t funny!’?

We are hard-wired, it seems, to have opinions. And in most other cultural arenas this is fine. I can happily debate for hours whether Goodfellas is a better film than The Godfather. I could write you an essay on the stylistic merits of Amis over Nabokov (or vice versa), and I wouldn’t feel like I was wasting my time. But when it comes to comedy, there’s no debate to be had. Subjectivity trumps all-comers. I am defenceless to the rejoinder, ‘Well, I just find it funny.’

Or am I? Is it possible to find some objective touchstone, some underlying principle that some comedians get right, and some get wrong? I’d argue that perhaps there is. Of course, you’ll always be able to find somebody who will laugh at anything. If you don’t see a lot comedy, the mere sight of a man on stage saying things in a confident and jovial manner will elicit a giggle. But to those of us who are a little more seasoned, and a little more savvy in the way that comedy works, I think it’s possible to see through the presentation, and investigate the cogs and gears that are running the whole show. With some acts, this machine is well-oiled, tuned to perfection, and running like a dream. With others, shoddy design and poor maintenance are starting to show.

I recently came across a clip of Lee Evans from one of his recent O2 shows, discussing posh restaurants. ‘Garnish?’ he exclaims, boggle-eyed. ‘What’s the point of garnish? Who actually likes garnish? You don’t see starving Africans stumbling around, going, “Garnish… give me some garnish”.’ If the soundtrack to the clip is to be believed, the audience were falling about themselves. Like most of Evans’ work, it left me entirely cold. I simply could not see the joke. Subjectivity again? Must I suspend any judgement, on the grounds that it’s all down to personal taste? I think not.

The joke is just wrong. The joke is broken. It doesn’t make any sense. Everyone, but everyone, knows that garnish is there for decoration. It’s not an intrinsic part of the meal. Of course starving Africans aren’t clamouring for it, because it contains little nutritional value. Everyone knows this. But the routine is delivered in the style of a ‘hasn’t the world gone mad?’ observation, and for that to work, we really have to made aware of some oddity or absurdity in real life that we hadn’t previously noticed. Garnish is not it. Garnish is fine. There’s nothing particularly odd about garnish at all.

In Bridget Christie’s recent show, An Ungrateful Woman, there is an extended routine in which she auditions for a TV advert, where she has to open a fridge, and accept the proffered yoghurt from the little besuited man living inside. The joke hinges on her increasing incredulity at this bizarre situation. Why is the little man living in her fridge? Why is he offering her yoghurt? Should she be afraid and call the police?

Again, it doesn’t work. For this to make sense, we have to assume that Christie has never seen a television advert before, is completely unaware of the existence of fantasy elements in popular culture and genuinely believes that the idea being pitched to her is supposed to represent the real lives of potential yoghurt consumers. Of course, we don’t assume this. That kind of person doesn’t exist. So bewilderment in the face of an extremely common and not-at-all confusing situation simply jars. There is no joke here. There is just bad writing.

Again, I make concessions to subjectivity. If you find Lee Evans’ sweaty, rubber face amusing, and therefore laugh at anything that comes out of it, then so be it. If you just think that Bridget Christie is a nice, likeable lady, and it pleases you to chortle along with her flights of fancy, then please, be my guest. I have my own roster of instinctively comedic subjects, some of them so low-brow that I ought to be ashamed, so I’m not trying to claim any intellectual high ground. What I am trying to do, is to argue that it is possible to give rational, critical reasons why one joke, or one comedian, isn’t as good as another.

In the end, it comes down to how deep you’re willing to delve. If you subscribe to the equation ‘Everyone Is Laughing = Good Comedian’, then you are positioning yourself at the surface level of subjectivity. Nothing wrong with that. But if you consider yourself any sort of critic, be it professional or enthusiastic amateur, the onus is upon you to look a little further. You have to ask yourself why you’re laughing. Or why the rest of the audience is laughing while you are not. Sometimes, it will come down to preference, and there’s nothing to be said. Others, you will see what is wrong, you will know why it is wrong, and you will have an argument, an objective rational argument, to back that up.

It seems a strange idea to imply that a critic can ever be objectively right. But then again, in any cultural debate, isn’t that what we ought to be aiming for?

Published: 22 Jan 2015

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