The noble art of comedy

by Arthur Smith

What's So Funny? Comedy is a noble tradition that shapes the English language in uniquely inventive ways, according to stand-up Arthur Smith.

The circuit veteran made his comments as he opened a semi-academic conference about the language of comedy yesterday, adding that laughter should be celebrated as an expression of what makes us human.

And he told the audience at the British Library event What’s So Funny? that writing jokes required great linguistic skill. ‘Comedy is the opposite of cliché,’ he said. ‘The language of comedy is the opposite of cliché – unless it’s parodying cliché.

‘We in Britain cherish comedy more than any other country. Comedians are afforded a status they are not afforded elsewhere. It has ever been thus: consider Henry II, he had a jester called Roland The Farter, who was given a huge mansion in Suffolk. All he had to do for that was one gig a year for the king. Apparently he came on with a leap, a whistle and a fart – and you’ve got to think that would still work today. And Shakespeare, he loved a pun. English lends itself to puns.

‘As a comedian you have to be a writer or employ writers. You may have a funny idea, but if you don’t express it in the right words in the right order, you wont get a laugh.’

But despite the analytical theme of the day, he warned: ‘There will always be something you can’t pin down about what is funny. It’s like love.

‘It’s not like painting or music where the response is silent and internal. Comedy demands you make an involuntary response like belch or sneeze or fart -– but we don’t pay people to make us belch.

‘Laugher is the sole excess that is wholesome. Comedy is profoundly human. It brings people together but it can also be provocative.’

He added that stand-up reflected the shifting use of words in our culture. ‘The language of comedy is always changing,’ he said. ‘Fifteen years ago, cunt was not a word you used in stand-up. Now it is used regularly because language changes.’

Smith closed his address with a quote often – wrongly – attributed to the Koran: ‘He deserves paradise who makes his companions laugh.’

Published: 19 Jan 2011

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.