Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Bullying = Humour?

A few months ago, an item appeared on the BBC News web site that gave me a start. It contained a quote from comedy writer Armando Iannucci, a response, in part, to the crackdown at BBC after Russell Brand's and Jonathan Ross's ill-advised prank phone call to Andrew Sachs: Jokes aren't true - they're lies, they're exaggerations, they're distortion, they're imbalance, they're having a go, they're bullying, they're insulting.

My startled reaction was to the notion that in order for something to be funny, there needs to be an element of bullying in it. Is this a British thing? I like British humour and I know it isn't all unkind, but it seems to me that British talk-shows, for example, take guest-baiting to surreal heights.

Or is this because I'm Canadian? Being an iPod neophyte, I am only just getting used to the wonderful world of podcasts. Naturally, one of my first subscriptions was to Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe. The very first podcast featured McLean waxing lyrically (as he does) on the subject of Stephen Leacock. McLean tells us: "In his prime, more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada." He adds: "Affection and kindness were the cornerstones of Leacock's house of humour." At least I think that's what he added; I'm quoting from memory. The gist of the argument anyway, was that Leacock's humour was never biting, and that the humour of Mark Twain and EB White share similar qualities. (Actually, I'm not sure I agree with him about Twain.) I would add Bill Cosby, Ellen DeGeneres, and perhaps even Nichols and May to the list of comedians and comic writers who can poke fun without drawing blood.

Interestingly enough, none of these humourists seem to need four-letter words to be funny. I was almost as perplexed as I was about the BBC item when a comedian (I think it may have been Chris Rock) declared not long ago that you need swearing to be funny. Now, granted, there's nothing as unfunny as trying to figure out what is funny, but humour is based on an element of surprise, and a lot of stand-up comics today depend on the rapidly diminishing shock of profanity for a laugh. I would hesitantly suggest that if you need the swear words to make people laugh, uh, maybe you aren't that funny?

That said, I do laugh at potty-mouthed comedians, and I have giggled at the more bullying aspects of British humour. However, I don't laugh as hard as I do at say, the Marx Brothers or Steve Wright. I'm just saying that cruelty and swearing are not a vital part of humour, and it is possible to be witty and even hilarious, without a lingering aftertaste of sheepishness. Or is that just me?


BwcaBrownie said...

I do agree with you, swearing and cruelty are not necessary, but I don't mind them per se, if the point of the humour is there.
Don Rickles is cruel in a nice way for instance. OK, Very Cruel, but funny.
I am particularly besotted with Russell Brand - just adore him for his various obsessions 1. was drugs, 2. sex, 3. being objectionable, 4. Katy Perry, and I predict his 5th obsession will be clean living and finding God. he is an obsessive boy.

Plenty of comedians are Excellent without needing an X rating: Groucho, Phyllis Diller, Rita Rudner, but I adored the late Sam Kinison and he was seriously XXX.

That BBC/Sachs thing was the broadcasters screw-up more than it was the 2 perpetrators. The grand-daughter who triggered it had a band called The*Satanic*Sluts for goodness sake. Hypocrite to wail about it afterward.

Persephone said...

I agree that the Sachs incident got blown out of proportion, but I feel impelled to add that a girl's dressing in skimpy clothes and belonging to The Satanic Sluts does not mean two overgrown adolescents with a radio show can phone up her grandfather and make cracks about sleeping with her. I'm not sure if Ross and Brand should have been banned, but I think they should have been locked up in a room with a crowd of indignant grandparents for a helluva good ear-boxing. (Ross has a daughter himself; he should know better.) Rant over.

I remember Sam Kinison making a crack about LiveAid and the famine in Ethiopia: "YOU LIVE IN A *&%$-ING DESERT!!!"
I laughed until I was sick. Still feel guilty about it.

BwcaBrownie said...

I will concede that point, yes.
It must be factored in that Sachs was not home and they got his answering machine. It would have been so very different if he had answered.
It is documented that Brand adores Fawlty Towers to a fault, and (if one can only imagine this)that when he got The Satanic Slut in his house his idea of a tryst was to put on the show for her amusement. That's when she said "Manuel is my grandfather" - this is documented right at the start of the fuss, before there were 4 million results on Guugle News.
Then it must be factored in that his cohort Jonathan*Ross was on a ridiculous salary of 18 million pounds - the BBC and the public were just looking for a reason to slam that.
Prior to mentioning the beloved Manuel, these two highly intelligent badboys had a huge listening audience despite slagging everybody in a badboy way.
The whole mess was a confluence of ugliness that ended in war.
Sachs had apparently been unaware of his grand-daughter's performances as a Satanic Slut, but he is an actor, not an abbott, and not Manuel the Portugese waiter - I don't believe he was as insulted as the baying media made out.

Joan Rivers is a bully comic too - I feel bad about omitting her earlier.

There are probably academic theses showing that all comedy is insult and violence, from Court Jesters to Punch & Judy; and Sam Kinison had a deeply religious upbringing.
Comedy is also therapy and catharsis.
Leno et al, being catharsis for a nation, a valve for angst, relieved nightly.