For as long as I can remember, comedy, of one sort or another has been a big part of my life. When I was very young, I can recall laughing hysterically at Roald Dahl’s re-imaginings of classic fairy tales, in which Little Red Riding Hood at one point whips a pistol from her knickers and shoots a wolf. At the same time, I remember voraciously reading and memorising jokes from The Ha-Ha Bonk Joke Book (incidentally that title refers to the joke, what goes ha-ha bonk? A man laughing his head off). My favourite film growing up was The Life of Brian (it probably still is), my favourite TV shows were Red Dwarf, Fawlty Towers, Bottom and The Mary Whitehouse Experience. If I were asked to list my favourite writers, Alan Bennett, Ben Elton, Stuart Lee, and Daniel Kitson would be on that list. I have always been absolutely obsessed with comedy. I love to laugh, and I love to hear others laughing too. So, it should not have been a surprise to anybody who knew me well, that when I applied for an MA Popular Culture at Edge Hill University, I intended to immerse myself in the world of comedy studies.
I am now able to make solid arguments about why comedy is so important to me, and more broadly why I believe it should be of importance to critics and historians too. I realised when I was studying for my undergraduate degree that there is an age-old debate that exists between the elite and the popular. I spent time reading about Penny dreadfuls and Rebecca, but I could never shake the idea that comedy has never really been taken seriously enough. While I might not have been entirely accurate in my thinking, as scholars of comedy studies and humour studies can attest, there is some truth to the idea. Comedy does not hold equal status with other art forms. This issue became particularly relevant as many stand-up comedians struggled to win support during the COVID-19 pandemic, and prominent comedians such as Nish Kumar spoke out about this publicly. Comedy is not the only art form where this is an issue, professional wrestling faces a similar battle, and if I ever do return to education to study for a PhD it is likely that I will explore one of these two avenues further.
The truth as I see it, is that comedy has always played second fiddle to tragedy. Despite comedy having the capacity to reveal much about people and societies, owing to the skewed perspectives and its transgressive nature, it struggles to be taken seriously. I put it to you that humour is a fundamental part of what it is to be human, we laugh and we smile all the time. We tell jokes in the most severe times by way of coping. But somehow, comic treatments of serious themes undermine themselves.
Historically humour has always been looked down upon, this is not a recent problem. During Victorian times there was an anti-laughter or anti-comedy movement that was fronted by folk such as George Vasey who engaged in public debate on the subject and argued that ‘laughter was unnatural, injurious and ought to be discontinued’, and despite this not being anything like true of people of that period, the idea of the dour Victorians persists. While there is no hiding that the Victorians did love to laugh, take for example the vast number of comic texts that sprouted in the long-nineteenth century for example, it is also true that those in authority sought to stamp merriment out. Laws were passed that made socialising in early pubs, clubs, and upstart theatres increasingly difficult. People laughing, joking, and burlesquing those above them in the social structure was problematic. This I think is, and has always been the crux of the problem for comedy. It possesses the power of disavowal.
Comedy has been deemed base and uncouth for a long time, but humour is too pervasive to ignore. Comedy texts, just like any other cultural artefact, are the product of human agency. I argue this alone makes it meaningful. In Britain there was a sea change that occurred during the nineteen sixties that was spearheaded by Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python. Popular entertainment seemingly ceased deferring to authority figures. Rather, the establishment became the target. While comedy alone was not enough to change the world, it did begin to change the way society engaged with authority. People developed agency as comedy started to punch up.
To conclude, comedy is undoubtedly woven into the very fabric of human existence – it presents opportunities for individuals and societies to rethink and re-examine established beliefs, hierarchies, and structures. Through comedy, people are able to express and consider otherwise taboo subjects, freely and openly. Therefore, comedy, like literature and art of any form, has the capacity to encourage agency in its audience and evoke change in the contingent world. Further, Mary O’Hara argues that it is ‘vital to understand the job that comedy can do in actively providing a counterbalance to bigotry and prejudice as well as understanding the types of humour that reinforce negative stereotypes’. This affirms my interest in the worthiness of the research of comedy. In truth, humour theory has been a key part of our understanding of what it is to be human since the time of Plato at least, who is said to have been the ‘most influential critic of laughter’ and ‘treated laughter as an emotion that overrides rational self-control’
This blog post is an incredibly brief, perhaps even an undercooked discussion of the history of comedy. It offers you no answers, but then it does not seek to. What I have penned above is designed to inform you why comedy is important to me, and why I believe it ought to be important to you too. I hope to encourage you to think about comedy in a new way; to think about how comedy has changed during your lifetime; to think about what role comedy and humour plays in your everyday life. Over the coming weeks we will be publishing some examinations of particular comics, texts, genres, and formats.