Saturday, 26 June 2010

Funny Britannia, the state of the Jester

The other day on one of the forums I live in, I posted an anecdote. It really did happen and every Polish family, Jewish family and family of anybody who ever lived through the camps and Siberia found this joke not only funny , but they laughed with abandon and total honesty. But when I told it to a group of highly intelligent people with a strongly developed sense of humour and irony, people who habitually tell the most elaborate and often beyond the pale bad taste stories, there was the kind of silence you get when you've just informed somebody they've got months to live and will die of cancer.  Clearly some subjects are too sensitive outside of the community of those who suffered, to be considered funny or to take the piss out of. But that's the point isn't it? To survive you need to take the piss out of things or they will get you.

Let me step back a bit and explain why  this post today. My wife and I are writers, we have over the last two years been writing a series of scripts for an adult comedy to be broadcast at some point when the stars align and BBC3 or ITV throw some money at us and make us as big as French and Saunders or Armstrong and Miller. We have drawn from a rich well of Slavic and Jewish humour that runs so vast and so thick in our respective families we barely know sometimes when we're being funny or just saying perfectly normal things any body else  would say.  I mention this only because we tend to say things as they are and try to find the joy in most situations even if they may sometimes appear on the surface not to be the most comfortable situations. It's when we're among the customers and staff of a little shop we like, our stories get the kind of reaction we least expected, we make them laugh, they don't want us to leave and they look forward to our next visit. Any comedian's definition of paradise wouldn't you say? And yet there is problem, while we have spoken to some industry types who have liked our style, we have been asked time and again "will this sell in the US?" " Won't THAT be offensive?" . You have characters who smoke???!!! And the short answers are.... No it won't sell outside of NYC and Seattle, yes it's offensive and why the hell not smoke , it's vile and dangerous , but go to an asian newsagent and ask him or his family  just how much of their life has been paid for by smokers. Just becuase the PC police and the Ministry of don't do that it's bad for you would like us to excise certain human activities from any representation of reality, doesn't mean they don't happen or we don't think of them.

A case in point is the programme on BBC last night. "Are you having a laugh" examined the treatment of disability in language and humour. It demonstrated clearly that the group about whom off colour jokes are being told aren't offended as they are telling them themselves. It's ok to laugh people, take a chill pill for Christ sake. The feminazis and politically correct brigade of the 70's and 80's sucked all the life out of us. We can't say merry Christmas to another Christian for fear of supposedly offending some Jew or Muslim or Hindu. Well don't believe a word of it, my wife wished me a happy Easter and I wished her a good Passover and nobody died of embarrassment. When asked where is he in a crowded room, I pointed out for ease of identification , "next to the black kid"Was fast simple and allowed the worry friend to spot their child right away. Was I trying to offend? no. I was trying to communicate in concise honest language a picture of reality . When we stop auto censoring, maybe we will be as a society be more tolerant and accepting of others. As a Pole surrounded by a sea of other ethnics  living in a white anglo saxon society, I had to adapt and be open to a lot things or I would have been lost ages ago. But my anglo saxon mates aren't that lucky, they tend to be ignorant of the ways of others or so sensitive they need to consult a book to see if it's ok to react one way or another.

While irony is well known in English humour and is nothing new, ( watch Rude Britannia on the BBC ), the art of fatalism is less so.  Oh yes the we bang on about how we know we're going out on pens to the Germans, but when you compare that to jokes about starvation and death at the hands of organized genocide, the English tend to get all preachy and sensitive. Let me tell you something. . My family, both sides, have lost everything so often and been kicked out of our lands so often by one power or another, we've lost count . If it weren't for fatalism and irony  working in close tandem, most of my relatives would have gone barking mad ages ago. The fact some think we have, is testament to the fact we can laugh at most anything life throws at us. We draw the line at some things , but that has more to do more with the rawness of any given situation. The reason we do laugh at some of the most horrific things humans have done to each other is simple .....So we will not repeat it again, so we will never forget and be wary of it. Fatalistic humour is our survival instinct telling us to be careful and never take our liberties and freedoms for granted. It's why you find Jews and assorted Slavs for example the first ones to sound the alarm bells of totalitarianism. Those of us who forget this are ourselves doomed to repeat the same crimes on others.

This of course begs the question, WHY LAUGH AT ALL? Humour is the sword that slays despots, bullies and pedants. Humour is the instrument with which we surgically remove offensive people and laws from the public place. Regimes with guns and soldiers have shrunk back in fear at the awesome power of humour time and again... Social injustice and rank stupidity have also come under the sharp eye of the satirist. Georgian England saw the rise of ribald but politically sharp commentary on the Royals, politicians merchants and landed gentry that had forgotten the tenets of noblesse oblige and had given in to base greed and personal excess. This tradition is alive and well on programmes like Mock the Week and the Tory version , Have I got news for you.  Somebody has to pierce the pomposity of the ruling classes or else we end up with untouchables we never ever question.

Is that it ? Humour for defence? Of course not, it's also to deflate the silly little loops of habit and ritual we all get into that become so great in our lives we no longer question them. It's there to serve to remind us to get off our high horses and see the bald unadulterated truth that only small children see . While duty honour and obligation are what made our way of life so much more stable and civilized, it was the sense of humour that poked fun at ourselves that kept us in check. Humour teaches a child what is acceptable and what is not, what is silly and what is deadly serious. Humour teaches each and every one of us to look at ourselves a bit more critically and see our own flaws. As the Bible says, let he who is without sin tell the first joke. Well if we had to wait for that , there wouldn't be any comedians. It's all about intent. If you choose to do something "funny" to insult and humiliate with extreme prejudice to seek trouble where none exists, like racists do, then you are scum and not in the least bit funny. But if you choose to be funny to make a point, highlight something unfair, to lighten a tense situation, to unload the stress of a long day or even longer week, then by all means, please laugh. If you don't you'll die of an ulcer at 30. look at all those emo saddos who committed suicide or shot up a school in the USA, they would still be alive and lot more level headed if they had just laughed....How many racists do you need to screw in a light bulb? None they enjoy being in the dark.  Sarcasm. Hindsight and brutal honesty can be found in that joke. A joke told during the later part of 40 years of Communism in Poland; What do you call a group of people under a bridge sniffing an empty spam tin? Drug addicts. Fatalism and irony at it's best.

While modern comics and comediennes have embraced the the full lexicon of four letter words, some slipped away from the subtly of sarcasm, irony and fatalism in favour of shock. Shock for the sake of shock is only funny for a second and grows tired very fast.  Comediennes in particular for the longest time in the 80's and 90's were about as funny as a root canal.  Being preachy and angry at men just didn't go over well, it's when comediennes joined comedians in laughing at the world from their own personal political and cultural stand point, that they became funny. Handicapped people have learned this lesson as well, they sit in that comedy frontier were we as a society are just now learning to laugh with people who are crippled ( YES CRIPPLED) by debilitating conditions that make life less than ideal. One comic last night put it best, children ask you  does it hurt, once you tell them it doesn't , they want to know how you do things differently. It's called curiosity, the opposite of fear. They themselves will tell you they aren't differently abled or challenged, they are in fact crippled and have accepted the life given them by circumstances.  They are also fatalists in their humour now having crossed over from simply being unfunny advocates for change. The basic problem is that between the illness known as political correctness and the cultural invasion of all things American, much that made other peoples unique and interesting has been washed away over the last 30 years, including the ability to laugh at many things, that is only now beginning to return. Ask a person who lived through the blitz what is funny and you'll be shocked by the answers. Not so much for the answer itself, but how much what is funny and how you react to hardship has changed.

Where I find the greatest offence on telly today, is the freak show called Big Brother, some choose to be humiliated on there for money, fair dues. But others are mentally ill, in fact I'd say a good half of them have had some kind of psychotic condition that needs care not ridicule .  Producers have found it easier to eschew actors an writers and replace them with sad delusionals, mentally ill persons and other assorted non entities. That some of us watch such train wrecks speaks to our desire to seem smarter and better than others. A perfectly normal thing, that fact we need to laugh at bad trannies  the dim witted and the mentally ill, speaks to how little we think of ourselves.

My wife and I were shaped by  a lot comic inspirations, The Marx Brothers, Python, The Goons, Air Farce, 2nd City, Mad Magazine, Gilbert & Sullivan,  19th century Russian writers, Mel Brooks and  Polish / Yiddish comedians and comediennes you would never have heard of like Boris Tomashevsky, Sholom Aleichem or Gertrude Berg, but who influence the very comedies you watch today. These past practitioners of the great art of satire blended music, wit, irony, fatalism, sarcasm along with a sharp blade to get their points across. 

After a lot of thought, we came up with some laws , while not yet as famous as Asimov's laws of robotics, they should explain at east in part what makes us laugh.

Laws of Comedy

1. Yellow is the funny colour. Anything yellow is instantly funny, and a person dressed in yellow instantly has funnier actions or dialogue.
2. If your characters are in an easily escapable situation, they cannot escape until it has reached the maximum impact of funny.
3. If you feel the urge to say something at inappropriate times, say it.
4. If you believe you have gone too far... keep going.
5. If you can't say it, sing it.
6. The hard K sound is funny.
7. When in doubt put a man in a frock.
And finally ...The Zeroth Law of comedy - All things no matter how inappropriate or serious can be made to be funny.
*the Zeroth law of course supersedes all other laws as long as it does not go against them.

Remember people, it's all about intent. As long as you aren't just having a go at some innocent person or group to wind up out of ignorance, it's funny. And another thing, if you go see a comic who advertises him or herself as rude and the show is called "I'd like to kick you all in the balls", please don't be surprised if they are in fact rude and offensive.

So maybe now I tell a story already? My wife's Bubbie  who had survived the camps, had finally after much badgering from her own family accepted a long standing and very gracious offer by the German government to stay at a health spa.  This was to care for her leg injury she had suffered during the death march from one camp to another, staying just ahead of advancing Russian troops. Upon her return to New York  they asked her what it was like. She replied with a smile "You know I think I've had had enough of German showers".

Then there's the one where my wife was sitting in the office of a Jewish travel agents office, who was offering her a trip to Auschwitz. She decided to think about it and called her Aunt who had spent time under the care of Dr. Mengele . When my wife returned for the next meeting, and the travel agent  asked her what her decision was she said.  "I spoke to my Aunt about Auschwitz as a holiday destination and she said ,the food was awful and the hospitality left a lot to be desired"

I hope you laughed, the rest of us did.

1 comment:

necessarywriter said...

Great post, Mietek! I agree that the things that make us laugh are the things that could just as easily make us cry, life's ups and downs. Looking at the downs with a little "up" drives home the point. Well done.