Monday, 26 December 2011

Comedy on cue

Thalia, muse of comedy - from Wikipedia

Good comedians train their audience to laugh. It’s a very common example of behavioural conditioning and we’re all familiar with it. Initially it can be hard work for the comic, unless already blessed with the right facial features, verbal dexterity and body-language.

For example, bearing in mind that not everyone finds him funny, a natural comic such as Billy Connolly seems from a young age, to have been blessed with a comic’s facial expressions, the right body-language and good timing. In his early days he was able to draw his audience into a joke and get them laughing before he’d actually delivered it, sometimes long before the punch-line. I found him quite funny, but for me there was a least as much to be gained in watching how he did it, the cues and invitations he gave out to his audience.

Stand-up comics all do this to a more or less successful extent. Once a comic is established, it’s easier because a live audience has paid for their seat and are willing, almost anxious to be drawn in and entertained. A few familiar lines, various devices such as feeding common prejudice, trendy verbal cues such as snowclones, humorous attacks on okay targets and the show is up and running.

It’s surprising how long this can go on, how long the basic comedy themes can be recycled before even the most loyal fans grow tired and their willingness to laugh at old material begins to wane. Watching these things work themselves out on TV can be more interesting than the act itself – enlightening too.

As you watch a TV comedian at work, switching your attention from act to audience as the camera pans around to catch the laughter, you easily see how the audience responds to the comedian and the comedian reacts to the laughter, to the slightest nuance, the faintest shades and grades of approval. Watching a show in this way can be slightly strange too, as if someone has turned the sound down. The observer observes and things are not as they were.

You see things you aren't supposed to see - how unoriginal the show really is, the threadbare jokes and the crudity of it all. You see the comedian's eyes flit restlessly over a sea of faces beyond the white lights, gauging reactions with a professional grin. You feel the staleness of it, old gags painted in new colours, ever more garish to compete with a clamorous world.

It isn't in the end what we're supposed to be - observers. You can't really observe and join in at the same time. To a degree it has to be one or the other - you have to laugh at the joke or watch a professional comedian doing a job. You have to join or keep your distance - join or be alone.

This in my view is the ultimate human dilemma - the observer's dilemma. It's more visible at Christmas than any other time.    


Sam Vega said...

Spot on about comedy (although there are interesting differences between stand-up, and more reflective comic writing that we find in novels, etc, and the phenomenon of wit.)

A colleague of mine said he was forcibly and painfully struck by the fact that comedy is essentially about an insecure person's desperate attempts to control the audience. Since that moment, he has been completely unable to enjoy any comedy except in the observational way you describe. Like admiringly watching a craftsman, when you don't actually want what they are making.

James Higham said...

Dame Edna was a bit like that too.

A K Haart said...

SV - it changed me too - I mostly watch the technique. As you say, there is good comic writing and that's what I prefer. There is a lot of good comic writing on the web too, especially the lampoons.

JH - he was good at it though, but once you notice the technique, it fades.