There is a little open trick that all comedy plays at – telling the truth in the face of a lie. The best comedy is said to come from the depths of truth. Shakespeare would have vouched for this, as would Spike Milligan. But what is this truth? And why are we, people who watch comedy or are comedians, interested in relating this truth in the medium of a joke? What is this connection between the truth to laughter to knowing via the medium of comedy?
Let’s start with British comedy which those who have been exposed to it, whether they are British or not, will know to be funnier than comedy from anywhere else. I will not go as far back as Shakespeare or Restoration plays or Pope. I would only consider contemporary TV comedy which, as some of you may agree, can aspire to be classics. Stephen Fry, a British comedian among other things, distinguished the Brit’s ability to laugh at themselves, to be the joke rather than the one who cracks them. The stiff upper-lip British culture has been substituted by one of embarrassment. This is an interesting, even healthy phenomenon. All good comedy is comedy of embarrassment. It is in comedy that we are able to expose our inhibitions and arrogance for what they really are. It is a catharsis quite different from what Aristotle may have anticipated.
Take the classic joke of a man slipping on a banana peel. There have been countless analyses of this but there is one thing that is certain – it just makes people laugh. For the one who causes the peel to be in that fateful spot and for those who watch the whole spectacle, it incites laughter. But, the context is different now, and the British comedian has made that possible. Before, the spectator was only one who had his values in place, had sufficient self-esteem and could laugh at the casualty of the banana slip because it did not directly affect him. But the British comedian would voluntarily be the casualty, the banana slipper than the banana slippee. What incites him to do this? He knows that his audience would identify more with the slipper and yet laugh. Laugh harder because, in this way, the audience finds relief for their own daily embarrassments.
And we do get embarrassed a number of times, for a number of voluntary and involuntary reasons. I made an “effort” last week for a wedding I had to attend. But, I got an iron burn on my hand and a massive bird blessing right on top of my head within the span of half an hour. Though greatly inconvenienced, it gave me something. A subject for small talk, for getting through the entire wedding without feeling like an idiot. Even though I had every reason to be.
So, the truth that comedy deals with is different from the truth that the obverse, tragedy, aspires to. With comedy, it is exposing our assumptions. Our certainties about what to expect only to realize that fate can always have something else in store for us. Comedy, when it is affordable and desperate, is only a disguise. Then it is merely wit, something to make social life and conversation bearable. It is merely filling gaps in air with little Cadbury Gems buttons in myriad colours. However, if truth is to be taken with a pinch of salt in tragedy, in comedy it is an entire frozen dessert. Or a large, modern, shamelessly commercial candy store.
Which makes comedy so, so wonderful. You have literature to move you, music to sustain you, movement to make you feel alive. You need comedy to get over yourself, to suspend your needs, to even revise your context. Thank God for laughter and the skidding properties of a banana skin. Can you even imagine a world without them? Can you imagine having to live with an ever-growing list of embarrassments – smashed teeth, torn skirt, lost love – without having those same events played out in comedy? Our laughing muscles are looking for a stretch so that we may breathe better. Which we all badly need to, everyday, if you ask me.