Essay

On the serious business of comedy

By: Srinivas S

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The business of comedy might be to make people laugh and perhaps, even, to laugh. It is a rather serious business, however, because creating comedy, and effective variants of that, is not everyone’s cup of tea. If it were, one would find more of the likes of Wodehouse, Fry-and-Laurie, Robin Williams, Nagesh and Crazy Mohan vying for our eyeballs and earplugs.

The seriousness one is talking about here is neither the intellectual seriousness of a philosopher, nor the inquisitive seriousness of a scholar, nor the emotional seriousness of artist(e)s, nor the practical seriousness of a businessman. Nor is one making a reference here to the seriousness of the ailing or the struggling or the lovelorn or those who, by dint of a cursed attitude, consider themselves to be less gifted or talented than others. The seriousness in question is rather the seriousness that committed work demands, the seriousness of dedication to a craft, and the seriousness of devotion to the tasks at hand. It is also the workaday seriousness of many common men and women, and the astute comedian is, simultaneously, among them and around them.

What is obvious is that the comedian is often one of “us”, as the Lord’s butler, the hero(ine)’s sidekick, the half-witted villain’s soft target, a responsible youngster’s irresponsible older sibling and so on. What is less obvious, though, but no less true is that the comedian is also a mind looking for material that can be extrapolated, extended or expanded from his or her social context, either with the sole objective of making audiences laugh or with the added agendum of educating them on topics of social importance. The former role is usually pre-written for a comedian and (s)he might revel in it; but it is the latter, ironically more serious, role that allows him/her to graduate from being a popular but unthinking fool to a Shakespearean one, whose apparent foolishness is just a cloak in which formidable daggers of intelligence are wrapped, ready to be called upon when the situation so demands.

As a purveyor of laughter, however, a comedian must be aware that verbal daggers may also cause injuries that take a long time to heal. This danger is especially pronounced in the case of ‘you humour’, where a comedian’s jokes and sarcasm are directed outwardly, at specific people or the world at large. When it comes to ‘me humour’ on the other hand, the comedians are the butt of their own jokes (the harlequins of their harlequinades), and the ensuing laughter at their expense is also the applause they richly deserve. Represented by the contemporary actor Vadivelu in Tamil cinema, and by Sir ‘Charlie’ Chaplin in 20th century English mime, ‘me humour’ is hugely popular because causing hurt is not its aim. It arguably benefits those who practise it, moreover, because the practice entails – and perhaps requires – kicking the ego to the kerb, a serious exercise in not taking oneself too seriously.

A comedian, whose love it is to laugh with rather than at people and whose aim it is to educate rather than embarrass them, usually knows his or her place in the world and that of the society in which (s)he lives. From that knowledge issues a sense of humour that – even if there are generally no awards for those who embody it on screen or paper; and even if it sits rather low in the pecking order of values that an artist(e) must possess – toasts love, good health and laughter.

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Srinivas S is Assistant Professor, Department of English at SSN College of Engineering, Chennai.

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Categories: Essay, Literary criticism

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