The cruelty of comedians and how to get laughs from very unfunny situations

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee: ‘godfather of British alternative comedy’ (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Thursday this week is the 8th anniversary of the death by drowning of British comedian Malcolm Hardee a man who, it seems to me, got away with a lot of dubious actions because of his personal charm: people (often including me) simply shrugged, laughed and thought Oh! It’s only Malcolm being Malcolm!

In yesterday’s blog, Malcolm’s sometime neighbour Nick Bernard said: “He could be really quite cruel, but it wasn’t like mean or deliberate. He saw the line of humour and the eventual laugh and he thought: I’ll just go for the humorous line and fuck it!

This got me talking about cruelty in comedy to my friend Louise yesterday.

“In Charlie Chaplin movies,” I said, “they’re forever kicking other people in the bottom. It’s even in Laurel and Hardy movies. And, in Three Stooges movies, they stab two fingers in other people’s eyes. I never understood why that was supposed to be funny. Even as a kid, it seemed to me to be cruelty not comedy.”

“What about slipping on a banana skin and falling over?” asked Louise.

“That can be funny,” I admitted. “But that’s laughing at the unexpected.  Kicking someone’s bottom or stabbing their eyes out is something different.”

“It’s childish,” said Louise. “Being childish can be a good thing: innocent, curious, enjoying simple unexpected things. But it’s not realising consequences which is the downside. Not realising you’re going to cause damage to someone.

“When you talk about some of the things Malcolm did, the only people I know who would be doing those sort of things at the moment – really, genuinely – are three children I know, who are aged 4, 8 and 10. They think Oh! That’s funny! Let’s skid on that! or Oh, I’m going to throw this at that person and they don’t think it might blind the other person.”

“When Malcolm died,” I remembered “his obituary in The Times said Throughout his life, he maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences. That was written, I think, in admiration. Everyone wants to be free like that, to do whatever they want, to have no fear of consequences but, in reality, it’s a negative thing as well, isn’t it?”

“There’s a lot of cruelty in comedy,” said Louise. “People laugh at other people’s pain. On TV, there’s You’ve Been Framed.”

“It used to be funnier,” I said, “when Jeremy Beadle did it, because the clips were longer. You saw the build-up and you laughed at the unexpected pratfall. Now you just see people falling over or being hit with things edited tightly together with no build-up.

“It’s like editing the punchlines of jokes together without any build-up. It’s like saying To get to the other side… Terrible… She went of her own accord.” When you just edit together the bits where people always laugh and cut out the build-up sections where people never laugh, you lose what makes it funny.”

“And sometimes,” said Louise, “people are not laughing because it’s funny but as a nervous relief. A release of anxiety. Sometimes, when people laugh, they cry, because they are releasing tensions.”

“I think it’s all surprise,” I said. “You’re releasing your relief in a laugh. A lot of jokes are based on the fact you think you know what is going to happen and then, at the last moment, something unexpected happens… A pun… Someone slipping on a banana skin… Even observational comedy: there’s some situation you know well but the comedian shows you a sudden unexpected angle you hadn’t thought of… You laugh because you’re suddenly surprised by the unexpected.

“Malcolm,” I mused, “was a wonderful compere but not really a good stand-up comedian. He had about six jokes which he told for 20-odd years. People always said his comedy routine was his life, which is why there are endless stories about him. And, ironically, that’s why his fame may live on longer than more successful stand-up comedians. That and his autobiography.”

“And with all the stories about Malcolm,” Louise suggested, “people often laugh because he did something which you could never credit anyone would actually do. The element of surprise and shock.”

“Well,” I said, “you know my theory that all the best British sitcoms which last (apart from the ensemble ones like Dad’s Army) are actually tragedies – Steptoe & Son, Hancock, One Foot in The Grave. All terrible situations. They’re situation comedies but not, at heart, comic situations. What’s happening to the characters is not funny and they’re not ‘comic characters’ but you laugh with their difficulties. You laugh at the situations but they are not comic in themselves; it’s the way they are presented.”

“And Johnny Vegas when he started,” said Louise. “He would go on about how terrible this-and-that was and what a terrible life he had and, he said, You’ve all just come along to laugh at me!

“You know,” I said, “how I think Janey Godley is brilliant because she doesn’t say funny things, she says things funny. Her breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe was Good Godley! which was a comic version of her autobiography Handstands in the Dark.

“The book (which I edited) is horrific. It’s like Edgar Alan Poe. It’s terrifying. Just horrific. But she told exactly the same stories on stage in Good Godley! and people were falling about with laughter.

“People who never saw the stage show but read the reviews thought it must be in bad taste because they thought she must be making jokes about rape and murder, but she wasn’t. She was telling the stories straight without comedy, but she was telling them in such a way that the audience were able to release their tension at the end of the stories – and during them – and they did that by laughing.

“People who admire her like me and Stewart Lee have said the same thing – that she doesn’t tell jokes. She tells non-funny stories in a funny way. There’s that YouTube clip from a show which I’ve blogged about before, where she tells the audience she was raped as a child by her uncle but, later, got her uncle killed. The audience laughs. She tells them it’s true. They laugh more. She tells them she got his cock cut off. They laugh even more. The more she tells them it’s true, the more they laugh. But she’s not saying anything that’s funny and, in this case, she’s not even saying it in a funny way. It’s working purely on her personality, her timing  and her ability to ride the laughs. Now that is great comedy. Amazing comedy. Big big laughs. But not funny in itself. It’s the comedian making some unfunny situation into something which gets laughs.”

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour

One response to “The cruelty of comedians and how to get laughs from very unfunny situations

  1. I think You’ve Been Framed is much funnier under Harry Hill than Beadle. Although I liked Beadle the format of him introducing the clips as if to a live studio audience (perhaps they were?) was ridiculous as he was the only one on the giant set and entirely divorced from the content. I remember about this time Paul Foot used to do a memorable routine about how predictable the format of You’ve Been Framed is. Harry Hill has sort of updated it by remaining unseen and then making comparisons between the lives of the participants and that of the rich and famous. Whereas Beadle used to explain the situtation of the clip with endless alliteration. Beadle came over as slightly sadisitic whereas Hill is actually far more cruel about the people in the videos but performs this operation so skillfully that the audience hardly feel a thing. But then to be fair I think Beadle had poorer material to work with … the reason the clips were longer then is there were simply less of them. Camcorders were still a luxury item even in the 90s and the pictures were extremely poor. Now everyone can record every humiliation in HD on their mobile phone…

    “In Charlie Chaplin movies,” I said, “they’re forever kicking other people in the bottom. It’s even in Laurel and Hardy movies.” Well, of course L&H came from slapstick which was a product of the silent era when witty banter was not an option. In the later films the violence is much less frequent and is built up to … for example in Sons of the Desert …the entire film builds up to the scene where Mae Bush throws ALL the kitchen plates at Oliver. Perhaps physical violence is now more taboo tthan verbal violence but I doubt it since you can still get sent to prison for tweeting whereas if you just punch someone in the face you’re unlikely to get a custoidal sentence unless you’ve got form. Alan Wilde used to say that today it would not be credible in comedy to have a charater as dumb as Stan Laurel is supposed to be. Except of course that Stan is most of the time clever than Ollie.

    Is physical violence funny? I think it depends. If you lose empathy with the charecters nothing is funny. Of course it’s childish but most adults are childish the only thing that stops them behaving in that was is fear of being arrested… or something. The best bit of fantasy violence around at the moment is Peter Griffin fighting the giant childen … anyway … I must stop now before turning into a talking head – a fate worse than dead.

    All sitcoms are people trapped in situations. What makes One Foot in the Grave work is not just Victor & Margret but the ensemble of weird charecters that surround them. Mrs Warboys and Nick Swainey are just as much genius comic creations as Victor.

    Malcolm Hardee – I dont think he did “get away” with cruelty. He had his own club so could behave how he liked there … but few people booked him outside his own empire. Perhaps the reason he was a successful promoter was his ability to take risks. I never understood how people would allow him to set the audience up to rip them to pieces on Sunday at UTC and then say “oh well that’s Malcolm”. I think they must have all had stockholm syndrome. Although he could be very funny. When I used to ring him up when he was booking the Wibbly Wobbly he’d insist on perpetrating this myth that he was part of a massive promotional organisation by “putting me on hold”. 5 minutes would pass during which I’d hear the clatter of beer bottles then a voice would say “I’ve been through the diary, Mr Miller, the earliest slot we’ve got available … I’m afraid …. is … week?

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