Posted tagged ‘comedy’

Critical carnage

February 25, 2011

What kind of meaning do we need to derive from good, or even acceptable, theatre? What should it tell us about human nature and morality? And what about all this if the drama is comedy?

These are all issues that have been taken through the arts and letters pages of the Irish Times recently. The discussion was prompted by a play currently showing in Dublin’s Gate Theatre (having previously been a major success in the West End and on Broadway): The God of Carnage, by French playwright Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. For those who have not seen it, the play tells the story of a meeting between two couples to discuss the fall-out from a physical attack by the son of one couple on the son of the other. The two sets of parents intend to reach an amicable settlement, but as the initially civilised encounter progresses they gradually strip away layers of composure and eventually civilisation. All of this is in the form of a comedy, and the play includes moments of extreme wit and slapstick.

I might add that I saw the play this week, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but also one that prompted some discussion. This discussion in my household followed an earlier set of exchanges in the newspaper. It began with a critique of the play by Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. O’Toole  agreed that the play had an excellent cast, ‘roller-coaster dialogue’, ‘gorgeous designs, and ‘lots of laughs and intimations of some kind of underlying intellectual seriousness.’ So a good play, then? Not at all! In fact, O’Toole concluded that it was ‘among the crassest pieces of theatre I have ever seen’. The reason for this was that it was ‘morally tone deaf’. Why? Well, to cut to the chase, because it mentioned Darfur. One of the protagonists is an expert on the civil war there, and this is used once or twice in the play as a theme in the increasingly aggressive dialogue. And Fintan O’Toole doesn’t like that one bit. This is how he summarises his point:

‘The effect of Reza’s attempt to build a tower of moral importance on a swamp of banality is to shrink to nothing the difference between genocide and middle-class people behaving badly.’

But if that was the verdict of the critic, the cast was not necessarily taking this lying down (or even slumped over the sofa, vomiting, as was the case in the play). One of the actors, DCU graduate and Father Ted alumnus Ardal O’Hanlon, in the wonderful words of another letter writer to the Irish Times, ‘came down off the stage and savaged [the] critic.’ Writing to the newspaper, O’Hanlon suggested of O’Toole:

‘Might I respectfully suggest, as one of the cast, that he missed the point of the play by miles and, might I add, that a person of such a delicate sensibility should stay well away from the theatre, not to mention town centres, in future.’

The point of the play, he suggests, is that people can lose their veneer of civilisation and become capable of saying and doing shocking things – and the Darfur reference helps to provide the contrast between lofty ideals and social concern on the one hand and the reality of human interaction when it breaks down on the other.

There is, I believe, a serious point being made in the play, and it is not the first play to present its argument in the form of comedy. It seems to me that O’Toole thinks that theatre must never cut the cord between human outrage and a sense of serious proportion, and that outrage must therefore never be allowed to settle down alongside an exposition of human banality. For myself, I cannot even begin to see why our anger should be so deliberately mannered in assailing the world around us. Or rather, I thought that this view of things had been left behind some time around the emergence of Monty Python.

For all that, the critique and the responses have demonstrated one other, very welcome, fact: that theatre still matters and that it can focus debate. Maybe something that those considering further cuts to the performing arts might consider.


What’s so funny?

January 21, 2011

Last week I was supposed to be writing an article, but I had writer’s block, and so (unusually for me) I switched on the television and flicked through channels. No fewer than four of them were showing classic comedy shows, and for about an hour I was totally engrossed in comparing them with each other. They were, in no particular order, Fawlty Towers, Friends, Frasier and Father Ted. I concluded quickly that really great comedy has an alphabetical dimension, and so if you are planning to write a new show, make sure it begins with ‘F’.

But seriously (or not), I began to wonder what it was that made these four shows so successful. Father Ted has a formula that appeals to me, of taking totally absurd propositions and playing them out as if they were potentially realistic. Fawlty Towers is really extremely clever slapstick. Friends and Frasier are comments on life, viewed with what I would call humorous affection for the central characters.

I believe that Fawlty Towers is the funniest thing ever broadcast, but all four of these shows, in different ways, reveal and explore human nature. I hope that we will be able to enjoy new comedy classics in the years ahead.

Yes, Minister?

December 12, 2009

I spent a very pleasant hour during the evening watching an old episode of the classic BBC comedy series, Yes Minister. The series was, as I quickly remembered, a true classic: wonderful acting by Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne, genuinely funny themes, and underneath it all some quite serious analysis of how the political system (in this case of the UK) works. The basic themes of the show were that professional politics is almost all vanity and no substance, that civil servants determine actual political events, and that they arrange these to suit their wholly conservative instincts.

But despite what one might think of as a rather cynical outlook on the corridors of power, the series actually showed the affectionate view that its writers had of politics and politicians. There is almost a sense of conspiracy between the writers and the viewer, promoting the idea that the real work of government is done incrementally and rationally, and that the unpredictable big ideas embraced occasionally by politicians are destabilising and foolish.

Political comedy and satire, when done in a subtle manner, can have a profound impact on the practise of government. Yes Minister opened up many eyes to the consequences of the bureaucratisation of government and the ultimate impossibility of accountability when the elite are so pre-occupied with managing information and news.

Good political satire is sadly missing right now. And that is a serious issue, because democracy works better when subjected to criticism by knowing looks rather than always just loud hectoring. The leading actors of Yes Minister are unfortunately both now dead; but maybe an idea for a new political comedy is being pursued somewhere. Certainly, it is worth the effort.

Academy for single issue fanatics?

November 2, 2009

There was an interesting comment in yesterday’s Sunday Independent by columnist Eilis O’Hanlon. Writing about the increasing tendency of campaigners on this and that to criticise comedians for being insensitive (which I think she is arguing is what comedy occasionally needs to be), she adds the following:

‘Single-issue fanatics are boring, that’s the worst of it. It’s like being trapped in a lift with people who only care about the North or immigration or the environment or reproductive ethics. They’re fiercely passionate about one thing, but mentally dead to every other manifestation of the richness of humanity.

Whatever happened to the notion of the rounded individual? The same thing has happened in academic circles. Specialisation and intellectual protectionism have made disciplines contract around trainspotterish experts who know an awful lot about a small number of things, and have come to the bizarre conclusion that this makes them voices to whom it is therefore more interesting to listen.’

It might seem a stretch to suggest that the natural home for fanatics is the university, but it may be worth a quick analysis. Eilis O’Hanlon would not be the first to wonder whether a retreat into the finer details of complex academic disciplines has created an academic world of nerds who understand in great detail whatever it is their work is focused on, but who have no overall concept of society, community and life. On the whole I don’t recognise the university world in that caricature; but perhaps it reinforces a point I have made previously, that the key questions that concern humanity are to be found between disciplines rather than within them, and that academics need to make connections between different branches of knowledge.

This has in fact become the standard basis on which many new research centres are built. For example in DCU, the National Centre for Sensor Research utilises insights from chemistry, physics, biology, genetics, engineering, computing, and the humanities. Similar connections between disciplines are visible in many of the leading research units in Ireland today. Certainly I don’t believe that our programmes of research and teaching encourage the single issue crusader.

Having said that, I would have to accept that some quite narrow social and political campaigns have been led by academics, as is their right. But I would hope that as our approach to knowledge develops and adapts, this will not be typical of the academy.

And for what it is worth, I would hope that the academic community is finding just the right balance between sensitivity and daring in its appreciation of humour and comedy.

And still on inappropriate humour…

September 26, 2009

It may seem that I don’t have much of a sense of humour, or that I am jumping on to every bandwagon that happens to come rolling along involving disapproval of someone trying desperately to be funny. Readers from outside Ireland may not be aware of this, but an Irish comedian, Tommy Tiernan, has come in for strong criticism for making anti-semitic remarks at the Electric Picnic  music festival recently.

If you want to make up your own mind, Tiernan has published the interview session where he made the remarks here – it is right at the end of the session. He has also argued that criticism of his comments has not taken account of the context in which they were made: he was making the point, he says, that comedy has to be edgy and take risks, and if necessary be offensive.

I have listened to the entire interview, and I’m afraid I cannot possibly repeat here what he said in the passage in question. The remarks are grossly offensive, playing on the Holocaust. I also could not help feeling that they did reveal a strong anti-semitic and racist message. But even if that was not intended, there must be some limit to what can be acceptable even in an apparently humorous context. I agree that it is right that comedy should challenge and take risks; but it has gone way beyond that when the ‘risk’ is the expression of cruelty and hatred.

I have seen other appearances by Tiernan and have found them funny. Not this one. And I could not help a sinking feeling when hearing that what he said was applauded by the audience.

Laughing out loud!

November 20, 2008

Just the other day, I found an old tape recording I had made of an episode of the radio show, I’m sorry I’ll read that again. I suspect that most people reading this won’t have a clue what show I am referring to. I’m sorry I’ll read that again (often just called ISIRTA) was a BBC radio comedy show, featuring three comedians who would later become the Goodies, and John Cleese (who needs no introduction at all). In style it was more pre-Monty Python than early Goodies. And in fact, it has aged well. I found myself listening attentively and laughing out loud at some of the sketches.

BOn the same tape I then discovered two episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour (the radio version), and again I was doubled up in laughter.

I am not about to suggest that comedy was better back then; I am a fan of much more recent shows like Frasier and Friends and Father Ted. But what interested me is that these shows from the 1960s, and I guess the 1970s, have worn so well. There was something special, it has to be said, about British comedy back then.

So if you like comedy of that era, and haven’t come across ISIRTA, then maybe you should think about buying it – it’s available here on Amazon. I promise you’ll be laughing.