Elements: Nonsense! 2/10

Posted on 24 March 2009

I felt “nonsense” needed an exclamation mark here. I kept hearing a Britishy voice call out, “Codswallop! Nonsense!” It’s also one of my favourite comic elements and therefore actually deserves a comic double exclamation mark. Nonsense is absurd, surreal, or free-associative humour, for instance a talking cat wearing a saucer and teacup on his head. This is humour that bends reality.

Nonsense is probably one of the earliest forms of comedy to which we are all exposed. How many of you have read Dr Seuss? How about watched Bugs Bunny, The Monkees, Bannana Splits, or more recently, Sponge Bob Square Pants?

One of my first jobs was with Intructional Media Services at my university. My job included going out to classes, fiddling with media equipment, and showing films, videos, or slides on the cue of the lecturer. I even had a card to show I was qualified to run 35mm projectors. One of the courses for which I played projector monkey was in childhood development. I was amazed to see that much of what makes us laugh has to do with our cognitive evolution.

If as adults we were presented with the sheer volume of new and alien experiences that a child does, we might find ourselves overwhelmed and fearful. Children sometimes react this way as well, but they also have a great capacity to blink a few times in amazement then laugh.

The whole world is already nonsense to a child, the point is that they are learning how to make sense of it by engaging with the new and strange. Retaining our capacity to be amazed rather than fearful of new experiences makes it possible for us to continue to grow, learn, and enjoy life. Those who stop playing with nonsense stay at home and watch cop shows; those who continue have it in them to go flying off to India and see the Taj Mahal, even though the most foreign thing they’ve dealt with before is a burrito from Taco Bell.

In the US nonsense comedy is primarily relegated to media for children. Though, recently we’ve seen shows such as Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies exploring the fanciful (the marvelous  Bryan Fuller created both). Great Britain has long supported Absurdist and Surreal comedy as adult entertainment. I will make one caveat. No doubt many of you immediately thought “Monty Python”.

When I was a child my brother, sister, and I loved Monty Python. We would be laughing our heads off. My father, who loves laughing himself, would get quite angry because he couldn’t see the humour. We were laughing at the absurdity and Dad was looking for something more in the line of Benny Hill. We were based in the US. I have now lived in Australia for twenty years and have spent some time in London. Many of the jokes North Americans have laughed at in Monty Python, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and the Discworld series of books as absurd are in fact intended to be satirical.

Probably the most nonsensical TV series I’ve seen since Mork and Mindy is the British show The Mighty Boosh <http://www.themightyboosh.com/>. Not only do the characters fly off to other planets in search of the bathroom shower of youth, they will engage with anthropomorphised objects such as a human fire or a human calendar. I adore it when people rummage around in their imaginations and come up with creations that are unexpected and original. Hats off to creators Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding for working so hard to make this show possible. I remember when they came out to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and won the Barry Humphries Award. My friend Janet McLeod who works with the festival was emailing all of us to go see Autoboosh, the stage precursor to the TV series.

What nonsense humour reminds us in comedy is that anything goes when it comes to our imagination and creating laughter. I feel a large part of the artistry of humour comes from nonsense.

Today’s exercise: Come up with three totally outrageous absurd ideas.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine

Elements of Comedy Introduction


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