The Truth About Comedy

Posted on 09 April 2009


I’m back from Jeez Louise and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival! I feel it was totally worth the miserable cold I caught on the way home *snork*. I’ve got loads of material to write about, so let’s get stuck in.

At the festival I discovered the club where comedians  go for a drink before and after their shows. I sat around drinking orange juice for all I was worth soaking up the atmosphere. One night after literally running into Fiona O’Loughlin, who apologised for being a drunk (!), I ended up sharing a table with the stand-up I had just heard performing minutes before.

His show was still in previews and after jokes that didn’t get a big laugh, he would take out a pen and mark them off his cheat sheet. I mentioned he had one joke that the audience seemed to really like, they just smiled instead of laughing. Smiling audiences are a strange thing. With lights shining in their faces comedians can’t tell that the audience is actually enjoying their show. So, some very fine material gets lost because to the performer it can seem like the joke has died. Personally, I love smiley humour, because usually it’s the heartwarming stuff.

When the fellow heard I was there for the funny women’s forum he began waxing philosophical in order to help the newby (pretty cool really).  He then proceeded to quote a comedy “truism” that sets my teeth on edge: comedy is about truth and pain. He’s by no means the first person from whom I’ve heard this. It makes comedy sound edgy and deep. Well, comedy can be edgy and deep. I just refute the whole “truth and pain” thing.

I would say that comedy is a mixture of play, truth, and resilience to pain.

As comedians/artists it’s sometimes important to hold up a mirror to our fallibility and foibles, but more especially our humanity. This can be painful, but not like the suffering many people experience every day from physical want, violence, grief, etc. If we are talking about the sort of humour that comes from schadenfreude, this is only attributable to trivial and well deserved pain.

As an example imagine a child playing. The child falls over and breaks its leg in such a way that the child will never walk normally again. That’s tragedy. People are very unlikely to laugh. Imagine another child who falls over. It’s pride is wounded and the child cries until it’s distracted by a rolling ball, at which point it gets up and runs off laughing. The adults smile because what the child saw as tragedy, we recognised as temporary discomfort. The child’s perception of the event’s significance is at first exaggerated, one of the standard building blocks of comedy.

Culturally I feel people and especially creators have been taking on a more and more dysfunctional outlook on the meaning of pain. They see it as either important or “edgy”.

Pain and suffering and fear are not “edgy”. They are heartbreaking. People who have not come into personal contact with these things, or have shut down their emotions concerning them, often seem to want to ride other people’s suffering for the roller-coaster style thrill of it. I find this disturbing. So many other things can give you a thrill without being destructive or self-destructive, like standing in front of a room of people telling jokes…that’s pretty thrilling.

People also mistakenly feel at times that suffering is a sign of importance. We are treading in the old “artists must suffer for their art” territory, another truism that sets my teeth on edge. Certainly many people have suffered in pursuing noble causes. However, that does not make suffering a necessary part of the process, just something that is accepted if need be. Good things have been done by people simply whipping around a petition and getting the government to agree to a change. No suffering involved. Some people have suffered for very foolish causes. Their suffering did not make the cause noble. Because people fought and died to retain slavery does not make slavery noble.

It is noble to encourage others to recognise where suffering is occuring in order to redress the situation. Comedy is very good at this. Helping people to develop resilience to the hiccups of life: where we brush ourselves off, have a good laugh at our own expense, and then move on, this again is something comedy can do. Participating in the process whereby people create lives of fulfillment, peace, joy, and most importantly love, few things are more important than this, comedy helps here as well!

Humorists of the world, believe me when I say we have a very high calling. We can dispense with trying to dress it up.

Peace and kindness,


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