Comedy and Status

Posted on 20 April 2011

People who teach courses in stand-up sometimes speak of the personal developmental benefits of doing comedy. You have to be comfortable enough with yourself to tell self-deprecating jokes. You get to play around with your dark side and vent a little spleen. And the sharpest observational humour comes from people who look for the hidden grain of truth in a situation, then creatively tease it out into other people’s consciousness.

So we are looking at self-awareness, detached observation, and the seeking of truth. This makes comedians the nuns and monks of hilarity.

One aspect of culture that’s vital to observe in our comedy creation is “status”. The advice we are given in Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata is, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” And yet we do it all the time and are trained to do it by advertising. Do you smell better or worse than your friends? What does your car say about who you are?

Certainly some biology is involved, since status can gain you a healthier mate who can ensure the survival of your offspring. Every group of monkeys has its top monkey that all the lesser monkeys imitate in order to gain favour and possibly become a top monkey themselves. Sometimes they go further than imitation and try to either push down their equals and lessers and/or tear down those of higher status. Observing these creatures you might realise that we really aren’t that different. We’re just smart enough to do it in more varied and subtle ways.

It’s worth thinking about whether you are a comedian who kicks up with your humour or kicks down. Do you solely stick it to those people you believe may think they are better than you, or do you puff yourself and your audience up by mocking those beneath you? Do you perhaps believe we are all friends here and equally tease everyone in the room? All of these have been used as comedy styles.

If you are in a pub, people may prefer humor where you’re sending up bosses, people who drink lattes, and anyone who can spell and use the word “oxymoron”. At a corporate gig people may prefer humor where those who are lambasted are the people who get dirty, find mullets the height of fashion, and misplace apostrophes. The questions that might get asked are, “Which tribe of monkeys is this, and who can I safely kick to prove I’m a part of the tribe?”

What confers status is a moving target. Amongst many cultures being heavy showed you had the wealth and power to eat well. Now days being slim means you have the wealth and leisure to not eat at fast-food restaurants and go to a gym. Once being pale meant you were upper class and didn’t have to go outside to work. Now being tanned means you have the time and means to lay on a beach catching some rays, rather than working inside a factory.

Currently in Australia it’s fashionable to make fun of Adelaide (kicking down at a smaller town) or Sydney (kicking up at a larger town), and non-non-believers (atheists kicking down at religious believers in order to demonstrate intellectual superiority).

Status also affects your stage presence. If you keep your eyes down, shuffle your feet, and have difficulty staying near the mic, you are enacting the body language of lower status. Some comedians have been able to develop a character that successfully uses this status, but often it has a cheeky twist whereby they are then kicking up like a naughty child. Mostly if you are feeling lower status and showing people lower status, you are opening yourself up to heckling (being kicked down).

Status humour is sadly often the humour of channeled hatred. It’s not acceptable to hate one individual teacher, but it’s okay to hate a whole profession. It’s not okay to to hate a former partner for exercising freewill, but you can hate an entire gender. Kicking down at all things stereotypically female by both genders means we often discourage people from valuing kindness and gentleness: these are seen as weak, powerless, and of lower status. However, anyone who has hung around St Bernards or Clydesdale horses knows how gentle and loving big and powerful can be.

One of the gifts we have as comics and artists is that we are in a position to stand at least a little outside determinations of status. In fact it’s our job. Poke fun at pretentiousness, poke fun at distorted thinking, poke fun at the trials of life. Stop and think about it if you are about to kick. Have you thought about the big picture? Do these people really deserve it? Are our egos getting in the way? Are we being fair?

Personally, I do want to see comedy help us all to become better people living in a better world.

Peace and kindness,


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