When is the punchline too brutal?

Years ago I was doing a comedy workshop in an acting class at the City Lit in London.

There were a few revelations (for me) during the class, all about the nature of comedy itself.

Firstly, that comedy is rooted in fear.

We laugh because on some level we’re afraid and we want to relieve ourselves from the terror.

That makes perfect sense. Many things in life can be scary and painful. Laughing at things can sometimes be a coping skill, providing us with a psychological and emotional release and helping us to bond or, at least, to diffuse the tension.

Comedy is usually also about things common to all human beings (for example):-

Sex
Death
Eating
Toileting (passing gas, urine and faeces)
Loss of status
Sleeping

That is to say it’s about things we can feasibly all experience as human beings, so even if it isn’t directly part of our own life experience we can probably still sympathise or project ourselves into the situation on some level.

But here’s the part that made the impact on me (and, in retrospect, I don’t know why it came as such a surprise):-

Comedy is essentially about cruelty.
And comedy must involve a victim.

Our ancient gods of harvest and prosperity demanded human sacrifice and even our modern comedy demands no less.

An audience will not laugh if there is not a victim in the scenario.

You can make yourself the victim, or the victim can be absent (for example, a dead body), but there must be a victim.

What’s more, good comedy actually requires multiple victims. For a scene to keep being funny the victim needs to keep changing as, after a while, it ceases to be funny if the same person is always the one being victimised.

This is why we call the culmination of each joke a “punchline” – it is the final delivery of a psychological or emotional blow of some kind.

BUT if all comedy is essentially rooted in cruelty and victimisation, where is the line between comedy and bullying?

How cruel is too cruel?

Is there anybody it is unacceptable to victimise?

This segment on Australian television programme “The Chasers War on Everything” caused outrage when it aired as it was deemed to be making fun of terminally ill children

And where is the line when comedy crosses over from being “a bit wrong” to completely offensive?

When does comedy cease to be a powerful release from our fears and become a glib, insensitive dance over the seriousness of an issue?

Adam Sandler’s film “That’s My Boy” is about an eighth-grade boy (later played as an adult by Adam Sandler) seduced by his attractive adult teacher, who becomes impregnated with his child. This is actually a case of child abuse/pedophilia but the film probably benefits from the prevalent societal myth that if a grown woman has sex with a young boy he is “lucky”, not abused, and he simply doesn’t suffer any psychological and emotional damage as a consequence. Would a “comedy” about a thirteen year old girl seduced by an adult male teacher even make it into production?

Are there some topics we simply should not let ourselves laugh off/’off the hook” from psychologically and emotionally?

Does comedy need to involve a degree of justice?

Does the right to make jokes about certain things need to be earned on some level through experience of them?

Ava Vidal – the reason this clip has an offensive language warning is because Ava repeats a hateful racist message sent to her on her website as part of a story she relates.

Will Marfori was born with cerebral palsy and entertains his audience with his perspective on living with a disability.

Does comedy need to have an underlying element of truth? And to undermine untruths that pose for truth?

A Parody of Onslaught, a short film that is part of the Dove Self-Esteem Campaign. It hones in on the hypocrisy of parent company Unilever which on one hand runs the Dove Campaign and on the other hand runs deliberately sexist advertisements and campaigns for men’s deodorant Axe/Lynx.

When is it simply unacceptable for a punchline to come at a victim’s expense?

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My soul and my ego are having a smackdown.

Once I knew somebody who aimed to be a millionaire before he turned 35. He was working ridiculous, sleep-starving hours and was otherwise fully prepared to put his entire life on hold to achieve this goal. At the time it seemed a very long way off. And it wasn’t hard to see that his efforts towards it were already taking a desperate toll on his physical and emotional health, his relationships and his general happiness, but it was all part of his dream for “a better life”.

Though when asked what kind of life that better life would be, he would simply quip “one with lots of money”. And I found it a bit ironic that while he was focusing so much of his energy on that one day far off in the future when he would finally be happy, he seemed to be settling for a whole lot of unhappiness until the day arrived. I don’t know whether or not he managed to, but I always wondered whether achieving his goal would have actually made him as happy as he imagined it would.

There’s a story sold to us over and over again in modern, westernised culture.

That there are “winners” and “losers”. If you are not a “winner”, you are a “loser”. And “losers” are “nobodies”.

That success = money + fame = happiness

It’s the equation that seems to promote an overdrive of shallow, materialistic narcissism. And a media catch cry of “all that really matters is being rich and young and ‘hot’ and famous! Even if it’s just famous for being famous!!” (which seems to be more and more fashionable by the minute).

It seems to have a lot of people engaging in desperate behaviour.

And even when you’re determined not to, it can be really hard not to buy into the hype even a little bit.

In the (very) short time I’ve been writing this blog I’m pretty embarrassed by how focused I’ve sometimes been on the “number of hits” it gets (and, alternately, doesn’t get. I even caught myself doing a stupid little dance one day when the number had a sudden magic jump up after a “slump”. I don’t know which was more ridiculous – the dance itself or my reason for doing it).

I’ve had to firmly remind myself that if “getting lots of hits” ever becomes my biggest motivation for doing this, I’ll probably have to stop.

Why? Because it won’t be my soul speaking anymore.

What the hell does that mean??

Well, in a nutshell, it means that whenever I have a purely ego driven reason for creating something it ends up being steaming pile of crap.

Because my soul doesn’t care how many “hits” this blog gets. My ego does.

And my soul doesn’t care whether or not I manage to sound clever and funny and interesting and profound, like my ego often wants to. My soul only cares whether or not I have something to say and, if I do, about finding the best way I can think of to say it. Plus, all the best things I have to say come from my soul anyway. Because it is much, much smarter than my ego.

My soul doesn’t care about trying to get people’s attention or trying to impress them or how I can make money from what I’m doing. My ego drives me crazy about these things.

And my soul doesn’t care about success as it has been largely defined, so it sometimes has quite a battle with my ego which cares far too much about stuff like that and gets sucked in by all the usual myths.

On my best days my soul wins the argument.

And I remember that my soul has different goals for me anyway. To live a happy life. To live it well, with dignity and integrity, and in such a way that I’m proud of what I leave behind when my life ends.

Sometimes these are hard goals to live up to. And I stumble off the path a lot more than I’d like. But I’m trying.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with making money. Money’s pretty useful. And (if we manage not to be hypnotised by the big spin machine into spending it on crap that adds no real value to our lives) we can put money to good use. Plus, if you can do something you’re passionate about and make enough money from it, you officially have the best job in the world.

It’s not that being famous is always a bad thing. Fame can simply mean that more people are aware of your work. And, who knows, maybe something you write or create will resonate with or inspire somebody, or help them feel better about something, or say something they need to hear at just the right moment. (Isn’t it funny how that can sometimes happen?) Plus, there’s nothing wrong with hoping that people will like or respond to your work if you care about it. That’s fairly normal.

But the question I always end up asking myself is “Why is doing this important to you?”

And if the answer had ever been about seeking fame and fortune I think I would have had to decide on another path a long time ago.

I write and create stuff because it’s part of who I am. I do it because it’s my passion. I do it because I love it and I’m not as happy when I stop doing it.

I’d love to have the validation of widespread attention and approval for my work.

I’d love to be making a better living from it.

But I will continue whether or not either of those things ever comes to pass. Simply because it’s in my soul to do so.

Besides, I have another surefire plan to get rich and famous – I’m going to be a contestant on the hit new reality TV show “Hey, Hey – it’s the Amazing Race to Find The Farmer Who Wants to Marry Lara Bingle and Build a Masterchef Kitchen in 24 hours while Dancing with the Little Dog from Britain’s Got Talent”.

Look out for it!

The little dog (and owner/trainer) who won “Britain’s Got Talent”. Living proof that every dog will have his day!

Every picture tells a story

I thought I’d blog about the process behind my illustrations for the “Tales from the Zali Bukola System” book series this week as I’ve been asked about it a few times lately.

I’ll be using the images from “Zen’s Garden” as an example but it’s a similar process for each of the books.

Firstly, I design each of what I call the story image “elements” – the characters, the environments, other things mentioned in the story etc.

I montage the features and details from black and white pictures of animal wildlife, people and plants to develop each of these elements (and give it an “organic” feeling).

Here are some early attempts I made to develop a look for the character Zen.


And here is the version of Zen that I finally chose for the illustrations. (Zen’s “ears” are actually cheetah paws).

For me, the real beauty of using this montage process to create the images is that I’m not ever able to “second guess” myself. I have ideas and feelings about what the characters and images should eventually look like but even I don’t know exactly what they will look like until I “find’ or draw out the images from the pieces I use. I just keep playing around with images until they feel “right”.

I then create images of the various expressions and poses for each of the characters.

This is Mya wilting…

…and blooming. (Mya’s petals are made from part of a clownfish).

The relevant story elements are then combined to create the main images, with each image helping to tell one particular part of the story.

Colour schemes are then introduced. (Zali coloured in the image below for me. She and I initially had a few creative differences about the colour scheme, but luckily we managed to resolve them in the end).

I use paint, pencils, markers, pastels and crayons to colour the images. Colours are chosen to give the images an emotional "hue' as well as for functional reasons like separating details or highlighting and pulling focus to particular picture elements.

To see more of the images from "Zen's Garden" please take a look at the online preview of the book.

What do we mean by “a true story”?

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” ― Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” – Pablo Picasso

It’s said that there’s really no such thing as a true story.

It’s probably impossible to tell any story without some degree of bias.

Even when the facts or events can be agreed upon, interpretation of their significance and impact on the story will vary according to the point of view of the person telling it.

image from Banksy’s Facebook Revolution

As no two people view the world in an identical way, it probably stands to reason that certain aspects and details of a story will have more importance – or maybe even a different meaning – in one storyteller’s version of events from another’s.

So why use the phrase “true story”?

What does that term actually mean to us?

Certain types of falsehoods in a story deemed to be “true” upset us more than others.

And there are probably few more meaningless phrases than “based on a true story“.

So where does the line between fiction and non-fiction actually lie?

And does it even matter as long as it’s a good story?

We Bought a Zoo is a 2011 comedy-drama film based on the 2008 memoir of the same name by Benjamin Mee about his experiences in purchasing the Dartmoor Wildlife Park in Devonshire, England in 2006. In the film the story has been relocated to the US and the zoo is called “Rosemoor”.

Finding Neverland is a 2004 semi-biographical film about playwright J. M. Barrie and his relationship with a family who inspired him to create Peter Pan. The biggest story invention in the film is the absence of the boys’ father, Arthur Davies, who was alive when Barrie befriended his wife and children. He died before his boys were grown, but not until ten years after his family met Barrie.

KONY 2012 is a short film created by Invisible Children, Inc. and released on March 5, 2012, with the the purpose of promoting the charity’s “Stop Kony” movement to make Ugandan indicted war criminal and International Criminal Court fugitive Joseph Kony globally known, in order to have him arrested by December 2012. The film was widely criticised for its oversimplification of events in the region, some argued it was to the point of misrepresentation.

To Be Heard

I can think of a few situations, when I was younger, where I lacked a voice. Times when I could not find the right words (or sometimes any words) to make myself heard when it felt important to do so. Times when I felt sad, pissed off or helpless because of it.

Does language have a power to transform? I believe it does. Because when we lack a command over language we are less empowered.

To label and make sense of things.

To question and challenge them.

To disagree.

To make a point.

To point out the absurd. And the unfair.

To laugh at these things if we need to, to release ourselves from the tension they cause.

To lay our souls bare.

To connect.

To be understood.

And to make ourselves heard.

Sometimes finding the right words for what happened and the feelings associated with it can even be what helps us to feel different about it, because our brain is actually processing and working through the situation in the very act of assigning language to it.

“If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you”.

This is the motto of a wonderful South Bronx poetry class called “Power Writing”. It is taught by a trio of outsider teachers, though not as part of any school faculty or formal curriculum, and it is a class that is less about instruction and more about empowerment. “To Be Heard” is a very moving documentary which centres on the stories of three teens taking part in the Power Writing class. Pearl, Karina and Anthony are a trio of friends who affectionately refer to themselves as the “tripod”. Their lives begin to change when they start to write and recite poetry, using it as a vehicle for powerful self-expression and self-awareness, and ultimately, as a means to alter their circumstances.