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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2 comments on “When is the punchline too brutal?

  1. Michelle sweetie!! Clamidia here! THanks sooooooooo much for following my blog, very much appreciated. I love the article above and will follow you too if I can work out how these darn buttons work. All the best and hoe you’re having sexy fun and capers!!

    love & hugs

    Clamidia xx

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