The us and them of comedy

Two books which i read within days of each other have got me thinking about comedy – or about British comedy anyway – and modern Britain in general. One of the books was a biography of the singer-comic-ukelele player George Formby who was once the country’s top box office draw. The other was a book about the work of the mysterious Banksy, graffiti artist cum social commentator of our times.

George Formby was your classic Northern comedian. His comedy was as broad as his Lancashire accent; there was nothing political or sophisticated about it. To me though the most important thing about Formby was that his humour was ‘us’ humour. By that i mean he located himself inside the group he was laughing at. Even when he joked about idiot superiors they were ‘our’ idiot superiors. And most of his fans probably thought he was as simple as his stage persona – certainly he never seems to have gone to any trouble to disabuse them of the notion.

Increasingly though comedy seems to be of the ‘them’ variety. The comedian removes himself from the people he’s mocking, observing them as though through a window rather than from in their midst, and tries to remove himself from the joke too. When he makes himself the joke – for example Ricky Gervais as David Brent – then he is careful to cultivate an off-stage persona which disavows the stupidity of the character he plays. No-one wants to be seen as a Fool anymore.

Why is that? A big part of the reason in my opinion is that no-one feels safe enough. The spirit of our time is cynical rather than sentimental. Some people would say more truthful or more honest but cynicism is  not more truthful: grey-tinted shades distort just as much as rose-tinted glasses. Where before people kept unpalatable truths about dysfunctional marriages and back-street abortions hidden from view and concealed their ‘dark side’, now people fear to be exposed as caring too much, trusting too simply or believing too sincerely.

Banksy’s work is often extremely funny. As i looked at one piece after another though i noticed how often the humour seemed to be used as a tool to protect the artist from being mocked for his convictions. He says something serious with one of his stencils and then immediately inserts something humorous as if to assert “But i’m not being earnest. I’m not one of them.” He makes his point and then exits before he can get caught.

It’s ironic because Banksy, like most modern comedians, considers himself a progressive – meaning he wants to move society forward. Yet few things hamper social action more than this withdrawal from ‘us’.  It’s all their fault and we can’t do anything because they have all the power. But – hey! – at least we can laugh at them.

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The unloved children of Pride & Prejudice

One of the many things I’ve done this month to ward off the winter blues is re-read Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time. I first read it when I was about 12. At that age the book was all about the ElizabethDarcy love story and the comedy of the ridiculous, as exemplified by the wonderful Mr Collins. Five years later, when the book was a set text for English A-Level, it was the formal beauty of Jane Austen‘s writing which arrested me: those graceful chains of semi-colons, the delicate narrative thread. And so it’s gone on: each time i notice something new or find myself rethinking my earlier impressions.

Reading the book this Christmas, what struck me was the terrible sadness of two characters, Mr Collins and Mary. Take away the comedy of Mr Collins and what you see is a man who has fundamentally been broken, destroyed as a person before that person ever really had a chance to form, by a lonely childhood under an oppressive father. I find it interesting that his childhood has parallels with that of Darcy: the latter attributes his lack of social skills and inability to connect with strangers outside his circle to being an only son, for many years an only child. Both men appear to have lost their mothers very early on in life and to have grown up dominated by their fathers. Both seem older than their years – probably because these dominating fathers were also old men? But where Darcy is more fortunate is that however much his father disciplined him he also built up his sense of worth. Mr Collins by contrast was clearly brought up to feel that he was nothing. All his pomposity, all his desire for and yet fear of status, all his servility is linked to this inner emptiness.

Then there’s Mary, the middle and deeply unwanted child of the Bennets. Jane was the first child and beautiful too; Elizabeth was her father’s darling and pretty in a less orthodox way; but by the time Mary was born impatience for the much-needed son was setting in and on top of that Mary was plain and serious. Kitty and Lydia who followed her, if not great beauties, were pretty enough and more importantly frivolous enough to win their mother’s affections at least. Not that would make much difference to Mary. She, i always feel, is a daddy’s girl. She craves the kind of relationship with her father that Elizabeth has, but he completely rejects and despises her. Like Mr Collins her personality is crippled by the lack of love she receives. This is to me the great irony: that the pedant that Mr Bennet holds in such contempt is in great part his own creation.

Imagine what Mary might have been like if someone had showed an interest in her as a young child. If her father had actually listened to her she might have learnt how to talk to people – rather than at them. If she had not grown up feeling the failure of her plainness so keenly she might have had a chance to develop a personality that would have made her lack of looks less important – as, for example, did Elizabeth, who while not plain as such is clearly not a beauty in the way that Jane is. Likewise with Mr Collins – to be sure he might never have been as handsome or charismatic as Darcy, but what about Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam? In another world, with a different upbringing might not Mr Collins have been more like him?

There again, would i really want Mr Collins to be other than he is? Fiction is cruel!