“Most of my life I don’t have much fun, and the rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all” – Woody Allen
Perhaps the most immediate kind of disaster which one thinks of in connexion with comedians is when a performance going wrong – that proverbial ‘dying on your a*s’. But the topic we’re going to look at in this chapter goes a great deal further than that – learning from all the ways that comedians use their art to address the nastier stuff that happens in life. This attribute, I suggest, represents the greatest and most potentially transformative learning opportunity that comedians offer us.
Things going swimmingly well does not make great comedy. The greatest comedians turn the comedy spotlight onto those very aspects of life that cause us the most suffering – shame, embarrassment, frustration, failure, disappointment, inadequacy, mortality, and the rest. When as audience we laugh together at these things, we are recognising and acknowledging life’s inevitable challenges – helping us come to terms with them, perhaps enabling us to relate more positively to those aspects of life which we would really rather weren’t there.
Disaster as material for comedy
There are two broad areas of ‘disaster’ content which comedians explore in their material and through their comedy persona:
- individual personal attributes and circumstances which are unwelcome or unwanted, which the comedian addresses in his or her self
- generic human issues, which are shared with the rest of humanity, or with representative groups (eg all men, all women, all poor people, all miserable people)
It may seem odd that this should be prime content for comedy, since laughter might initially seem to be all about good stuff. But the comedian’s whole self and whole life is the source of their individual expression; experiences which they share with others are their most profound way of connecting with their audience; and the more profound level at which this happens, the more profound the effect – and this includes lots of bad stuff. The comedian’s whole body of life experiences is their instrument of expression. Joan Rivers has said: “My routines come out of total unhappiness. My audiences are my group therapy.”
Woody Allen is one of the foremost masters of this art – indeed, he doesn’t seem to do any other kind of comedy. His humour, not just as a stand-up comedian but in his movies too, is riddled with negative themes that we can all relate to, like:
- how unfortunate he is
- what a mess he is making of things
- how difficult relationships are
- how difficult life is
- death and the fear of death
- the dilemma of illusion versus reality
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work” he protests, typically, “I want to achieve it through not dying!”
Of course, it’s not just comedians who use humour to do this – many other personalities that are mostly known for their serious contributions to human progress have resorted to humour when it comes to dealing with life’s inevitable quota of disaster and adversity. Indeed, religious and spiritual authorities frequently use humour to come to terms with the harder side of life. But with comedians, it’s a speciality.
Kinds of disaster based humour
Humour’s intimate connexion with misfortune, can be expressed by the comedian in a number of distinctly different ways:
- laughing at the misfortune of others
- laughing at one’s own misfortune
- laughing together with the audience at shared misfortune
The first of these, I suggest, is the least valuable in terms of what we can learn from comedians in order to make life a better experience. Angela Carter said that “Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people”, but I reckon that this is the weakest and least satisfying sort of comedy – comedy that ultimately divides people rather than bringing them together. So it will be the latter two comedy modes that are most fruitful to us here as inspiration.
Applying these principles yourself
We can all learn a great deal from the examples offered by these comedians, and apply in principle the lessons therein – whether we’re doing it though humour or not. There are a number of ways we can apply this learning.
Let’s look again at those two basic categories of stuff that we can see comedians dealing with, which we too may then learn to respond to differently:
- adverse aspects of ourselves
- adverse stuff that affects us and other people
Across these two categories, there are two further discernible classes of difficulty:
- things you can change or influence
- things you have to accept – but to which you may be able to relate differently to, or come to feel differently about, or change the effects of
The most immediately obvious strategy to adopt is to see if we can – as comedians perpetually encourage us to do – laugh at some of the stuff that’s going wrong in our lives, and some of the stuff that’s going wrong for everyone. Do your own humour around your own disasters – a very healthy alternative to the more usual strategy of wingeing, moaning and complaining. Obviously there will be times when we can’t do this, and there will be circumstances in which we can’t bring ourselves to do it. But if we have it in hand as an option and respond in this way when we can, we can cultivate the habit, and we will be able to expand the range of possibilities for doing it. A lot of things that bother us are actually rather trivial, and not worth getting deeply stressed over – people saying annoying things, people not remembering your name, you not remembering other people’s names and them getting ridiculously annoyed about it – so maybe we can see the funny side of those, to start with.
Having cheered yourself up and then finding yourself dumped by your partner, you might then feel inspired to take action that can bring better results – like finding a partner with far lower standards, who’s much less likely to dump you.
We can follow the example of those comedians who work with this kind of content, and think about our issues without so fully identifying with them, as in ‘I am my problems’ – it can be more like ‘these are my issues, let’s play around with them, experiment with different ways of relating to them and of communicating about them to other people – in order to make progress, change the situation, come to terms with things, somehow create value out of it all.
And remember that, as Mr Allen reminds us… “there are worse things in life than death – have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?”