I like comedians who deconstruct. This is the essence of comedy, pulling apart the underlying meanings and nuances of language and behaviour. It holds up a mirror to society and shows us what we do and why it’s funny.
There is observational humour, the type of mainstream stuff that everyone is comfortable with, which goes no further than this. It holds the mirror up, reassures us that we are not behaving weirdly alone within our socially and linguistically constructed reality and gives us permission to laugh at ourselves. Then we are told it is OK to carry on that way because everyone does it. It is comfortably funny. It is that which doesn’t require us to think. It is a real talent.
Then there are those who go further. They pick on our language and behaviour (observational), but then they probe deeper and question why it is. The greatest comedians get into a more systematic deconstruction. They hold the mirror up to society and cause us to laugh at the absurdities of the collective conscience – the external systems that control our behaviour rather than the assumed internal/natural behaviour we see from simply observing the surface. They observe, they despair, and then they offer reasons for why we do what we do.
The key is to take an assumption, to laugh at it, and then to completely turn it on its head. This is the Jesus school of comedy. Many times he would declare, ‘you have heard it said (place previously assumed normative reality here), but I tell you (assumption completely tipped on its head here).’ For example, ‘you have heard it said, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but I tell you…if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ A subversive, progressive and dare I say funny idea that would have flown in the face of all established reason and notions of justice. This is a classic tool for the alternative comedian.
In this Sermon on the Mount routine, he was taking all the established notions of man-made religiosity – everything that people assumed about the law, human nature, society etc (‘reality’), and saying everything that you have been told is in essence meaningless. That there is a different kind of logic that transcends the human systems you have put in place, that you can beat the controlling power of religiosity and hierarchical man-made order, ethics and justice, by humouring it. Show how absurd it is through your creativity. Be bigger than the person who requires a system to dictate his behaviour. Jesus was perhaps alluding to permission, nay the moral imperative for people to think for themselves, to be creative and to come up with inventive (funny) ways to reflect the absurdity of systematic control back in the face of all those people tied up in its maintenance. Turn the other cheek, give your coat to the man who is in the process of stealing the rest of your clothes, go beyond where your oppressor is forcing you to go. Remember the context. These were examples, metaphors and ideas at a time of Roman Imperial oppression, not specific, timeless constitutional requirements. His was a dangerous voice.
This is an important time for comedy. We need such voices, saying why it is as well as how it is. There are plenty of people highlighting the absurdity of our present reality, but perhaps not enough through comedy. The issues we face are serious, but sometimes the best way to look at them is through their tragic comedic absurdities. Serious people get boring. The world needs sceptics and it needs social critics – sometimes satire (and quite understandably) manifests itself in cynicism, which is a dead end. It is a sort of creative nihilism that can lead us to non-action and hopeless despair. We need humour that probes into our way of living and changes something within us.
This is a classic tool for the deconstructionist comedian who has something to tell us about ourselves, the systematic reality of our present situation, and the possibility that things can be different and better. We need more comedians pushing through the barrier of simply observing, and taking us to a place where we believe that things will be better once we wake up from our false reality, someone else’s dream etc. Comedy, like music, is experienced by all people, and is one of the most important tools we have in creating an enlightened, questioning and interested society that goes beyond the surface and looks to the heart of all our decisions, both individual and collective.
Art should never be a mirror of culture, and culture shouldn’t be a mirror of art; rather it should hold a mirror up to culture so that it is constantly progressing and repositioning itself.