Friday, 6 May 2011


PART I – The Absurd as an extension of the Fail principle and the subordination of the latter to the former.

The second class of comedy follows from the Fail principle and extends it into a new and distinct territory, which I shall refer to as the Absurd.

The two classes, though different, are intimately connected. Fail humour makes evolutionary sense; the Absurd is an extension of the principle which only genuinely appears in human culture with the birth of representation. You don't really get the Absurd in nature, though you can get some basic forms of it in everyday language (more on this later).

The principle of Fail is that something going against your intentions is funny (technically, it has to be someone else's intentions, but we've been over that). The Absurd broadens this idea and brings it to the point that anything going against your expectations is funny. Of course, when an intention fails, there's also a failed expectation; and that still qualifies as a Fail. But it's possible to have a reversed expectation with no intentions being thwarted for any subject. You could argue that then we're just talking about a case of “Expectation Fail!” which therefore falls under the same initial category. But the theorem does not hold, because it is the breaking of OUR expectations, and not SOMEONE ELSE's, that is funny to us – and at the heart of Fail humour, as I discussed in the last entry, there's the idea that it has to happen to some Other, and the more Other the victim is, the funnier the joke.

With Absurd humour, we react by laughing when something happens that is completely and powerfully removed from what we expected (this has no evolutionary utility – it is, as we said, an outgrowth or even a by-product of the neurological principles at work in basic Fail humour). Here we must postulate the idea that, when the Absurd is activated, we are witnessing something that happens. But witnessing what, exactly?

The simplest answer is to say: witnessing the contrary of what we expect. If a super-muscled man comes out to address a crowd and the voice he speaks with turns out to be squeaky like that of Mickey Mouse, people will laugh. The muscled man isn't necessarily failing, unless he didn't intend to speak like that. But if that's his normal voice, then there's no Fail. It's just funny because it's the opposite of what we thought. (The connection between Fail and Absurd is here quite open: you can pull the argument by the sleeves to say that there's a *perceived* fail in the man's inability to produce a masculine voice, but the idea is clearly stretched. After all, it would be funny even if it were the other way round – a teeny dwarf suddenly speaking out in a booming, roaring, tenor voice, which is aggrandising rather than debasing. And so we cannot call this Fail humour, not in the same sense; it's something different).

A good example for our purposes is sarcasm. Sarcasm is, fundamentally, Absurd humour. It is simply a case of someone saying the opposite of what you would expect, or what would make sense in a given circumstance. You can argue there's a Fail in there, because the sarcastic comment is either *addressed* to a designated 'victim' (“You're elegance personified, really” to someone who puts no attention in his wardrobe) or *about* a negative, dislikeable object (“What you call the country of eternal sunshine,” said someone I knew during a rainstorm in Spain, and this we could label as “Weather Fail!” – except that of course this also is stretched, because weather has no 'intention,' and therefore cannot 'fail'!). But notice that what's funny is not the fail in itself, it's the comment about it. In other words, it's not the thwarted intention, but the thwarted expectation that is the source of the humour.

Most cases of the Absurd do contain a fail, even if a minor one, because this class of humour too, like all others, knows very few cases of purity. The Monty Python sketch on the middle-class twit of the year, for instance, is an Absurd short film which also refers to the very obvious social failure of its protagonists / victims. But these Fails are subordinated to the Absurd nature of the representation, which provides the real source of laughter by the measure of its absurdity. The rule is that the greater the incongruence, anachronism or whatever, the funnier the sketch. Something that is only slightly unexpected may be strange, but it's not funny if it isn't outright absurd. After all, we get marginally thwarted expectations every day, and we don't think any of these are funny.

To the extent that the Absurd principle takes over the main comedic function, a Fail may not be necessary at all, or it may be so subtle that it's hard even to formulate what it is. I would argue that the sketch of the philosophers playing football, also by Monty Python, is an example of such a case. The only failure I can see at all is that the philosophers can't execute the procedures of a football game, but the idea of their presence on that field to play is so outlandish in the first place that you can't imagine they would intend to play at all. It's a Fail which you've got to go pretty far to fetch, and out of your way.

PART II – Histories and examples of the Absurd.

I've used the shibboleth that Absurd humour is equal to something being the opposite of what we expect. But in reality, and this is important, the absurd doesn't have to be the contrary of our expectations. It can be just any strong deviation from them. And this too is exemplified by the Monty Python football sketch: there is no dialectic relation between philosophy and football, so seeing the Greeks and the Germans playing the sport, while very distant from our expectations, is not the contrary of them.

So to define this as concisely as possible, Absurd humour is simply a case of something deviating from our expectations, where the greater the deviation, the funnier the joke. It is almost exclusive to the world of representation; you seldom get this type of humour appearing spontaneously in the natural world.

A couple of words on its practical manifestations. The words 'Absurd comedy' usually brings to mind the French dramatic tradition of the 20th Century, mostly in Beckett, Ionesco and a few others. In reality, though, the people who have done the most to cultivate and develop this type of comedy are the British, and by quite the distance. They have a far greater number of comedians in the field and a more enduring tradition, starting from the aforementioned Monty Python, who specialise in the most intelligent, sophisticated and amusing Absurd comedy in the world, and on to a whole list of followers (and/or plagiars). Some of these are clever (Brasseye comes to mind), others are forgettable, to the point I won't even mention them on this blog. The French, on the other hand, hardly transcend the contained and short-lived tradition which developed right after the war, not in duration, style, method or medium. I may be misinformed about this, but my impression from my time in Paris is that the French Comedy of the Absurd is dead – there's no-one writing plays in the style of Beckett and Ionesco anymore, or even following on from their footsteps. Sure, there's revivals and regular re-enactments of these plays and other attempts to celebrate them, but the most creative work is done in other fields (and, most importantly, in other genres – the French DO have an incredibly rich tradition in comedy, from Moliere onwards, but it's not of the Absurd type at all). This is understandable, because in my opinion that type of comedy isn't very good. There may be a certain literary merit to the works of these playwrights, but I can't say I found them funny. Furthermore, while British Absurd comedians are true artists of the people, enjoying immense popularity at home and even a good measure abroad, the French Absurdists are among the most elitist of all modern writers. Their plays are hard to follow, hard to understand, and potentially boring if you aren't in the right mindset. It's the type of stuff I couldn't recommend to friends or family except for those within literary academia. So it's only natural that the British work in the genre should have enjoyed an extensive following, one which is still at work and developing today, while that of the French should have decayed.

This prevalence of the Absurd in British comedy must have played a part in developing the stereotype of so-called 'British humour,' which is known abroad as a particular type of irony, often very subtle and/or hard to understand. In reality it's not about irony at all (I shall discuss irony too in the coming posts). Instead, it's about a particular way of breaking expectations by means of nonsense. It's certainly not limited to television – The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a popular case of the Absurd in literature, and I've asked around: its humour is unfathomable anywhere but in England. More importantly, it extends itself to everyday talk and lingo. THIS is the major difference between the French and the English in this field. When you hear British people speak with each other, you'll detect certain turns of phrase which distinguish themselves for their absurdity. A man will rant for fifteen minutes about how terrible the amusement park at Brighton was, to the point of committing suicide, etc. and his interlocutor will respond with a terse: 'So it wasn't very good, eh?' This seems to be a variant, or a subset, of sarcasm. You don't get this type of stuff outside those rainy islands. More, the British even have a whole subgenre of jokes, almost unique to their culture (at least from what I've experienced), which are Absurd twists of incredible purity: “Why did the man fall off the bike? Because they threw a fridge at him.”

I normally like to go into the history of the literature I discuss, but I can't say much about Absurd humour before the 20th Century, British or otherwise. In part it's the fact that comedy, whatever its genre, has a very brief half-life. The things we find funny change from society to society and therefore from times to times – remember that we laugh to express our agreement or disagreement with a person and his/her values, and since values change all the time, so do the objects of humour. This is the reason why, even though tragedies from four-hundred or two-thousand four-hundred years ago are still extraordinarily moving and enjoyable, comedies by Aristophanes or Lope de Vega or even Shakespeare are seldom funny. You'll enjoy them and smile and nod at their wit, but you almost never laugh hard.

But another important reason why I can't go much into the history of this stuff is that British humour only developed a predominantly Absurd tradition in recent times. If you look at Shakespeare's comedies or Byron's verse, the comedic principles are classical (more on these in future entries), much like they were in France or in Spain. Unless there's whole veins of jokes and dramas which have remained obscure (and this is entirely possible), we must conclude that a taste for the Absurd has developed only lately in the circles of major comedy.

One last 'genre' before closing – it would be tempting to see that type of comedy popularised by Mel Brooks, Leslie Nielsen, and the Wayans brothers as an American tradition of the Absurd. They are, after all, completely nonsensical and they often even sink into gratuitious metatextuality just to subvert expectations. But such an assertion would not be true. These movies contain much absurdity, but they hardly restrain themselves from throwing other types of jokes at us either, of the most varied and unbridled kind. There's absurd sketches in there, but there's also almost every other comedic principle in action too (including Fail, of course). Really we should see these films not as case-studies or samples of the Absurd, but as open forums where anything goes, where every aspect of representation is subordinated to the comedic principles themselves, to the point that the story, the characters, or the film's inner consistency, are all of no consequence face to the opportunity of pulling a laugh. And so we cannot say that these represent the American Absurd, not in the same way that Monty Python and Ionesco stand for the British and French Absurd(s?).

With these considerations I've said everything about Absurdity (and it's probably too much anyway). It's time to turn to our third comedic principle. In the next entry, of course.

1 comment:

Mory said...

Excellent series so far. One small point: I think you might be surprised by how many non-British fans of Hitchhiker's Guide there are. It's not universal humor, but it's fairly universal among geeks.