Desperate laughter

The hostage crisis was coming to a head, things were looking grim, and what does Malcolm Bradbury do? He heads for the hills, and an international `conference' on comedy. Well, you've got to laugh

Lately, in the best of company, I attended a conference on one of the more vital issues of the day: the state of laughter and comedy in the age of new seriousness and the politically correct. As talk about comedy should, it happened in benign circumstances - a villa in northern Italy, where thinking and laughter are aided in many different ways. It was a good weekend on a bad weekend: the weekend of the UN hostage crisis, a macabre exploitation of human vulnerability by Bosnian Serbs. Like most comedy, it occurred against a backdrop of black disorder. But we've always known that comedy and humour are the products of a black world.

There's always something absurd about taking comedy seriously. Happily there were several stout souls, from John Mortimer and Auberon Waugh to Calvin Trillin and Mordecai Richler, willing to venture to Alpine regions to risk the task. The paradoxes were soon all too apparent. One thing humour never does is yield to theory. It proceeds only by examples: the examples soon explode any framework set around it. What's more, comedy - which John Wells wisely compared to farting - is usually an act of defiance or outrage, a breach of the social and moral rules. Is it up to those who create offence to take offence if people take offence?

Still, for persons of neo-academic disposition like myself, humour and comedy are matters of speculation, concern, even anxiety. Aristotle, you remember, wrote a great study of tragedy (fall of the hero, catharsis, peripety etc), but supposedly never completed his study of comedy. This gave Umberto Eco the idea for The Name of the Rose, a story of the monastery where the missing manuscript is hidden and suppressed. "Laughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh," the librarian believes: to save the idea of gravitas, library and monastery are burned. The result is a great comic novel; laughter survives after all.

But does laughter survive everything? One of our preoccupation's was that, in the age of new solemnities, laughter isn't what it was. The comic is improper and partial. It displays prejudices, personal and cultural. It targets minorities; there's always some group (Irish Poles) who are worse off and funnier than you. It tosses into the limbo of laughter people who now feel they have every right to assert their assertion, every case for opposing representations that deny or oppress them. This is the day of the guilty comedian, the humorist asked to contemplate his or her shame.

Jowett's advice to gentlemen - "Never apologise, never explain" - is a rule comic writers always found useful to adopt. With his deep social and political prejudices ("Have you heard the Butler Education Act? In it he provided for free distribution of university degrees to the deserving poor"), Evelyn Waugh followed it perfectly. He was, especially in his later years, outrageous, probably even to himself. He's also one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Philip Larkin, in unbuttoned comic correspondence with his friends, was equally willing to shock. Plenty were shocked; he remains about the best of the postwar poets.

As Eco's monks are well aware, comedy doesn't always represent virtue. "The cause of Comedy and the cause of Truth are the same," George Meredith proposed, in his po-faced Essay on Comedy. Like most essays on comedy, from Nietzsche to Freud, this misses the point. If Truth means a responsible attitude to life, society and others, most comic performers would be right out of line. Comedy upsets, offends, revolts against. Great comic characters are those who defy the laws of sense or virtue, somehow break the frame. They're hypocrites, misers, lechers or lunatic dreamers. As John Mortimer told us, comedy is rarely in the cause of virtue, but virtue may come out the other end.

If there's current anxiety about the future of the comic, it's not reflected in the amount of humour on offer. Today there are so many stand-up comedians there's scarcely room to sit down, so many TV sitcoms there aren't enough actors to go round, so many alternative routines there are almost no alternatives left. What seems different is that where once those who protested were "official" - remember the anxiety when the BBC ventured on That Was the Week That Was - protests now come from those who regard it rather like smoking: an improper expression of human nature, a failure to give seriousness the seriousness it deserves.

If I feel defensive about comedy, it's because I see it as at the heart of the form in which I write: the novel. The novel, we reckon, started when Cervantes' Don Quixote read old romances, then tried absurdly to live them in real life. When Cervantes' book swept Europe, it was taken up by, above all, the British, who reckoned they had a sense of humour, probably because they didn't have much else: a strong philosophical tradition like the Germans and French, good weather like the Italians. Of the six great founding British novelists - Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett - four were comic. They wrote benign comedy, bitter satire, picaresque romp, the anti-novel; the comic tradition of fiction was born.

It's gone on ever since, through Jane Austen, Dickens, Forster, Huxley, Wodehouse, Waugh and Anthony Powell. It flourished to good effect in the 1950s, in the novels of Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Keith Waterhouse, Michael Frayn, even, believe it or not, Barbara Pym. American humour was slower to come - there was the wilderness to win first - but since Mark Twain there has been a major tradition of American comic writers, from Nathanael West and James Thurber to J D Salinger, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth and Stanley Elkin, their humour increasingly fed from Jewish roots.

The humour tradition has ranged from benign to black, from Wodehouse's drones to the crazy world of Catch 22, where Yossarian believes people want to murder him "because strangers he didn't know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up in the air to drop bombs on them," and the absurd universe of Beckett, where even the names of the characters disappear. If comedy or humour isn't a philosophy, it's certainly a vision. And the vision has been central to the writing of fiction and drama, because it touches on both the comic and the dark face of the human condition.

Today publishers bemoan the fact that fewer and fewer writers of fiction write comedy; solemnity and grim apocalyptics rule. They're right. In a world ever more degrading into political chaos and absurdity, the comic is the vision we need most.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas