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.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?

An enlightening finale for Don Draper

Arts and Entertainment
Serious player: Aussie Guy Sebastian rehearses for the big show in Vienna

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable