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.

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