Tim Ferguson Answers a Tricky Question:
“Are there any topics you would not make jokes about?”
“Thankfully, there is no restriction on Comedy in terms of subject matter.
People are capable of laughing at anything. Because laughter is an involuntary act, a physiological response to stimuli that simulate danger, laughter and the comedy that can provoke it relate to all sorts of wicked topics – topics that are awkward, difficult, painful, scary, embarrassing, risky, offensive, appalling, sexist, religious, even racism.
Like sex, it’s not what you do but how you do it. What higher truth are imparting? If it’s just a blunt grope for an involuntary guffaw, your audience will tire.
Apu, the Indian immigrant convenience store worker from the comedy series The Simpsons is, on the face of it, a racist stereotype. Though his audience adores him, Apu has attributes that could be used to describe a similar person in a racist manner. He works all day and night, he is thrifty, he is penny-pinching, he has been shot countless times… These attributes could be misinterpreted by the innocent as racial stereotypes of immigrant convenience store workers.
It is only Apu’s undying optimism and love for his family that endear him to the viewing audience. Without those qualities, Apu would be largely unlikeable and a figure of dark ridicule. But holding up those initial qualities for humorous play has created one of the worlds most popular comic characters.
‘Political correctness’, and the restrictions it demands, is hive-mind thinking usually found in rigid hierarchies such as large corporations or government bodies. It has no place in comedy, for three reasons. It operates within strict parameters (though those restrictions are more flexible and temporary than adherents would admit). Second, it robs any narrative of surprise and therefore laughter. Finally, and most importantly, political correctness is boring, boring, boring.
The trick for comedians and writers is to create comedy that causes the audience to feel surprised and yet at the same time to reveal something to the audience that they’ll recognise as truth. Many things, even dark and frightening things, are based upon truths, often uncomfortable truths.
Narrative comedy goes hand-in-hand with tragedy. The two masks, one of which is laughing and the other crying, make up Drama. Tragedy needs a little bit of levity, and comedy needs to be about something important.
Important topics are the meat and potatoes of narrative comedy. Whether it’s a one-liner joke or a complete comic movie’s story, if it’s successful you’ll find at the heart of it something that is dark, even bleak.
People who insist that some topics are beyond ridicule are either ignorant or small-minded.
Everyone has topics that are dear to their hearts. Sometimes we will laugh at everything but one particular topic, a topic close to our hearts. Usually that topic resonates with something that has happened in our own lives.
You could select what can and can’t be joked about but that would be cherry-picking humour, choosing what others may or may not find amusing. It’d be a doomed enterprise. People will laugh at things, even though we may not see the joke.
The fact is, things that make us laugh are mostly terrible things. Men (and women, but mostly men) slip on banana peels and, depending on our own experiences, we can laugh at it or cry.
Laughing is, ironically, a more mature response to fear and sorrow than weeping.
That’s comedy. That’s life.
Deal with it.”
Excerpt from ARTVIEW Magazine
Tim Ferguson is author of ‘Carry A Big Stick’ (published by Hachette)
and ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy’ (Currency Press)