A Budding Comedian's Theatrical Thoughts

10 April 2008

Q: How can a writer push the boundaries of comedy? A: Clearly, by including as many edgy, taboo and controversial topics in their work as possible.

This advice did appear to be embraced wholeheartedly by the writers of the Footlights Spring Revue, Snippets. The opening skit included jokes about the Holocaust, the IRA and September 11th, whilst later sketches revolved around the Ku Klux Klan, slavery and incest.

The qualifier that must be added is that this sort of comedy can be masterful when it is written well and with a purpose. In recent years, the prime example is Chris Morris’ Brass Eye, a high-watermark for British comedy and a show where the material was edgy, taboo and some of the most controversial in television history. However, Brass Eye was a satire. It aimed to violently tear apart the way in which the media, the public, and most importantly celebrities, dealt with provocative issues such as drug abuse, crime and, of course, paedophilia. In doing so it transcended the more simplistic comedic level of simply making jokes about such issues.

Unfortunately, this is a level that Snippets never really rose above. Surreal sketches that were definitely funny simply had a provocative element tacked on to them. Thus it was that one sketch involved white-robed KKK lookalikes losing an intended victim because he was accidently wrapped in a white sheet. Another featured a competitive, middle-class dinner party where a bowl of cocaine was incongruously served. This added nothing to the scenario except for a touch of surrealism and a chance for the cast to make a mess with white powder. A sketch offering a surreal ‘what if?’ about the causes of slavery could have been a good piece of satire, if only it had known what it was satirising. Its mantra was not the satirist’s mantra: ‘Isn’t it awful that…’, but simply ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if…’

A famous ‘blue’ comedian once announced on stage, to a town who had recently suffered a paedophile scandal, “I’m surprised anyone’s here; I thought you’d all be off fucking kids.” Unsurprisingly, he was booed off. Any comedy where the humour is derived from gratuitous, controversial topics is guilty of lazy writing. The audience should be made to laugh at the reasons why such topics are provocative, instead of writers simply tacking on such issues to provide a punch-line where no other can be found.