Humour is a striking and powerful means for writers and film makers to get their message across, because we love a funny story or a good comedy.
The use of humour in film and literature has many aspects, and its effect will largely depend on the context and the reader or viewer, because we respond differently to it. There is an old hospital joke that goes: “Does it hurt? Only when I laugh.” The joke has its subtle irony because humour can actually work like that; the distance between laughter and tears is often shorter than we think.
Irony and Satire
Famous writers often use humour in their works, and they do it quite deliberately. For example, Charles Dickens often chose to highlight the comical sides of characters he wanted to criticise. Ridiculing certain characters or institutions is a skilful way of manipulating the readers. In general it is liberating to laugh at authorities, and in that way humour can be an effective literary technique. Both irony and satire are widely used by writers to make a point and to lead the readers to draw their own conclusions. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, was a classic master of satire and humour. He had many friends, but his writing certainly made him some enemies as well. The ultimate aim of a satire is to present a certain phenomenon in a way that makes the readers laugh but at the same time respond to the serious issue behind the text. But for writers there is pitfall here, because humour may distort the thematic message in a text and move the readers’ focus and intellectual understanding of the text. So a writer with a message must pick his method carefully and will often have to make a choice – because being funny and serious at the same time is not easy.
We call it black humour when we laugh at things that we know we should not laugh at, but in a certain setting it can be quite comical. An example of black humour is the famous car-scene in the Tarantino film Pulp Fiction when somebody is shot in the head by accident. To kill someone is not funny, but we laugh because the killer is just distracted and nervous and does not mean to shoot him. Tarantino is a master of black humour, mixing violence with unexpected and funny situations. But it is a dangerous mixture – because violence and crime are not a laughing matter, it takes some distance to see the absurdity in it and not be too emotionally influenced by such effects. Another example is the Stanley Kubrick movie Dr Strangelove which makes fun of the threat of nuclear war. Black humour is like balancing on a tight-rope, because it is very easy to step over the line. Most people will agree that there is a limit somewhere when it comes to making fun of things. Many comedians seem to want to push that line to the extent that they become provocative and end up hurting people’s feelings. Both in literature and film there are many examples of this and in some cases it has caused the book or the film to be banned. Blasphemy is a usual inducement for such a reaction because religion is for many too sacred to make fun of. Monty Python’s Life of Brian ended in that category and was banned for some years after it came out for being offensive to Christians. The war is another example that used to be a non-target for humour, because it was so closely associated with suffering and death. After the war it would for example be impossible to launch a comedy show like ’Allo, ‘Allo, and to make jokes about Jews would be most inappropriate. But in this respect times have changed. The line between what is comic material and what is not has moved over the years; many things that caused uproar some years ago will today be seen as ok to make fun of.
Human is Funny
In most cases humour is quite harmless. Laughing promotes good mental health, and making people laugh is a highly commendable mission. The interesting issue is what makes us laugh and why. In literary theory there are volumes of studies on the subject of comedy. The comic potential of a scene or a situation will depend on a combination of ingredients that in sum make us laugh. Shakespeare knew this, and so did Charlie Chaplin. If we take a closer look at some of Shakespeare’s comedies or Chaplin’s black and white films there will often be some recurring elements, for example a disguised character and a mistaken identity, or a clumsy protagonist who causes trouble for himself. The basic comical elements are to some extent timeless, we still laugh at the gags of classic comedies, and people have always found it amusing to see authorities ridiculed.
In the old days bodily defects and disabilities were laughed at and were common ingredients in comedy shows. This is fortunately not so usual today, but if it is done tactfully and with a certain amount of self-irony there is quite some comic potential in for example blindness. In the film The Blues Brothers there is a scene where blind Ray Charles notices that a little poster is upside-down, which is quite funny. The stuttering Michael Palin in the comedy A Fish called Wanda is another example where a handicap is used as a comical element. But in general we do not laugh at disabled people. But why do we laugh at Mr Bean or Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers? They certainly have some physical attributes, with their face and gestures, and their posture and body language are also rather quirky, to put it mildly. Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese most certainly have a talent for comedy, but there must be more to it than a funny face and a funny walk.
A comic figure has to be human. He must have some recognisable features that we can see as human qualities and in a way can identify ourselves with. We can recognise Mr Bean’s meanness with money or Basil’s talent for making a mess for himself because of his unfaltering belief in his own superiority. He is afraid of his wife, and he has a job he is totally unqualified for. Most people will be able to see themselves (or someone they know) in some of these features. Donald Duck would not have been funny if he did not possess all his familiar human qualities; he is short-tempered, unlucky, jealous, envious, and like Basil, he also has a talent for making a mess of things completely of his own accord.
The setting and the combination of otherwise not-so-funny elements will often give a comic effect. A classic example is the final scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the crucified lot join in and sing “Always look on the bright side of life”. On its own the song is a nice cheerful tune to whistle to, but not exactly funny; and a crucifixion certainly is no laughing matter, but the combination of the two elements is what makes the scene so hilarious. This combination technique is also what makes black humour work.
American humour is usually a bit louder than British comedy and perhaps slightly more overacted. But comedians like Chevy Chase and Jim Carrey certainly make us laugh, and there is no doubt that Jerry Seinfeld and his friends have a talent for creating great comedy out of everyday situations and familiar circumstances.
Making fun of things can be quite serious. A comic approach may open up for unwanted reactions because people respond differently and have a different sense of humour. To some the killing scene in Pulp Fiction is just appalling and tasteless, and there are many who react negatively to the humour in Life of Brian. But in general a good comedy is safe and harmless, and sets us in a good mood. So the old hospital joke may well work the other way round: "Do you laugh? Yes – only when it hurts."
Topics for Group Discussion
- Discuss your personal sense of humour. Explain to each other what makes you laugh and why.
- Do you agree that there is a limit for what one can make fun of? If so, where should we draw the line? Give examples.
- Can you mention other examples than those given in the article of comedies that use a handicap or disability as a comical element? What do you think of such a humour?
- Why does a comic figure have to human qualities?
- Search the net for examples of good and bad comedy acts and explain why one is good and the other one bad.
- Do you agree that there is in general a difference between British and American humour? Give examples that support your opinion.
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