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Editorial 85–100 Court jesters of the GDR: the

political clowns-theatre of
3–4 Wenzel & Mensching
101–111 Comedy improvisation on
5–19 Not the definitive version: television: does it work?
an interview with Ross Noble BRAÍNNE EDGE
OLIVER DOUBLE 113–124 Who’s in charge? Negotiation,
21–32 The origins of comic manipulation and comic licence
performance in adult-child in the work of Mark Thomas
interaction SOPHIE QUIRK
SAXTON Reviews

33–42 England? Whose England? 125–127 Statue Review #1: Max Miller:
Selling Albion in comic cinema “There’ll Never Be Another!”
127–128 The Cambridge Introduction to
43–59 ‘Pack up your troubles and smile, Comedy, Eric Weitz (2009)
smile, smile’: comic plays about
the legacy of ‘the Troubles’ Report
129–130 Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2009:
61–69 Mutual intelligibility: depictions
the year of the anti-comedian
of England in German literature
and thought
71–83 Take my mother-in-law: ‘old 131–134 Marcus Brigstocke: God Collar
bags’, comedy and the Live
sociocultural construction of the
older woman

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COST 1 (1) pp. 3–4 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.3/2


The launch of Solent University’s BA in Comedy Studies attracted huge atten-

tion to the discussion of comedy in academia. But for students, lovers and
professionals in comedy, the question might be why a genre with a millen-
nial long tradition (stretching from Aristotle to Chris Morris) had not been
considered worthy of academic attention sooner? This journal is a further step
in the process of developing the study of comedy as an academic discipline.
With Comedy Studies, a forum is being created for the discussion, analysis
and critique of comedy. We aim to offer a worldwide platform for academ-
ics, writers and readers interested in comedy to publish their opinions and
ideas. Certainly, we welcome all attempts to theorize intelligently about why
comedy is as it is. Yet there is also a strongly practical bent to our endeav-
our: the thoughts and opinions of comics are present here. Most of the aca-
demics published here are also performers of comedy. Both the editors have
run and performed in comedy nights and sketch ensembles. For us, theory
and practice are by no means opposed; it is the love of comedy that unites
them. In this journal, we are keen to investigate comedy as a global phenom-
enon. Right this instance, stories are being told and routines performed from
Amsterdam to Jakarta. English comedy nights are playing to packed houses in
Berlin and Japanese anime characters occasioning hysterics in American chil-
dren. This journal is a natural home for investigation of comedy worldwide:
our first issue takes in Albion in England, Germans in east Germany and the
transatlantic improvisation scene. Future issues will have an even wider remit.
Again and again in our studies of comedy, we have been struck by the simi-
larities in how different cultures structure their jokes and joking. At the same
time, Comedy Studies is fascinated with widening people’s perspectives on the
function of comedy worldwide.
And not just now, either. Comedy is clearly a historical phenomenon, and
this journal welcomes analysis of any epoch of the comic tradition: from its
beginnings with Aristophanes through to the work of Ross Noble (our inter-
viewee this issue). A working title of this journal was ‘Parabasis’, from the
choral address to the audience on the Ancient Greek stage, and it is there

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that we locate the beginnings of the contemporary stand-up comedian. Such

a wide historical perspective can only enhance a sense of the longevity and
significance of comedy as a part of life.
In short, Comedy Studies is a defiantly non-partisan review. There is no era,
no area, and no one approach in comedy that interests us more than any other.
We welcome, of course, contributions with a sense of humour and especially
those that can make us think anew. If there was one way to describe comedy,
it would be anarchic: in the spirit of Greek ναρχια, ‘without ruler’, the quality
of subversion and freedom. Comedy is a force that has often been on the side
of the oppressed and trod-upon. It is in this anarchic spirit, and with a host of
excellent contributors, that we launch Comedy Studies.

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COST 1 (1) pp. 5–19 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.5/1

University of Kent

Not the definitive

version: an interview
with Ross Noble

In this interview, the celebrated improvisational stand-up comedian Ross Noble dis- Ross Noble
cusses his early influences, starting his career in the anarchic Newcastle comedy stand-up comedy
scene of the early 1990s, the gruelling experience of building his career in London, improvisation
the process of becoming successful, the creative possibilities of the DVD format, and
his current working processes.

Ross Noble is one of the most successful and gifted stand-up comedians of
his generation. He has acquired a huge and enthusiastic following, in spite
of having relatively little exposure on television. Instead, he has built his
audience largely on the strength of his live performance, relentlessly touring
with shows like Sonic Waffle (2002–03), Unrealtime (2003–04), Noodlemeister
(2004–05), Randomist (2005–06), Fizzy Logic (2006–07), Nobleism (2007), and
Things (2009). As well as touring thousand-seat theatres, as of 2004 he
has released a series of best-selling stand-up DVDs. His comedy is char-
acterized by surreal flights of imagination, and his extraordinary ability to

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Oliver Double

Ross Noble (courtesy of Ross Noble).

One of the built-in ambiguities in stand-up comedy is the extent of an act’s

spontaneity. The interactive nature of the form, and the fact that it is performed
in the first person, means that prepared material (performed for years or even
decades) can come across as if it has just been invented before the audience’s
very eyes. Most comedians strike a balance between improvisation and pre-
pared material, but where one begins and the other ends is always left unclear.
As Tony Allen, who was one of the first alternative comedians, argues:

In reality, of course, very little is spontaneous and it is only the poten-

tial for spontaneity that exists. An honest stand-up comedian will admit
that the moments of pure improvisation account for less than five per
cent of their act.
(Allen 2004: 93)

Noble turns this potential for spontaneity into reality, improvising far more
than 5 per cent of his act, and building much of the show from conversations
with audience members or occurrences that happen in the performance space,
on the stage, or the auditorium. As a Times reviewer puts it:

Ross Noble can amble on stage, spot a piece of fluff on the floorboards,
a latecomer trying to slip into a seat, an odd-looking chandelier, and

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Not the definitive version: an interview with Ross Noble

suddenly he’s got his first half-hour of material, building a pyramid 1. See Double (1994) for
a detailed account of
of observations from any starting point … More than any other comic the provincial scene at
playing the big stages, this straggle-haired Geordie seems to risk calam- this time.
ity every night.
(Maxwell 2005)

Something else that marks Noble out is his age. Still only 33 years old, he
has been performing stand-up for seventeen years, and has been well known
for ten, having been nominated for the Perrier Award in 1999. It is unusual
enough that he started working as a stand-up at the remarkably tender age
of 15, but the particular set of venues in which he cut his teeth was also far
from ordinary. Having grown up in Cramlington, Northumberland, he first
began performing in and around Newcastle upon Tyne, in one of the emerg-
ing comedy scenes that had started growing in provincial towns by the late
1980s.1 This meant that his first experiences of live performance happened in
a freewheeling atmosphere where comedians and promoters were discover-
ing how stand-up worked as they went along. Anvil Springstien, one of the
leading lights of the Newcastle comedy scene at the time, pointed out that
audiences were similarly uninitiated:

Because audiences up here have never really had a history of being able
to go out to comedy clubs … people don’t know how to behave in a
comedy night, so the standard of heckling has been very strange and
different, and no two gigs have ever been the same.
(Double 1994: 257–58)

Springstien also pointed out that, lacking the tighter expectations of the more
established London circuit, the Newcastle comedy scene of the early 1990s
encouraged more inventive approaches to stand-up: ‘There’s an awful lot of
just standard, straight stand-up [in London], gag, gag, gag, gag. People want
to be TV-friendly, so they write their sets towards that, you know, but up here
it’s a different kettle of fish’ (Double 1994: 257–58).
Starting off in such an atmosphere has coloured Noble’s whole approach
to stand-up. It allowed him to gain an unusual amount of stage experience
very quickly, and freed him from the restriction of audience expectation. As a
result, he prefers the spontaneous to the highly prepared, the rough edges to
slick perfection. More importantly, he is comfortable taking the artistic risks
which improvisation entails on a regular basis.
Meeting up again with Noble on 25 August 2009 in Leicester Square to
interview him, I was struck by how closely his conversational style resembles
his onstage delivery. His sentences are far from linear. He will stop halfway
through a clause to rephrase or refine an idea, or go off at a tangent. On stage,
he brilliantly exploits this tendency, commenting on his own sentence struc-
ture, and conjuring up whole routines based on little more than a slightly odd
choice of word or a strange inflection. In conversation, he largely avoids this
temptation, but his mercurial thought processes and his propensity to repeat
and foreshorten makes transcription rather tricky. If I were to attempt to make
whole sentences out of his exact words, his meaning would be in danger of
disappearing under a riotous heap of ellipses and parentheses. Instead, I have
simplified things in the interests of clarity, whilst trying to represent what he
actually said as accurately as possible to give an accurate presentation of his

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2. Billy Connolly, Jasper 2. THE INTERVIEW

Carrott and Max Boyce
were the three most Who were your early influences?
prominent stand-up
comedians to emerge Up until I started, I used to listen to Connolly and Carrott and Max Boyce,2
from the British folk music
scene in the 1960s and and who else did I have on CD? Just like the sort of people that you’d see
1970s. on the telly all the time, you know. You know, obviously TVs and albums
3. Bev Bevan (1944- ) were the only way of sort of seeing people. And obviously all of those shows
was the drummer with where comics were on, like the Just for Laughs thing, and there was that show
British rock bands The
Move and Electric Light Paramount City – things like that, you know. Yeah, so it wasn’t until I started
Orchestra. watching stuff like that - I then actually started reading about comedy.
4. ‘The Magic Roundabout’
was an early stand-up So with people like Carrott and Connolly, what was it about them that you got into?
routine by Jasper Carrott,
in which he parodied The obvious thing was the nature of what they did. The creativity of it, you
the animated children’s
series of the same know, I think that was the thing – the fact that they were being funny in
name by incongruously a specific way to them. Rather that in that interchangeable way. And that
adding sexual content
into it. A recording of
came across, you know. Because when I was a kid, I used to really like Lenny
the routine was included Henry, you know. Because it was the sort of thing where he was on telly a lot,
as the B-side to Carrott’s and you think, ‘Oh, he’s funny’. Then what I started to like more and more
single ‘Funky Moped’,
and its notoriety and about those guys, certainly Connolly, was the fact that even though they were
popularity was said to mainstream, they seemed like they had a kind of an attitude to them. They
have accounted for the sort of felt authentic, even Carrott, kind of. Back in the day there was a sort
success of this record,
which reached number of an edge to him, you know, you got the feeling that he wasn’t like a shiny-
five in the UK pop charts suited bloke. And stuff like Sweet and Sour Labrador (Carrott 1986) and Little
in 1975.
Zit on the Side (Carrott 1979), those books of his routines – you know, like,
5. The Wow Show was there were some of those which obviously weren’t on TV, about him and Bev
a group of performers
on the early alternative Bevan3 and all that. You sort of read those and there was something kind of a
comedy circuit, made bit rock and roll about him, you know. On TV he came across as sort of like a
up of Mark Arden, Lee
Cornes, Mark Elliot and
dad from Birmingham, but then you listened to ‘The Magic Roundabout’.4
Stephen Frost. And I think that was the thing that appealed to me about it, it was estab-
lishment, but at the same time it wasn’t like middle of the road shit, you
know. Which even the Comic Strip, you know those sort of Comic Strip lot,
it was almost like they were these kind of edgy wild characters – they were
edgy and wild compared to blokes in dicky bow ties doing chicken-in-a-basket
clubs. Whereas actually, and I’ve got to be careful what I say, but a lot of
them, or certainly the ones that made it, were kind of a bit middle of the road,
you know. Whereas the real ones like Keith Allen and the guys from, like, the
Wow Show5 and all that sort of stuff, they had that sort of edge to them.

You were also influenced by the American improvisational comedian Jonathan

Winters. How did you come across his work?

From looking more towards America, you know. I mean basically like from
reading about the American scene, and the amount of people who said he
was influential on them, you know. And then, specifically Robin Williams
going on about him, Robin Williams and Bill Cosby. I saw interviews with
them where they were going, ‘This guy’s the man’, you know. And that made
me go, ‘I should probably have a look at him!’ [laughs]

What was the north-east comedy scene like when you first started performing?

Well there were sort of two camps up there. There was Chirpy Chappies
Comedy Café, which even saying it now sounds like something that somebody

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Not the definitive version: an interview with Ross Noble

would make up for a bad film about stand-up, you know. Chirpy Chappies was 6. Now a well-known
name on the national
run by Dave Johns, who at the time, because there was already a Dave Johns in comedy circuit.
Equity, was calling himself Ben E Cauthen, which is the weirdest stage name.
7. In Birmingham.
But anyway, so it was Dave Johns and he ran the Comedy Café and there
8. When alternative
were a few acts who were sort of good enough in his eyes to play, to be support comedy was starting
acts there. And they were Mike Milligan, John Fothergill, Anvil Springstien, off with the opening of
and Paul Sneddon (who was billed as Vladimir McTavish). They were sort the Comedy Store, the
founding of Tony Allen’s
of the main support acts, and he used to bring the acts up from London. He Alternative Cabaret
had headliners like Jo Brand, and Mark Lamarr, Mark Steel and people like group, etc.
that. And then on the other side of that was a ‘comedy collective’ (which is
very of the time) a comedy collective called Near the Knuckle – who ran a
club called the Crack Club. Anvil Springstien was in that, but then there was
also Tony Mendoza, there was Steffen Peddie, the Big Fun Club (who were
like a double act), and who else did you have in that? Oh, you had a double
act called Scarboro and Thick, and for years I never got that that was a play
on Morecambe and Wise. It’s like ‘Scarboro’ instead of ‘Morecambe’, ‘Thick’
instead of ‘Wise’. But what was funny about that was they would introduce
themselves as Scarboro and Thick, he was Eric Scarboro, and he was Little
Ernie Thick [laughs]. The younger guy must’ve been like in his early twenties,
probably about 21, 22, but the two of them had met when they both worked
in a factory, or an engineering place. The older one had sort of given up his
job as an engineer, gone into teaching, and so you basically had an older guy,
and then Little Ernie Thick, who worked in this factory, but he had a kind
of punk sensibility. He was into punk and would play the guitar – so he was
obviously like a punk with a day job. And they’d do the sort of double act
stuff, and it can be revealed now, Little Ernie Thick then went solo and used
his real name, and that’s Gavin Webster.6
And all the Near the Knuckle gigs were basically rooms in pubs, because at
that point, the only purpose-built comedy was the Comedy Store in London – but
then outside of London, that was around that time the Glee Club opened.7 Yeah
I think it might have been end of 1993 possibly when the Glee Club opened, and
that was the first proper comedy club outside of London where it was like, ‘OK,
we’ve got a dance floor afterwards, and proper seats’ rather than such-and-such
a club at this venue. So anywhere that had a decent function room we’d start a
comedy club there. Some of them lasted and then some of them you’d do a cou-
ple of weeks and they’d just go, you know. But all of those acts were unlike, say,
London, where already by the early 1990s there’d been ten years of stuff.
There wasn’t the idea of people going to comedy clubs, and we used to
frequently get people, you know, older people, you’d be doing your stuff and
they’d go, ‘Tell us a joke. You haven’t got any jokes mate.’ And all the time
you’d sort of get asked – it was always the same thing – it’s like, ‘Do you tell
jokes, or are you alternative?’ But it meant that we were doing a lot of differ-
ent gigs, you know, like one night we did a working men’s club, and the next
night was a function room, and then it might be a bit of a festival, you know,
Stockton Festival, and there’d be like a marquee. It was very new and it was in
effect what had happened in London ten years earlier.8

Do you think that because you came out of this nascent scene, and that you started
at such a young age, that it affected your comedy style as it developed?

Yeah, definitely. Because there was so few acts up there, it was one of those
things where, I think I got a compèring gig, it might’ve been like my third

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Oliver Double

9. A well-known gig or something. And like in London to get a job compèring you’d certainly
competition for new
stand-up comedians,
have to be an absolute bulletproof sort of act, possibly even a headline act, in
established in 1988, order for them to go, ‘Oh we’ll trust him.’ But when there are only a hand-
which takes place at the ful of people, you know, we used to start clubs up, and I’d compère. And I
Edinburgh Fringe.
also used to compère at the university, I’d do Newcastle University one week
and Sunderland University the next, for when the acts would come up from
London, and I got myself a gig as the regular host. I also used to compère
down at the Comedy Shack in York.
But because of that, the idea of doing five minutes and honing it to get
another gig, and honing it to try and get another gig in London, that was
completely alien to me. My whole thing was, I’ve got to compère a show next
week, there was the same audience the week before, so it was just the idea
of new material, and sometimes doing quite a long time onstage. That meant
that by the time I’d got to London, I got loads of work doing TV warm-ups,
just because of that conversational thing of just having that high turnover of
material. And then it went from sort of trying to have a high turnover in terms
of writing jokes to just going on and going, ‘I’ve just got to be funny and
entertain these people.’

So what was it like when you first moved down to London?

It was bizarre from the point of view that I went from earning money, you
know, doing the gig and then getting paid, and feeling like it was my job –
well, it was my job – to all of a sudden (and rightly so with hindsight), you
know, basically being forced to become an open spot. Sort of almost starting
again and having to do five-minute, ten-minute slots. Some of the open spot
nights were like a competition, you know. There was a competition down at
one of the clubs, and it was like they had heats, and you came back for the
final; I won the heat and then I was beaten in the final by this guy. At the time
I would quite like to have won, you know, because it would’ve speeded things
along. And the guy who won, I’m sure now he’s not doing it any more, and
I’m sure he sits there and goes, ‘You know, I once beat Noble in a comedy
competition,’ and I think brilliant, I love the idea that his mates go, ‘Yeah,
course you did!’ you know what I mean?

When was it that you actually moved down to London?

It was sort of early ‘95. But it was an odd thing that happened, because I was
doing like these open-mike nights and all the rest of it, and from doing those,
started getting people going, ‘Oh, he’s quite good, this bloke.’ But then my
first agent, he was sort of scouting around looking for acts. He ran a comedy
club down at Southend, and his mate, who he used to be in a band with,
won So You Think You’re Funny9 and so he went, ‘I’ll manage you.’ So he set
himself up as a manager, then he went out scouting for acts. So he saw me at
one of these things and basically went, ‘Can I get you some gigs?’ And then
that’s what opened the floodgates for the equivalent of what I’d been doing in
Newcastle but down here.
He was based in Essex, so a lot of these gigs were working in nightclubs
in Essex, you know. I got a gig once where they launched Fosters Ice and the
gig was I had to turn up to pubs, with these promotions people, and I had to
host the night – and what it was, they had a big block of ice with bottle tops
inside. And they would give punters hammers, and they had thirty seconds to
hammer at the ice as hard as they could with these hammers, and then if they


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got the bottle top out they won a free Fosters Ice or a T-shirt – it said what the
prize was on the bottom of the bottle top. I was in these pubs in Essex with
these real sort of like chavs hammering blocks of ice.
Yeah, so it was that sort of stuff, you know. One of the first warm-ups that
I did was one for a thing called Gail’s Campus Capers, and it was like a game
show around universities with a page three girl.
And a thing called Who’s Sorry Now? which was for Living TV and it was
about couples, people who’d had grievances, and then at the end the audi-
ence would decide their punishment – they’d spin a wheel and they would
come up with what they had to do. Which actually worked out quite well
because I ended up in the show, I went on there as a fake contestant. Like the
day before, the people pulled out and they said, ‘Well we’ve got no one for
tomorrow’s show, can you go into the audience and see if you can find some-
body that’s had a grievance?’ Anyway, so no one wanted to do it and I went,
‘Well I’ll just do it, and pretend,’ and I went, ‘Does anyone else want to?’ and
this girl put her hand up, she went, ‘I’m a drama student, I’ll pretend to be
your girlfriend if you want.’
So we went on there and we filmed this show. I’m sitting there dressed in
green and I’m going, ‘I’m obsessed with the colour green,’ and the audience
members were going, ‘Why are you?’ It was the height of Jerry Springer, you
know, so it’s like people were just going, ‘What is it about the colour green
that you love?’ and I went, ‘Because green is Jesus’s colour.’ And this woman
goes, ‘How is it Jesus’s colour?’ and I went, ‘Well, because you know he used
to hang around with the fishermen, and the sea’s green.’ And this women
went like, ‘The sea’s blue’ and I went, ‘Not at night’ [laughs]. And it went out
on telly!
So it was all of that, you know. And then I got a gig doing the warm-up
for GMTV, as their warm-up man in Spain for six weeks, as part of Fun in the
Sun. So every morning, I’d go down to the beach, and have three hours enter-
taining holiday makers, and then for about ten minutes of that three hours,
Mr Motivator would make them dance, and then off we’d go, you know.

I can see how that experience of playing horrible gigs would give you a lot of good
stage experience, but it could also really coarsen you artistically. It could just make
you slam out anything that works, but it didn’t. You were actually a much more sur-
real and creative comedian. How did you sustain your creativity during this time?
Well, because I was trying all the time to balance the two, you know. Because
at that time I was firmly under the impression that if people didn’t go with
what I was trying to do, it was because I wasn’t being funny enough! It
wasn’t, it was because I was being a dickhead! That’s not fair, when you’re
on a beach in Spain at six o’clock in the morning and people have just come
out of their local nightclub, you know. I knew what I wanted to be doing, and
that was me on the way there. So all the time there was that balancing act,
because I never wanted to just be self-indulgent. My thing was I thought I
wanna be able to go on and entertain any crowd. There comes a point where
you sort of actually sort of go, ‘I don’t wanna entertain these people.’ But if
they came to the gig they’ll be entertained, you know, it’s that.

It is them coming to you rather than you coming to them. You see a crowd and
you say, ‘Well you’re this sort of crowd so I’ll do this sort of set to you.’ In a
way that’s the wrong decision. You’ve got to try and make them come into your
comic world.


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Exactly. I got a gig once doing the warm-up for the Radio 1 Roadshow. I was
probably 19 at the time, you know, and I was onstage in front of 8000 people
in a park, and it was that thing of like, ‘All right. How’s this gonna work?’ you
know. But I knew at the time – and I sort of sound like a lifestyle coach here –
the way I lived my life at the time was as if I was in a montage in a film, you
know. It was that thing of like, ‘Oh I’m on a beach. Now I’m in a club.’ And I
looked at it from that point of view. And it didn’t matter how shitty it got.
I had this one warm-up gig: I used to hate doing it. Every Wednesday I
used to just go, ‘Fucking hell, here we go again.’ A horrible time, and everyone
on the staff was horrible to me. And you probably won’t be surprised, it was
a Sky 1 chat show fronted by Richard Littlejohn. Yeah. Richard Littlejohn Live
and Unleashed. And I would turn up there. I’ll give you an idea of the guests,
one week it was Barbara Windsor and Mad Frankie Fraser! [laughs] And I
was standing there going, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And six dwarves dressed
as security guards walked past me. In the end I couldn’t give a shit what the
show was, I’d just turn up and like as soon as I was needed I just walked on.
And I was like, ‘Why are these dwarves dressed as security guards?’ Richard
Littlejohn goes, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight on the show, the Half Monty.’
And it was just after The Full Monty, and they basically were these dwarf strip-
pers, they went out and did ‘You Can Leave your Hat on’. And then, I was
stood there backstage as they walked off. So there wasn’t even seven of them,
these six naked dwarves just walked past me, ‘All right’, ‘All right, that were a
good one’, ‘N’night, son.’ Past they went, you know, these naked dwarves.
And I think if I ever write my autobiography, the warm-up years, what
this woman said to me will be the chapter heading. I was in the green room
and there was like a platter of sandwiches, and of course I was the first one
into the green room ‘cos everyone else was getting their make-up off and eve-
rything. There was like a selection of sandwiches and I picked out the prawn
sandwiches, four prawn sandwiches. I put them on this plate. The secretary,
right, not even one of the producers, the secretary came across, took them off
my plate, slotted them back into the platter and said, ‘Don’t eat the prawn
ones, you’re only the warm-up.’ [laughs]

So how did it get from that to the point where it was actually starting to work and
you were able to do things much more on your own terms? Obviously the Perrier
nomination in ’99 would have been a big thing.

It was funny because that was definitely a tipping point but it was a weird
one, that. I think I was a little bit resentful of that at the time because the
momentum had already started. The ball was rolling, and it was happening
anyway – and the Perrier thing, it was almost like they rubber-stamped it just
as it was going out the door, you know.
I went up to Edinburgh in ’96. ’96 was the year where I didn’t take any
time off, I went a bit mental in ’96 ‘cos I was pretty much onstage more than
I was off, like. I took seven days off in ’96, so it was just like non-stop gigs.
It got to the point where I would finish a gig and I’d pretty much stay up all
night and then go to bed in the daytime. I just lived this life of, you know,
just gig to gig, sleeping on people’s floors and all the rest of it. I went up to
Edinburgh and did like a package show with a few others.
In ’97, I didn’t go to Edinburgh but decided to leave it a year and then
come back in ’98 and do my first solo show. But then around that sort of
time, around sort of ’98, ’99, I started to notice that when I was playing clubs,


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Not the definitive version: an interview with Ross Noble

and especially when I was compèring places, I noticed I’d start to get a bit of
a following from people coming back to the clubs, you know. So ’99, I went
up and did Edinburgh, Perrier, and then that’s when all of a sudden it was
like the papers started writing about it and, you know, that’s when it sort of
publicity-wise spread a little bit.
So I went to comedy clubs on nights when there wasn’t a club on, so like say
they did a Wednesday night, I’d be there on a Thursday or a Sunday and play
the same venues but go, ‘This is just me on,’ you know. And ’99 also, that’s
when I first went over to Oz, as well. So I quickly realized that if I did festivals,
and then instead of just doing circuits gigs I would do gigs that were in circuit
venues but I’d take them over, and in effect do a tour, you know. Link them
up and advertise it as a tour, you know. So I did that, and then the next year,
you know, the venues that had been a handful of people, now they were full,
you know. And then went back to Edinburgh and moved up into sort of small
theatres and arts centres. And then what started to happen, through word
of mouth, because I wasn’t just an act on the bill, people were going, ‘Oh,
you should see this bloke.’ Rather than trying to jump straight from the clubs
into the 1000-seaters, which is what a lot of people were trying to do, they
just thought, ‘I’ll get on telly and then fwhhoomf! I’m straight in there.’ I just
started building like that, and the 100 became 200 and then 200 became 400.
Then I would do two nights in a 400 or 500-seater, and then when it got to
that point, that’s when I went, ‘Right, now it’s time to do 1000.’ Then before I
knew where I was, it was the sort of thing where I’d managed to get into the
touring theatre circuit without having to be a TV name, you know.

Ross Noble (courtesy of Ross Noble).


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Oliver Double

You must’ve been the first person to do that since Eddie Izzard.

Probably, yeah. Yeah, I would say so. And also the West End as well, like in
2003, you know, I booked a West End theatre, the Vaudeville, I’d done the
Soho Theatre in London, and then moved into the Vaudeville and did two
weeks there. Then the next year came back and did two weeks, then I did
three weeks at the Garrick, and then I went and did four weeks at the Apollo.
And then on top of that, I started to release the DVDs, which then had the
thing of people who’d seen me on DVD but hadn’t seen me live, you know.

I find the success of the stand-up comedy DVD really interesting, because on the face
of it, stand-up is such a live medium that the idea of recording of it seems paradoxi-
cal in a way. Why do you think it works as a medium?
Well I think the bottom line is something’s better than nothing. There’s an
interesting statistic that 40 per cent of all DVDs are sold at the very end of
the year – from the middle of November to December. So they’ve replaced
socks as the thing you get your dad, you know. There you go: DVDs are the
new socks. And so that’s half of it. And then the other half thing is that you
probably get more laughs-per-minute on a stand-up DVD than you would
in a comedy film, you know. It’s a different thing, the laughs are much more
blatant – the laughs in a comedy film are probably more subtle. Another part
of it is the souvenir aspect of people going and seeing a tour, they have a great
night, same as people buying an album from bands and so on.
But for me, the thing that I always found weird for my act personally was the
idea of DVD – or any recording – being the definitive version. So mine are sort
of like live albums, rather than some comics release a DVD and it’s like a studio
album. They do the absolute definitive version. They record two nights and cut
them together. You know, they hone the thing down on tour so that it’s incred-
ibly tight. Whereas the benefit of DVD over VHS is the fact that you can have
a couple of discs in there and you can pack so much stuff on there with all the
extras and everything. I think the wrong way for me to do it would be to go, ‘I’ll
try and do a definitive version of the show, and then that’s what people see.’
We film them and we don’t cut anything out, I leave it in warts and all,
you know. Randomist is more of a box set than just a single DVD, you know,
it’s a compilation rather than just a one–off. And I think that I’m probably the
first person to really try and make the DVD a thing in itself. Basically what you
normally get is a show and the chapter points on it if you’re lucky, you know.
Whereas hopefully I think what’ll happen is, as a new generation of comics
come through, they’ll look at the DVD and go, ‘Actually this is like an album,
you know, it should be packed full of stuff.’
It’s bizarre because probably one of the most unlikely people to do a simi-
lar thing is Jimmy Carr, you know. Somebody who is so tight – what he does
is probably the tightest show you’ll see – has heaps of extras and does really
unusual things with his extras, you know. When my DVD comes out, it’s the
sort of thing where people know that they can watch the main show, there’ll
be a documentary on there, there’ll be a bit of bonus stuff. It’s gonna keep
them busy for ages, you know. They don’t just have to watch the same show
over again, there’s different ones.

In order to produce your DVDs, with all the extras, you must have to document your
work carefully.
Yeah, yeah, we film pretty much every show.


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Not the definitive version: an interview with Ross Noble

You used to minidisc-record your shows as well, because you also put out two CDs 10. Two audio CDs,
released in 2001 and
early on. 2003, that were sold
via Noble’s website.
That’s right, those Official Bootlegs, yeah.10

Do you think the desire to document is just to do with the possibility of commercial
release, or because your stuff is unique every time?

The latter. I did find it quite hard for a while, I was finding it quite hard to sort
of deal with the fact that I’d come off after a great show that had some great
stuff in it and just go, ‘That’s gone.’ And still there’s not enough room on a
DVD to put everything on.

So you’ve got an extraordinary archive somewhere with all of your recordings.

Yeah, just every show basically.

If you’ve got so much stuff, presumably cataloguing is going to become an issue.

How do you know what you’ve got?

When we were doing the TV series that I’ve just made, where we knew we
were going to have to use something from lots of the shows, my tour manager
sits there every night and writes down what I’m doing. So I can cross refer-
ence that and then find the tape. And then if we’re doing an extra and we go,
‘Oh we need that bit,’ usually I can sort of go, ‘Well I think I did, in that gig.’
We just sort of spool it through and try and find it. It’s all very haphazard.
Even with a TV show, there’s two or three things that I went, ‘Oh, and we
need to put that in,’ we just can’t find it. We know it happened at some point
on the tour but we just don’t know where it is on the tape!
When you’re putting together a DVD, and certainly the TV show, we
filmed all the offstage stuff, and filmed all the onstage stuff, and then it was
about mixing between the two, you know, taking all those different elements
and weaving them into a thing. And again, that’s not the way that people
make TV programmes. They decide what they’re gonna make. They plan it
out. They then do the bits that they’ve planned. And then they edit it the way
they thought about it beforehand. They don’t go, ‘Right, we’re gonna make a
TV series. It’s gonna have elements of this and elements of that. Let’s just turn
the camera on and see what comes out of my mouth. And then take all those
things and try and build something at the end.’ Because if you’ve got a good
editor, like Pete Callow who I work with, you know, we sort of created this TV
series in the way that you might create like a documentary film. But without
necessarily knowing what the documentary’s about, you know.
When I put the DVDs together, it’s much the same. An extra on the new
one is a short interview where I talk about stuff that people put on the stage
and then we show little clips of that. The commentary is basically me sitting
in a room with the thing playing in the background, just talking. Just a stream
of consciousness, like the same as if I was onstage but with no feedback. So
it’s probably a chance to see what the show would be if there was no sound-
ing board from the audience. Just me talking. Literally just sitting there just
talking to myself, you know. And there’s bits of it which are laugh-out-loud
funny, you know, because I keep one eye on the engineer, and there are bits
where he’s holding his sides laughing. And then there are other bits that are
just really, really boring, you know. I would say out of the two hours of com-
mentary there’s probably a good half an hour in there that – if you actually


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Oliver Double

11. A film of this routine edited out the shitty bits – that’s actually really funny laugh-out-loud stuff,
can be seen on Noble
(2005). An audio
you know. So that in itself kind of creates a new thing, you know. It creates a
recording of a different new show if you like. It’s a different type of show.
performance of the same
routine can also be When you put a DVD out there, sometimes routines capture the audience’s imagina-
heard on Noble (2003).
tion and they take on a life beyond you with people quoting them to each other. Your
12. See Noble (2006).
‘Muffins’ routine is a good example.11 Have you been aware of this?
13. Because of his
improvisational Yeah, like people, kids actually, sort of shout stuff at me. That’s weird.
approach, even Noble’s
prepared material is Sometimes just a daft thing that you’ve said. The most obvious one, I actu-
constantly changing ally talked about it on the last tour, was when I broke my wrist and the
and evolving. So by the
time he came back from
ambulance men turned up, one of them said, ‘Do your Stephen Hawking
touring Australia, the impersonation.’ And my wrist was broken, I was in agony, I had to have an
whole show had evolved operation and pins in my arm and everything, and the first thing they said
to the point where it was
completely different from was like, ‘Great, can you do your Stephen Hawking impersonation?’ I was
the previous UK tour. For like, ‘I just need painkillers,’ you know. But I was at a Starbucks and I was
more on this, see Double looking at the muffins, just ‘cos I wanted a muffin, and I looked up and the
2005: 241.
guy just went, ‘Are you Ross Noble?’ and I went, ‘Yeah,’ and he just walked
off into the kitchen.
The thing that I love the most, and the reason I love this so much is that I was
like this with things myself, is when people say to me, ‘Me and my mates,
when we’re hanging around, always say …’ and it could be something like
the thing about the owl, tucking in the owl, you know, like ‘Can you tuck me
in?’12 You know, like when you like get teenagers and stuff, going, ‘We always
go, “Can you tuck me in?”’

Moving on to your live work, different comics work in different ways in terms of
preparing for a show, but given that so much of what you do is in the moment, how
do you prepare for it?

Well, there was one show where there was no preparation at all. There was
one show where literally the tour was booked, started on the first night and I
had no jokes. [laughs] Just went, ‘All right, here we go! Yeah! Um …’
I used to just do it where I’d tour Australia, come back and start again, you
know.13 And then the past couple of years, I’d go up to Scotland, and I’d go up
to the Highlands and Islands. It’s less about sort of coming up with a show,
and more about just getting up to match fitness, you know. Just mentally –
well, physically as well as mentally – just being in that headspace. ‘Cos even
with, like, improv, it’s not necessarily about the speed of the invention, it’s
about the application of it. And pace as well. When you get on tour, there’s
a thing of feeling the energy of an audience – not so much if it’s going badly
but if it’s going well – there’s a skill in it. If you haven’t done a gig in a while,
like at the start of a tour, there’s a danger that you’re just hammering through
it, and you do a bit too long maybe in the first half, rather than realizing that
you’ve got to pace yourself over the show. And it’s about that, you know, you
can sort of tire an audience out. The pace, if you like, that’s just as important a
skill – a muscle – to exercise as anything else.
And of late, what I’ve been doing is, I’ll take time off over the sort of
December, January time; but there’s a little music venue that used to be an old
abattoir. Fairly small room, there’s like a bar out the front; then there’s a room
out the back. Because it was an abattoir it’s got a sloping floor. It’s got all tatty
old sofas and dining chairs and stuff. You’ll have probably about 100 people
in and I’ll do that every Sunday, while I’m off, even though I’m on holiday.


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Not the definitive version: an interview with Ross Noble

I host the show and just get a few comics in. It’s just out of Melbourne, and
it’s the sort of thing where we don’t advertise it. People who know where it is
can come along, but you have to get there really early to get in. You know, it’s
one of those things where then I could start a tour and it’s like the one tour’s
just continued.

You mentioned getting into the headspace, and it seems to me that having watched
you live and also on DVD, it’s not just about invention, but it’s also about being
aware of which things to go for, if you know what I mean – which particular word,
which combination of ideas to really develop and really exploit and run with and
build. To me, that does seem to be an attitude of mind as much as anything else.
It’s almost as if you have the ability to have that frame of mind that everybody has
every now and again, that one little golden moment, where you’re suddenly being
really funny and inventive, but it just lasts a second and then it’s gone. But with
you, it is two hours every night. So that must be an interesting thing to experience
on a regular basis.

You know, I’m not into drugs, but I can come offstage having had a great gig
where everyone has thought it’s great, and sort of go, ‘Yeah. Not so much.’
Like, an audience could be in hysterical laughter for the whole show and give
me a standing ovation at the end, but that’s only part of it. But yeah, even
when it’s only all right, you know, it’s still as much fun probably if not more
fun for me than it is for the audience, you know. And it’s a weird one because
it’s not, say, like a drug where anyone can take it and feel that feeling, you
know. It’s really quite a sort of intoxicating thing, you know.

I totally agree with you that the best comedy isn’t just about making people laugh,
it’s about something else – but what is that for you?

It’s lots of different things, you know. It’s about – if I was getting really sort
of analytical about it – physical precision. From doing it onstage, I can fall
over on a hard floor and not hurt myself. It happened while I was in Toronto,
I fell, but it’s one of those things where as I fell, you do the sort of parachute
roll thing, you can land on your back, but as you go down you can land on
those bits there [indicates back of upper arms] and you absorb it, but it looks
like you’ve fallen flat. I fell on the floor but it was too realistic. There was a
moment like where they all went, ‘Fuck, he’s genuinely fallen over.’ I was
waiting for the audience, as I was falling I went, ‘As soon as my body hits
the floor …’ It’s like a bang is the cue for laughter. You know, there is, like,
triggers for things. Right, bang. And as I hit the floor, I went bang, and it was
like – beat – that’s when it should have been. And the audience went, ‘Huurr.’
I realized – like they laughed – but there should have been a laugh and a
round of applause. It was too realistic. So that takes the edge off it, you know,
the show’s now only a 99.
It’s all those little elements as well of when you play around, when you
say something sarcastic that people don’t realize it’s sarcasm, that can take
the edge off it, you know. You know, when you do something like, when an
audience doesn’t realize you’re joking about something. And even though
the audience are applauding and standing and going, ‘Hooray!’ and in their
heads they’re going, ‘Oh, it couldn’t get better, that show,’ in your head
you’re going, ‘It’s only 64, that,’ you see what I mean? But that’s good,
because it means when you get one that’s up there, you go, ‘Fair enough,’
you know.


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Oliver Double

A number of interesting contradictions emerge during the course of the inter-
view. Noble’s early experiences in the Newcastle comedy scene of the early
1990s have led him to prefer the rough and authentic to the slick and pack-
aged, yet he clearly puts great amount of thought and effort into his work. His
DVDs are commercial products, but he has applied his intelligence and crea-
tivity to explore the potential of this comparatively new medium, and in doing
so has found a way of documenting his work which is every bit as effective as
the documentation produced by any avant-garde theatre company or live art-
ist. He rightly shuns the idea of there being a definitive version of his shows,
instead presenting the film of one main performance alongside footage from
many other shows.
He understands that there is more to stand-up comedy than just get-
ting laughs, and these extra elements are necessary for him to be fully satis-
fied by his performances. Working as a compère and a TV warm-up man
has led him to understand the necessary contradiction in stand-up between
following his own humour and artistic ambitions and pleasing the audi-
ence. Without the audience as a sounding board, his DVD commentaries
have ‘shitty bits’ that are ‘really, really boring’ alongside the moments that
are ‘laugh-out-loud funny’. However, in his live work, by collaborating
and interacting with the audience, he improvises surreal trains of thought,
enacted with such physical precision that what he does is as much art as

Allen, Tony (2004), A Summer in the Park: A Journal of Speakers’ Corner, London:
Freedom Press.
Carrott, Jasper (1986), Sweet and Sour Labrador, London: Arrow Books.
Carrott, Jasper (1979), A Little Zit on the Side, London: Arrow Books.
Double, Oliver (1994), ‘Laughing all the Way to the Bank? Alternative Comedy
in the Provinces’, New Theatre Quarterly, 10:39, pp. 255–62.
Double, Oliver (2005), Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy,
London: Methuen.
Maxwell, Dominic (2005), ‘I’m brilliant. A very funny man’, The Times
(Features; The Knowledge), 15 October, p. 23.
Noble, Ross (2003), The Official Bootlegs – Part 2, London: Stunt Baby
Noble, Ross (2005), Sonic Waffle, London: Stunt Baby Productions.
Noble, Ross (2006), Randomist, London: Stunt Baby Productions.

Double, O. (2010), ‘Not the definitive version: an interview with Ross Noble’,
Comedy Studies 1: 1, pp. 5–19, doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.5/1

Following a career as a comedian and comedy promoter in the 1980s and 1990s,
Oliver Double now works as a Senior Lecturer in Drama at the University of
Kent. He is the author of Stand-Up! On Being a Comedian (Methuen, 1997) and


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Not the definitive version: an interview with Ross Noble

Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy (Methuen, 2005). He has
also written chapters and articles on comedy, cabaret, Variety theatre and punk.
His stand-up comedy DVD Saint Pancreas, produced as part of a practice-as-
research project, is available from the University of Kent website.
Contact: Eliot College, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NS.
E-mail: o.j.double@kent.ac.uk


COST 1.1_art_double_05-20.indd 19 1/15/10 8:44:55 AM






COST 1.1_art_double_05-20.indd 20 1/15/10 8:44:55 AM

COST 1 (1) pp. 21–32 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.21/1


Institute of Education, University of London

The origins of comic

performance in adult-
child interaction

We argue that the essence of comic performance, in act and interpretation, is intrinsi- comic performance
cally located in early adult-child interaction. We focus in particular on the special reg- adult-child interaction
ister used by parents with their young children: Child Directed Speech (CDS). We show Child Directed Speech
how characteristics of CDS contribute to comic understanding in the child from very (CDS)
early on in life. Smiling and laughter emerge within the context of adult-child interac- repetition
tion, typified by a focus on the ‘here-and-now’ and the use of comic devices, which incongruity
include surprise, familiarity, repetition, incongruity and nonsense. Cognitive develop- nonsense
ment is, in fact, encouraged and enhanced through the use of comic interpretation – in superiority
the superiority gained through the grasping of concepts; the enjoyment of language comic interplay
based humour discovered in puns and jokes; and in the confounding of expectation.
This article suggests that early parent-child interaction constitutes the blueprint for
comic performance itself and that the quality of interaction between parent and child
echoes the conditions for successful interplay between comedian and audience.

This article considers the origins of comic performance. We argue that the
appreciation of comedy and aspects of comic performance find their roots in


COST 1.1_art_wilkie and saxton_21-32.indd 21 1/14/10 9:26:02 AM

Ian Wilkie/Matthew Saxton

the unique form of interaction witnessed between parents and their children.
Adults modify their speech in myriad ways when addressing infants and tod-
dlers. They adopt a special register, known as Child Directed Speech (CDS),
typified by a wide range of adaptations and simplifications (Saxton 2009).
Compared with normal discourse, sentences tend to be shorter and gram-
matically simpler, while the vocabulary chosen is concrete and confined to
the child’s interests. The linguistic modifications on display in CDS serve to
facilitate both communication and language development. They also provide
the basis for the child to learn about humour and comic performance from
the first weeks of life. In what follows, we describe the earliest signs of comic
appreciation in infancy and consider how specific features of Child Directed
Speech contribute to the development of comic performance from non-verbal
through to verbal humour. We demonstrate that humour and laughter are
intrinsic aspects of successful interaction between mother and child. We also
show how the style of adult-infant interaction can be seen as the foundation
of comic performance adopted by professional comedians.


Newborn infants can smile, in the sense that the corners of the mouth curl up,
just days after birth, but mostly this occurs when they are either very drowsy or
even asleep. In the following weeks, infants begin to smile when awake, but
in an indiscriminate way, at both people and things. It is not until about six
to ten weeks of age that genuinely social smiling emerges (Emde & Harmon
1972); the baby responds to another person’s smile with a smile of their own,
and begins to initiate smiling also, in a process which only emerges through
social interaction with other people. We know this from studies of blind infants,
who often fail to progress spontaneously to social smiling (Fraiberg 1974). Once
reciprocal smiling emerges, parents begin to feel notably more engaged, while
the infant, in turn, begins to show signs of joy, a new emotion, when inter-
acting with others. Soon afterwards, from twelve to nineteen weeks of age,
laughter appears, generally in response to very active stimulation by the parent.
For example, laughter can be induced by simple games of ‘I’m gonna get you!’
which might culminate in blowing a raspberry on the baby’s cheek. Laughter
can also be induced by a vigorous pitch or unexpected tone of voice. As it hap-
pens, CDS, when directed at infants in the first year of life, sounds quite differ-
ent from normal speech (Garnica 1977). A relatively high pitch is lent colour
by exaggerated, swooping intonation contours, which are designed to grab the
infant’s attention. At the same time they can prompt delight and laughter in the
child. Thus, Rasmussen reports of his daughter that at ‘one hundred and sixty-
two days old he could always make her laugh by asking: “Can you laugh a little
at father?” pitching his voice on high notes’ (Rasmussen 1920). Van Leeuwen
describes the process of CDS, revealing many of the key features of proto-comic
performative interplay, in a transcript of a mother interacting with her 12-week
old baby during a research project on ‘toys as communication’:

Mother: ‘What’s that? … (excited high-pitched voice) What’s thaaat? …’

She holds up the rattle and shakes it.
Mother: ‘Who are they? What are they? They are funny ones ….’
She moves the rattle close to her ear again, shaking one of the charac-
ters and listening to it.
Mother: ‘This is a nice one … Oooh! This is a squeaky one!’


COST 1.1_art_wilkie and saxton_21-32.indd 22 1/14/10 9:26:02 AM

The origins of comic performance in adult-child interaction

She squeaks him again. The baby shakes her arms and legs vigorously
and looks on intently.
Mother: ‘Oooh … (creating a voice for the alien) Ho-ho-ho. It’s like a
(She continues, using the ‘aliens’ as puppets, creating sounds for them,
making them wiggle, ‘walk’ across the baby’s tummy, caress the baby’s
cheek, and so on).
(van Leeuwen 2005: 84–86)


From the very first, attempts to provoke smiling or laughter in an infant
are characterized by an element of surprise. In this vein, Darwin relates his
exchange with his 3½-month-old child who was ‘exceedingly amused by a
pinafore being thrown over his face and then suddenly withdrawn, and so he
was when I suddenly uncovered my own face and approached him’ (Darwin
1872: 289). Our response to being surprised in this way persists into adult-
hood, as we experience ‘the physiological squeal of transient delight, like an
infant playing “peek-a-boo”’ (Critchley 2002: 10).
We see that an element of surprise is critical in triggering a comic response
in both infants and adults. Comic triggers tend to be more vigorous than other
forms of adult-child interaction, with parents engaging in exaggerated vocal
play and facial expressions. A playful attitude is signalled by the introduction
of absurdity and incongruity. This kind of early interaction is not only wide-
spread but finds official sanction in advice dispensed by the National Health
Service: ‘Put out your tongue and make funny faces. Your baby may even try
to copy you! … Your baby is learning all about expression, mood and com-
munication’ (Welford 1999: 124).
Surprise functions as a trigger for laughter, but not just any kind of sur-
prise in any context. Arguably, an event is rendered both surprising and
humorous by the occurrence of incongruity presented within a familiar set-
ting. Sully observed the importance of surprise, rather than shock, more than
a century ago:

Provocatives [sic] of laughter … were sudden movements of one’s head,

a rapid succession of sharp staccato sounds from one’s vocal organ
(when these were not disconcerting by their violence) and, of course,
sudden reappearance of one’s head after hiding in a game of bo-peep.
(Sully 1896: 407)

The infant as an audience for comic performance needs to feel secure with the
performer, typically a parent or family member. Infant and parent are typically
bonded by familiarity and feelings of positive affect, so the setting for early
comic performance is generally ideal. In a similar way, the success of comic per-
formance in adulthood is also predicated on familiarity with the performer. The
audience must in some way recognize the comic actor or the character they play.
Of course, many comic characters are created with the deliberate intention to
caricature unattractive traits. In this vein, one might mention Basil Fawlty’s iras-
cibility, David Brent’s insensitivity, Rigsby’s cravenness, or Edina’s rampant ego-
mania. But personality flaws do not prevent one from liking either the character,
or more subtly, the actor portraying the character. Thus, Thomson suggests that


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Ian Wilkie/Matthew Saxton

‘it is not simply that we like the actor in spite of the character, rather that, in
defiance of our own moral judgment, we like the character because of the actor’
(Thomson 2000: 131). Whether or not the audience likes the actor (or their char-
acter), a sense of familiarity with the performance is, arguably, essential. In the
same way, the infant will only laugh when they are both familiar and com-
fortable with the performer. This is what Jean-Pierre Jeancolas refers to as the
‘reassuring’ element in comedy (Jeancolas 1992: 141). Accordingly, J.B. Priestley
notes that:

The people to whom we are bound by real affection are always, to some
extent, comic characters, and we begin to feel this in childhood. (We
are always glad to see Uncle Joe or Aunt May but they can’t help being
rather funny).
(Priestley 1976: 9)

Morreall notes that ‘babies enjoy peekaboo only with familiar faces of peo-
ple they feel attached to’ (Morreall 1987: 135). By six months, infants begin
to demonstrate an ability to distinguish between well-known versus strange
faces (Sandstrom 1966: 173). And it is the familiar faces that evoke laughter.
If the reassuring context is absent, neither the young child nor the adult
will be amused. For instance, the child’s first encounter with a jack-in-the
box is just as likely to terrify as to amuse, unless it is introduced carefully,
with some preparation by the caregiver that the new object will be a source of
fun. In essence, the child must learn that the toy is not threatening and is, in
contrast, comical: the surprise which then ensues is more likely to be pleasant.
Circus clowns also exemplify this point, in as much as many children seem to
be scared by clowns – giving rise to the dedicated phobia known as coulro-
phobia. Perhaps the outlandish make-up creates an image of the human face
that is excessively unfamiliar to young children. Events differ in their degree of
novelty and hence in the extent to which the element of surprise they embody
is amusing, rather than frightening. And often, the transition from comedy to
alarm is quite subtle, as Hazlitt observed in 1885:

If we hold a mask before our face, and approach a child with this dis-
guise on, it will at first, from the oddity and incongruity of the appear-
ance, be inclined to laugh; if we go nearer it, steadily, and without saying
a word, it will begin to be alarmed … it is usual to play with infants, and
make them laugh by clapping your hands suddenly before them; but if
you clap your hands too loud, or too near their sight, their countenances
immediately change and they hide them in the nurse’s arms.
(Hazlitt 1885: 5)

It becomes apparent that the manner of the interaction is as important as the

action itself. We see this point confirmed in verbal, as well as non-verbal
humour. With puns or gags, the way in which the joke is told is essential in
the realization of the comic potential. As the comedian Frank Carson would
have it: ‘it’s the way I tell ‘em’.

Incongruity is a fundamental feature of comic performance. And the ele-
ment of surprise discussed above is an essential ingredient in the creation


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The origins of comic performance in adult-child interaction

of incongruity. But so, too, is the familiar setting in which the surprise
takes place. For an event to be incongruous, audience expectations must
be confounded. It follows, therefore, that the ability to compare (however
unconsciously) the expected with the unexpected is an essential ingredient
in appreciating a joke or piece of slapstick (Morreall 1987: 130). For the
infant, the ability to recognize the unexpected as the unexpected is therefore
essential. In fact, research over the past 25 years has consistently shown that
infants are attuned to unexpected events from the very first weeks of life
(e.g., Cashon & Cohen 2000).
By the use of deception, infants can be presented with ‘magical’ events
which defy the laws of physics or logic. For example, a drawbridge can be
raised in front of an attentive infant, and, via illusion, can apparently ‘pass
through’ a solid object (Baillargeon, Spelke & Wasserman 1985). On such
occasions, infant behaviour betokens their sensitivity to the incongruity of the
situation. They look longer or suck more vigorously on a dummy, and their
heart rates increase when observing impossible events. This basic finding has
been replicated dozens of times and the research method is now known as
the ‘violation of expectation’ paradigm. It would seem that we are equipped
from the very start with a key ingredient in the appreciation of comic perform-
ance: a sense of the incongruous.
Writing in the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer was well aware of the
importance of incongruity in inducing laughter:

The cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of

the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which can be
seen through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expres-
sion of this incongruity.
(Schopenhauer 1909: 52)

Similarly, Kierkegaard noted that surprise is present in any ‘contradiction’

that, in turn, leads to a perception of incongruity (which must contain its own
innate truth or ‘absurdity to itself’ (Kierkegaard 1941: 460)). This perception
then leads to laughter. But why should laughter be the response, when faced
with incongruity? The answer to this question is much more mysterious, but
the sense of relief, or release, which people feel when they ‘get’ a joke may
hold the key, even for the infant:

Research has shown we instinctively recognise these ‘incompatible con-

texts’ in the first year of life … research shows that if a mother crawls
towards the edge of the cot the baby will laugh because it interferes with
the convention that babies crawl, mothers walk … Laughter is essential
because it provides a cognitive respite.
(Hale cited in Skatssoon 2006)

Adult-child interaction is rooted in the here-and-now. In fact, it might be argued
that nothing else is possible (Saxton 2009). The typical one- or two-year-old
is incapable of discussing ideas and concepts remote in time and space. Their
interest is instead devoted to concrete actions and objects within their immedi-
ate orbit. In fact, five topics tend to dominate the conversation of very young


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Ian Wilkie/Matthew Saxton

children: clothes; parts of the body; family; food; animals (Ferguson 1977). An
adult who attempted something more ambitious, say some treatise on stock
market prices or global warming, would be met with a blank stare. The adult
is forced to follow the child’s interests and concentrate on matters of interest in
the child’s immediate environment. Comedians also often draw their audience
into a world that is rooted in the moment, as noted by Bruce: ‘Comedians drew
on a repertoire of techniques which broke any theatrical illusion and rooted the
experience in the here and now – they engaged directly with their audiences,
ad-libbed, used catch-phrases and so on’ (Bruce 1999: 83).

At the age of about 12 months, most children utter their first word and the
subsequent shift into a world of language takes off with remarkable speed.
By the time of the child’s third birthday they can string multi-word sen-
tences together. By the age of five, the typical child possesses a vocabulary
of about 6,000 words and possesses most of the basic grammatical machin-
ery for understanding and producing complex sentences (Saxton, in press). In
tandem with this exponential linguistic growth comes a rising appreciation in
the child for language-based humour. The development of a sense of humour
seems to parallel the child’s linguistic development (Morreall 1987: 217). In
verbal language play

the sort of language play that leads to puns is thought to serve an impor-
tant function in the development of a child’s language and communica-
tion skills … the greater source of pleasure seems to be the interaction
with the carer or researcher … in this case ‘telling’ the joke … seems to
make the children feel exhilarated at their new power to amuse their
adult carer.
(Carr and Greeves 2006: 31)

Children on the threshold of language take great delight in onomatopoeia,

simple wordplay and puns (Moustaka 1992). We find here an echo in the
use of catchphrases by many comedians: instantly recognizable triggers for
a comic response. Dave Willis’ ‘way, way uppa kye’ is particularly childlike
and was, in fact, taken verbatim from an utterance made by his own son,
Denny, when a young child (House 1986: 67). Tommy Morgan’s catchphrase
was similarly childlike, with onomatopoeic qualities: ‘clairty, clairty,’ mean-
ing ‘dirty, dirty’ (Irving 1977: 29). Arthur Askey’s ‘hello playmates’ or Bernie
Winter’s ‘hello choochy face’ are further appeals to the childlike state. In a
similar way, playground chants and rhymes, with their reliance on rhythm
and vernacular language, are often resonant of comedians’ catchphrases. In
Scotland, for example, one finds so-called stottin rhymes, as in: ‘Ruglen’s wee
roon rid lums reek briskly’ (this translates as ‘Rutherglen’s small, round, red
chimneys smoke copiously’ (Mackie 1973: 102)). Freud states in Jokes and their
Relation to the Unconscious,

it is also generally acknowledged that rhymes, alliterations, refrains and

other forms of repeating similar verbal sounds which occur in verse,
make use of the same source of pleasure – the rediscovery of something
(Freud 1964: 122)


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The origins of comic performance in adult-child interaction

The use of incongruity to provoke laughter shifts from purely physical events
into the linguistic sphere during the pre-school years. For example, puns rely
on incongruity in their manipulation of the phonological, morphological and
semantic features of words. In consequence, ‘a pun is a sort of jack-in-the-box’
(Santayana 1896: 250). Jokes also depend on verbal incongruity:

The punchline works by resolving the suspense of the story in an unex-

pected way. Your brain responds to this tiny paradigm shift by mak-
ing a conceptual leap that mirrors the jump from perceived threat to no
threat, with the same result – laughter.
(Carr and Greeves 2006: 22)

Undoubtedly, the level of sophistication witnessed in verbal humour devel-

ops gradually during the school years. It may be for this reason that Scottish
educationalist and founder of Summerfield School, A.S. Neill suggested that:
‘Few bairns have a sense of humour; theirs is a sense of fun. Make a noise
like a duck and they will scream, but tell them your best joke and they will be
bored to tears’ (Neill 1916: 26–27).
Perhaps Neill should not have told these children his ‘best joke’. Language-
based humour is by no means beyond the grasp of even very young, pre-
school children. But it must be grounded in the experience and perspective of
the child, not the adult.

One of the most characteristic features of CDS is the occurrence of repeti-
tion. Both adults and children repeat both themselves and each other with
very high frequency, especially between the ages of one and three years
(Saxton, in press). Information is constantly recycled and re-presented, often
with minor modifications, indicating that both the parent and the young child
are highly sensitive to each other’s contributions to the conversation. More
broadly, verbal repetition is an example of imitation, which is a fundamental
feature of social interaction. From the very moment of birth, neonates dis-
play the capacity to imitate facial gestures, including tongue protrusion and
a wide O-shaped mouth gesture (Meltzoff & Moore 1983). It turns out that
the human brain is equipped with so-called mirror neurons, directly associated
with our ability to imitate (Rizzolatti & Arbib 1998). And of course, imitation
and verbal repetition are staple components of comic performance. Making
silly faces back and forth is not confined to interaction with young children.
And Bergson argues that ‘in a comic repetition of words we generally find
two terms; a repressed feeling which goes off like a spring, and an idea that
delights in repressing the feeling anew (Bergson [1900] 1956: 54). In his con-
sideration of comic performance within sitcom, Mills refers to the ‘comfort
of repetition’ (Mills 2005: 140). Repetition also features in a very deliberate
manner ‘in French plays of the absurd, like Beckett’s En Attendant Godot and
Ionesco’s La Leçon [and] doubtless take their inspiration from the Commedia
tradition’ (Styan 1975: 93).
Repetition is embedded in many of the rhymes and lullabies which are
used to amuse young children, for example, ‘eeny-meeny-miny-mo’, ‘one-
two-three-a-lairy’, and ‘tinker-tailor-soldier-sailor’ (Hoggart 1960: 49). And
children take great pleasure in repeating enjoyable activities, like book reading,
on occasion beyond the endurance of their parents. The use of repetition with


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Ian Wilkie/Matthew Saxton

children may well contribute to feelings of familiarity and security which, as

noted above, may create a backdrop for the introduction of surprise. In a simi-
lar vein, comedians’ catchphrases imbue the audience with a sense of instant
recognition and comfort. The radio comedy ITMA, during World War II, was
famously littered with catchphrases:

There was Ali Oop the peddler: ‘You buy nice dirty postcard, very slimey,
oh blimey.’ There was Mrs Mopp the charlady: ‘Can I do you now, sir?’
There was Sam Scram the useless factotum: ‘Boss, boss, sump’n terri-
ble’s happened.’ There was Colonel Chinstrap the tippler: ‘ I don’t mind
if I do.’ There was the salesman: ‘I’ll call again. Good morning. Nice
day.’ There was the diver: ‘I’m going down now, sir.’ There were many
more: it sometimes seemed that every week Ted Kavanagh, who in all
exceeded 300 half-hour scripts, invented a new catchphrase every week,
and a character to go with it.
(Halliwell 1987: 218)

Catchphrases continue to be very popular. The recent BBC comedies The Fast
Show (1994–2000) and Little Britain (2003–2006) are popular with young audi-
ences, in part because of their reliance on familiar catchphrases, identified
with particular characters, repeated on every possible occasion. Meanwhile,
young-child specific shows such as The Teletubbies (BBC 1997–2001) and The
Tweenies (1999 to date) rely on repetitions and simple, nonsensical utterances
to appeal to, and comfort, their target audience.

The oft-repeated rhymes and chants of childhood are often deliberately
nonsensical. Against a background of conventional meanings and sentence
forms, incongruity is introduced: in a linguistic form that echoes the incongru-
ity of purely visual, event-based humour. The devices for making meaning,
from infancy throughout childhood, include glorification in the use of bizarre
words, turns of phrase or sounds, along with an enjoyment of conceptualiza-
tions that can be understood merely as silly or ridiculous. Children’s nursery
rhymes, chants, poems, songs and jokes all revel in such incongruities; an
early example of nonsense is provided by Brown in his (possibly imagined,
nonetheless illuminatingly detailed) description of Sir Walter Scott, playing
with the seven-year-old Marjorie Fleming, in 1810:

Having made the fire cheery, he set her down in his ample chair, and
standing sheepishly before her, began to say his lesson, which hap-
pened to be – ‘Ziccoty, diccoty dock, the mouse ran up the clock, the
clock struck wan, down the mouse ran, ziccoty, diccoty dock.’ This
done repeatedly till she was pleased, she gave him his new lesson,
gravely and slowly, timing it upon her small fingers, – he saying it
after her, –
‘Wonery, twoery, tickery, seven:
Alibi, crackaby, ten, and eleven;
Pin, pan, musky, dan;
Tweedle-um, twoddle-um,
Twenty-wan; eerie, orie, ourie,
You, are, out.’


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The origins of comic performance in adult-child interaction

He pretended to great difficulty, and she rebuked him with most comi-
cal gravity, treating him as a child. He used to say that when he came to
Alibi Crackaby he broke down, and Pin-Pan, Musky-Dan, Tweedle-um
and Twoddle-um made him roar with laughter.
(Brown 1898: 205)

Comic performance aimed at adults can also embody revelry in the incongrui-
ties that language can present; double entendres, slang, puns and rhyme all
demonstrate enthusiasm for playing with language and finding humour in
confounding our linguistic expectations.

One further standard ingredient often found in comic performance is a sense
of superiority, which is enjoyed by the audience at the expense of the per-
former. As the great movie comedian Oliver Hardy noted, ‘one of the reasons
why people like us, I guess, is because they feel so superior to us. Even an
eight-year-old kid can feel superior to us and that makes him laugh’ (cited in
McCabe 1966: 46). At the same time, there is an implicit collusion between
performer and audience. The audience understands that displays of ineptitude
and inadequacy are ‘put on’ for their benefit. Thus, W.H. Auden states in his
‘Notes on the Comic’ that:

in appearance he is the clumsy man whom inanimate objects conspire

against to torment; this in itself is funny to watch, but our profounder
amusement is derived from our knowledge that this is only an appear-
ance, that, in reality, the accuracy with which the objects trip him up or
hit him on the head is caused by the clown’s own skill.
(Auden 1963: 373)

Charles Darwin also considered ‘some sense of superiority in the laugher’ to

be an important ingredient in the humour we perceive (Darwin [1872] 1904).
Once again, we find the foundations of adult comic performance in the
structure of adult-child interaction. The acquisition of linguistic and social
conventions by very young children depend on what Kuhl & Meltzoff (1996)
call the ‘hindsight basis’ or ‘I knew it all along effect’. In this regard, one
might point to the fact that the comic characters enjoyed by young children
are often incompetent, clownish figures like Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean (ITV,
1990–1995). With his inability to perform even the simplest of tasks, the child
enjoys a feeling of superiority over Mr. Bean. They ‘know all along’ how to
succeed where even concerted efforts by Mr. Bean fail.

From the very first weeks of an infant’s life, interaction with parents often consti-
tutes a comic performance. Parents can make infants laugh by confounding their
expectations within a familiar setting, via vigorous vocal or physical events. But
it would be wrong to conclude that the infant spends a long apprenticeship as
the audience, in thrall to the parent’s ‘turn’ as performer. Long before the child’s
first birthday, we see signs of the child initiating the making of laughter. Thus,
Piaget (1952) observed his 10 month-old son continually throwing a favourite
metal toy into a basin to delight in the noise it made. The laughter provoked in
this way was shared with the parental audience. Many of the elements of adult


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Ian Wilkie/Matthew Saxton

humour are witnessed from the very start in adult-child interaction. These
include the elements of incongruity and superiority evident in slapstick and
physical comedy. But incongruity and superiority can also be seen from very
early on in adult-child humour based on language: verbal repetition, wordplay,
nonsense, rhymes, jokes and puns. Hal Roach, the great silent movie comedy
director, believed that ‘one of the big secrets of successful comedy is relating
it all to childhood’ (Kerr 1975: 111). We would further refine this observation,
by focusing on a very specific aspect of childhood: the quality of interaction
between parent and child. As we have seen, several key features of adult-child
interaction persist beyond childhood and can be identified in successful adult
comic performance, based on the quality of interaction between comedians
and their audiences.

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Ian Wilkie/Matthew Saxton

Wilkie, I. and Saxton, M. (2010), ‘The origins of comic performance in
adult-child interaction’, Comedy Studies 1: 1, pp. 21–32, doi: 10.1386/

Ian Wilkie is a professional actor and a tutor in post-compulsory education at
the Institute of Education, London. He is currently undertaking research into
comic performance at the University of Aberystwyth.
Contact: Institute of Education University of London, 20 Bedford Way, London,
WC 1H 0AL.
E-mail: i.wilkie@ioe.ac.uk

Matthew Saxton is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Human Development at

the Institute of Education, London. His research interests are in the field of child
language acquisition and include the role of input and interaction and their inte-
gration within theories of grammar development. He is the author of ‘The inevi-
tability of Child Directed Speech’, in S. Foster-Cohen (ed.), (2009) Advances in
language acquisition, London: Palgrave Macmillan, and Child language: Acquisition
and development, London: Sage; due to be published in 2010.
Contact: Institute of Education University of London, 20 Bedford Way,
London, WC 1H 0AL.
E-mail: m.saxton@ioe.ac.uk


COST 1.1_art_wilkie and saxton_21-32.indd 32 1/15/10 8:49:38 AM

COST 1 (1) pp. 33–42 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.33/1

Solent University

England? Whose England?

Selling Albion in comic

Film-makers have often used highly stylized representations of England to frame Albion
stories that accord to a particular vision of England. This is the Albion conjured Hugh Grant
up by Orwell, Betjeman and latterly Peter Ackroyd; it is the Albion that has Disney
been repeated in British filmed comedy over the last forty years and it is in Working Title Films
sharp contrast with a strong history of social realism. It operates as a deflection British comedy
from the realities of living in England but also as an attractive and exportable Dick Van Dyke


Film-makers have often used highly stylized representations of England to
frame stories that accord to a particular vision of Albion. This is the Albion
conjured up by Orwell, Betjeman and latterly Peter Ackroyd; it is the Albion
that has been repeated in comedy over the last forty years and it is the
Albion which contrasts with a strong history of social realism. It operates as a


COST 1.1_art_ritchie_33-42.indd 33 1/14/10 9:29:22 AM

Chris Ritchie

Cricket. Photograph by Donna Hetherington.

deflection from the realities of living in England but also as an attractive and
exportable aesthetic.

Edwardian Essex opens wide

Mirrored in ponds and seen through gates,
Sweet uneventful countryside.
(Betjeman 1958: 185)

Albion lies in Essex county: in the comedy land of coarse girls in high heels
and Ford Escorts, Bent Greatly has the largest village green in England. On
lazy summer days, villagers sit and watch the local cricket team whilst sipping
beer from The Plough. You can wander round the churchyard, the tiny pond
with fish in and the Tescos which has put so many local businesses out of
action. Here indeed could be Orwell’s ‘old maids hiking to Holy Communion
through the mists of the autumn morning’ (Orwell 1957: 66), later bowdler-
ized into John Major’s warm beer and old maids. It is the Albion of the imagi-
nation, often consolidated by comic representation: an evocation as well an
excellent marketing ploy.
The English are often defined by their humour. Previously, according to
Orwell (and expressed without irony) ‘the common people … drink as much
beer as their wages permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use possibly
the foulest language in the world’ (Orwell 1957: 67). This national sense of
humour could be the result of many things: a substitute or expression of hos-
tility or emotion; a relief from boredom and drabness; or an outlet for sexual
frustration. The proliferation of jokes in English is the result of a fascinatingly
complex linguistic entity that rapidly develops slang, absorbs other languages


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England? Whose England? Selling Albion in comic cinema

and is rich in synonym and wordplay: we joke because we can, or rather our
language allows us to. Humour is the leavening of the dry social bread. As
Paxman points out: ‘Does any other society put such a premium upon hav-
ing a sense of humour?’ (Paxman 1999: 19). For humour has always been a
social asset: wit was held in high esteem in Elizabethan times and enabled
social advancement at the court of Charles II; it elevated poor bookseller’s son
Doctor Johnson to a national icon; it has helped us through times when we
have had to ‘grin and bear it’; ‘GSOH’ is a prominent acronym within lonely
heart adverts; and being a bit of a joker means to be in possession of ‘char-
acter’ (as Gervais’ creation of David Brent shows the modern English boss’
fear – to be seen lacking in ‘jokes’).
The English often do not take others seriously either: in 1592, a German
wrote that the English ‘care little for foreigners, but scoff and laugh at them’
(Paxman 1999: 35). For Orwell, we ‘refuse to take the foreigner seriously’
(Orwell 1957: 74). A 1996 French tourist office text said that although the
English ‘have a well-developed sense of humour and can laugh at themselves,
they remain conservative and chauvinistic’ (Paxman 1999: 29).
The way in which England has been represented in comedy has alternated
between romance and realism. The Ealing Comedies gave a very staid version of
Albion: Passport To Pimlico (Henry Cornelius, 1949) shows the bomb sites of
shattered post-war London with its stoical residents of uniformly good cheer;
The Man In The White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951) has several establish-
ing shots of factories and grim northern terraces asphyxiating under the excres-
cence of the Industrial Revolution; and The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick,
1955), filmed around Saint Pancras in the smog of the cuttings, sees the ‘help-
less’ old lady at odds with the modern world. It is a ‘fact’ that an Englishman’s
home is his castle and in much comedy it is often besieged: Alf Garnett’s East
End terrace in Till Death Do Us Part (Johnny Speight, 1965) is the last bastion
of working class Albion; the village in Dad’s Army (Perry & Croft, 1968) is quite
literally awaiting invasion; Rigsby’s seedy realm in Rising Damp (Eric Chappell,
1974) is peopled by threatening students and foreigners; Alan Partridge (Steve
Coogan, 1991) represents a desperate conservatism like Hancock or Basil Fawlty
before him; and The Vicar Of Dibley (Richard Curtis, 1994) is a harbinger of
modernity in its idealized village. This marketing of fairy tale Albion is some-
thing American studios capitalized on: Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, filmed
in America in 1964), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Ken Hughes, 1968) and Bedknobs
And Broomsticks (Robert Stevenson, 1971) are all played out against the back-
drop of a vision of true Albion, and the British comedy industry is also complicit
in the continuation of this simulacrum.


Mary Poppins drifts into London over key Albion landmarks – Parliament,
St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge – on a cloud of goodwill. It is a London bereft of
squalor and full of cheeky sweeps, bankers in bowlers and bobbies. On Cherry
Tree Lane the family house, staffed and situated in a charming square where
nannies push prams and pointless miniature dogs are exercised, is overseen by
a banker father and semi-neglected by a suffragette mother. Punctuality, the
cooked breakfast and class hierarchy nail this to Albion’s unflappable mast.
Against this, the magic of Poppins and the naïve Bert (played by an American
with a Dutch name and probably the most famous ‘cockney’ accent in film


COST 1.1_art_ritchie_33-42.indd 35 1/14/10 9:29:23 AM

Chris Ritchie

1. http://www. history) is contrasted. The film grossed $102,272,727 1 so it is little surprise that
it has been reinvigorated on stage and been given many theatrical accolades:
s&id=marypoppins.htm. Poppins’ appeal to Albion is timeless, global and very profitable.
Accessed 15 September
2. The disused windmill can
still be seen at Ibstone DO WE DO?’
in Buckinghamshire.
The film was made in SECOND SPY: ‘WE PLAY CRICKET.’
Germany, England and
at Pinewood Studios.
3. The explorer was always Albion is a context where certain rules are observed. Comedy develops from the
the outreach worker for violation of these and the best violations are by comedy foreigners who only
serve to bring forward a re-assertion of Albion’s values. The screenplay of Chitty
Chitty Bang Bang (1968) was written by Roald Dahl based on an original by mas-
ter Englishman Ian Fleming (who patriotically lived as a tax exile next to the
equally patriotic Noël Coward in Jamaica). Dick Van Dyke plays an eccentric
inventor who lives with his frighteningly Aryan children in an old windmill.2 His
old soldier father lives alongside in a floating outhouse, all ‘fuzzy wuzzies’ and
Edwardian sideboards. Dad is an explorer manqué 3 who occasionally breaks out
into Cockney dancing, thumbs flying to his braces for a knees-up. It is eggs, sau-
sage and cottage loaf for tea. ‘Truly Scrumptious’ is the English rose, daughter of
the fiery local sweet magnate whose pinafore-clad minions man the factory.
However, comedy foreigners are often the cause of disruption in
Albion’s green and pleasant land: Vulgarian spies have been dispatched

Cottages. Photograph by Donna Hetherington.


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England? Whose England? Selling Albion in comic cinema

to capture the flying car, one with obligatory Hitler moustache and lots
of ‘schnell, schnell, raus, raus’ Germanisms: they are by turns menacing,
militaristic and uptight. The extended family end up at the paedophobic
court of Baron Bomburst, a Teutonic mix of decadence and mirthlessness
enforced by the Dickensian ‘childcatcher’ dressed in Gestapo black (chil-
dren should be neither seen nor heard). Though by no means a political
allegory, there are several interesting oppositions in the film: the upper
class are bossy and arrogant (Truly mocks Potts, the court mocks the Toy
Maker) whilst the workers are guileless and honest; adults are cruel and
children are not; and finally ‘Abroad’ is weird and pointy whilst Albion is
homely and verdant. After the peasants and children revolt, ‘Chitty flew
high over the mountains and back to England.’ Van Dyke ends up with
Truly and the class divide is bridged by romantic love. Albion is imagined,
then, in an idealized version to be marketed back to us. Chitty Chitty Bang
Bang was also subject to a Broadway makeover, scooping up further awards
and profits.


Bedknobs And Broomsticks (1971) represents the plucky spirit of Albion besieged
as the horrid Germans, comedy Nazis all, invade the tranquillity of the sea-
side village Pepperinge Eye which according to the narrative has ‘been out
of things for the last few hundred years’. The film opens with a 1066 style
tapestry before dissolving to the perennial white cliffs. Post offices, red tel-
ephone boxes and Player’s cigarette adverts define Albion, as they all make
do and mend whilst mucking in. Three Disneyfied cockneys, simultaneously
orphaned and exiled, are forced upon village spinster Miss Eglantine Price,
who rides a motorbike, wears sensible shoes and practises some form of
bucolic voodoo. She is reluctant to have them encroach upon her experiments
with a flying broom handle at her cottage.
Pepperinge Eye is contrasted with London as the group travel on the magic
bed to find Professor Emelius Browne, head of the Correspondence Course
of Witchcraft. He is a meagre mountebank and a disappointment, squatting
in a splendid house with an unexploded bomb in the garden. There follows
the Portobello Road dance routine at the bric-a-brac market with bright and
blowzy women, colonial troops and costermongers. Enter Bruce Forsyth as
Swinburne the spiv – ‘Oi Tosh, nylons for the lady?’ – complete with rakish
trilby, fancy tie and flick knife.
After some animated anthropomorphic adventures on the Island of
Naboomboo, they end up back in Blighty. Professor Browne bolts at the
first hint of commitment to the pseudo-family and whilst he is attempt-
ing to sleep on the platform of the Brief Encounter-style station, the Nazis
appear. Utilizing her rustic witchery, Miss Price rouses the armour and
uniforms from the local museum and thwarts the ‘beastly little raid’: eve-
ryone pulls together for the war effort and England is saved. The vibrant,
multi-cultural London with its spivs and sharks, banter and camaraderie
rubs semi-contentedly alongside the sleepiness of peripheral Pepperinge


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Chris Ritchie


15 September 2009.
5. Perhaps a canny (BETJEMAN 1956: 231)
reference to the comment Following the lead of Poppins and Chitty, Working Title Films utilized the
attributed to Thatcher
about over 30s on combination of American star and idealized Albion in comedy to successful
busses being failures. ends. This Albion remains a marketable one: an England with no riot cops,
6. http://www. welfare spongers or supermarkets. Albion is not modern or European but
boxofficemojo.com/ quaint, whimsical, stoical. It is Betjeman’s old pub and the church on the green
htm. Accessed 15 that represents the village, alongside the pub and post office. This church, nei-
September 2009. ther Roman nor Orthodox but Anglican, stands humbly but proudly in dusty
raiment and provides an equally powdery morality at odds with urban mores.
It is these churches (never registry offices) where the bulk of Four Weddings &
A Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) takes place with its well-crafted script, sharp
jokes and pleasant urban milieu. Hugh Grant’s stammeringly good comic
timing almost gets away with the corny forgotten ring routine and delivers the
best best-man speech on celluloid.
In Four Weddings, there is just a single industrial deviation from an oth-
erwise oaken Albion: Gareth’s funeral procession starts in the shadow of the
Queen Elizabeth II bridge, revealing him to be a council estate lad in a florid
waistcoat dissembling as a thespian. The sanctity of marriage, so celebrated
and idealized throughout the film, is sabotaged by Grant at the denouement
as he cruelly jilts his fiancé for Andie MacDowell, but our hearts are with
Hugh rather than the unpleasantly named ‘Duckface’; indeed, her humilia-
tion goes unheeded as rain-soaked love wins out beneath well-timed thun-
derbolts. The friends all match up eventually. The success of Four Weddings
can be attributed to Grant’s stumbling upper-middle-class oaf, his butterfly
lashes and the undoubted American attraction of MacDowell. It was a for-
mula that found appreciation in the States and its $245 million profits are
no surprise.4


Curtis et al. repeated this formula – Grant plus US star (Julia Roberts) in a
sanitized Albion and laugh-out-loud set pieces – with Notting Hill (1999),
another success. This is a west London devoid of junkies, poverty or street
hassle and almost as accurate as the Portobello Road sequence in Bedknobs
And Broomsticks. Grant again plays the half-idiot/charmer embroiled in
unbelievable scenarios whilst over-pushing the pathos button. Instead of
churches it is a series of dinner parties that connects the travails of the upper-
middle class ditherers. She stays at The Ritz, he rides in a Routemaster bus5
and fakes being a correspondent for Horse & Hound, Albion’s definitive
fanzine. It is a story of global celebrity befouling Albion’s front lawn and
when the paparazzi discover her hiding out at Grant’s he asks, in classically
English fashion, ‘How about a cup of tea?’ Until the Divine Brown fellatio
incident, Hugh Grant (a floppy haired stutterer married to an English rose)
was Albion personified for the US market: no amount of tea could rectify
that in some people’s eyes. For others, he went up in their estimation. The
film took $364 million.6


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England? Whose England? Selling Albion in comic cinema


liveaction.htm. Accessed
ME TO BE?’ 15 September 2009.
The live action 101 Dalmatians (1996) features a lot of dogs and a hysteri-
cally demented Glenn Close as Cruella DeVille, whilst reversing the nation-
alities of Four Weddings’ successful funny man/glamour girl combination
with Jeff Daniels and English rose, Joely Richardson. It opens with a view
of the Houses of Parliament from Lambeth Palace before cutting to a classic
British milk float on a Victorian era street. Set in a London gripped by a sud-
den outbreak of Disneyfication, it is a love story between two dogs and two
humans. We see Jeff Daniels pulled along on his bike by a rampant Pongo
through Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall, backtracking somehow
to Burlington Arcade, then the Mall again and into Saint James’s pond. Here
both Pongo and Jeff meet their future loves: after the dunking, its home to an
open fire, a nice cup of tea and then to church to get married.
The diametrics are clear: the screen couple’s soft fabrics and homely wood-
filled mews contrast with Cruella’s wacky fashions, abundant cruelty and gla-
cial architecture. She has their dogs stolen to satisfy her rampant dorophilia.
After this pup-nap, Pongo sends out a distress signal over the Thames. The
dogs of London rally round in solidarity to retrieve the expropriated pups
from a Suffolk farm where the villains are all arrested, with Cruella suffering
a splendidly sticky molasses and manure-based humiliation. As a kind police-
men rescues the missing Dalmatians, one of the final scenes shows a perfect
Christmas card village with spire and snowy fields: this is festive Albion. The
sanitizing of London is a Disney speciality and it is the juxtaposition of this
with Albion’s countryside, a harmless love story, sentimental dogs aplenty
and a classic villain that caused the film to earn over $326 million.7


Working Title further contributed to the canon of Albion with an update of
Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. John Goodman, a stranger on Albion’s shores,
plays Ocious P. Potter, the duplicitous solicitor attempting to gyp the American
family out of their auntie’s house (thus trying to make the film more appeal-
ing over the water with American stars). However, he is up against regular
players for Albion, Celia Imrie and bewigged Jim Broadbent (bearing here an
uncanny resemblance to Malcolm McLaren). Potter wants to demolish the
house to redevelop the area whilst youngster Arrietty is ‘bored, bored, bored,
bored, bored’ and restless for adventure – which leads the Borrowers into all
kinds of trouble. Albion is again under siege but, from behind the wainscot,
the micro-burglars thwart the bad guy to save their home.
The Borrowers are transferred to a more suburban environment rather
than the book’s rural setting of the ‘Big House at The Spinney’ – located some-
where in the vicinity of Leighton Buzzard according to The Borrowers Omnibus
(Norton 1977). The production design, by Gemma Jackson of Bridget Jones
fame, draws heavily on the small town of the 1950s: with period architecture,
brown décor and dated Hoovers from a time when life was simpler (it was
filmed partly in Theale, Berkshire). Everything is reminiscent of British rac-
ing green. The city is Metropolis in Victorian brick, gas holders and airships,


COST 1.1_art_ritchie_33-42.indd 39 1/14/10 9:29:24 AM

Chris Ritchie

8. http://www. steam trains and a surfeit of Morris Minors (Potter has a stretch one): it looks
like the future as designed by John Betjeman. The dishonest grown-ups are
htm. Accessed 15 defeated by the wily offspring: the denouement in the dairy ends with messy
September 2009. results and a lot of low-fat ‘cheese whip’. It took over $22 million.8
9. http://www.
boxofficem ojo.com/
ssdiary.htm. Accessed
15 September 2009.
10. The ramshackle abode, (BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY (SHARON MAGUIRE, 2001))
what used to be referred
to as ‘genteel poverty’, is
In Working Title’s 2001 production of Bridget Jones’s Diary, we first see the
often present in Albion: wonderfully inept fag smoking, wine-guzzling Bridget on a snowy new year’s
the windmill in Chitty, day at a London taxi rank. From this, she arrives at the Poundbury-ish vil-
the cottage in Bedknobs,
the dilapidated house in lage where her parents live, this bearing a remarkable resemblance to the
The Borrowers, and this village in 101 Dalmatians. Passing the church and memorial cross she trips
one. up the driveway decorated with swans to greet mum, a domineering floral
nightmare and Dad (Jim Broadbent). Bridget now apparently lives, literate,
disappointed and single, above The Globe pub in Borough Market rather than
west London. Written by Helen Fielding, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis
(a formidable triumvirate) the gags are well written, the story appealing and
the casting strong: miserable singledom never looked so appealing. Hugh
Grant, freed from the posh Herbert role into recognizing his own sexuality,
makes a fine entrance as the rakish Daniel Cleaver. Bridget’s ‘urban family’
swill and chuff in wine bars in the glory days before the smoking ban. By
the time Christmas comes around, Bridget, single again, is back to Dad, who
masochistically watches his ex-wife and cuckold on the shopping channel. But
it all ends nicely.
‘London’ is used to good effect with all the nasty bits edited out: the lights
of Piccadilly Circus; a heartbroken detour through Borough Market; a scoop
at the Law Court; a romantic stroll under the footbridges at Butler’s Wharf;
and the final pant-clad run from Borough to the blue water pump on Cornhill
(which is a bit of a hike). This sanitized capital is intercut with sporadic trips to
‘the country’ on a mini break (in an open-topped Mercedes) or to her parents’
village. It took $281 million worldwide.9


In Nanny McPhee (2005), Working Title update Mary Poppins with its frag-
mented family, titular saviour and stylized Albion in a redemptive fairy tale.
The unruly Brown children are getting through nannies at an alarming rate at
their run-down house in the country surrounded by trees and cosy teapot vil-
lage.10 Mrs Bletherwick, the cook, oversees the kitchen inferno of giant boiling
pots to serve a stodgy public school menu of ‘buttered spuds … boiled beef,
apple tart and custard’ guaranteed to make the children egg-bound. It is part
posh Bash Street Kids, part Home Alone but no less pleasing for it.
The wart-festooned, bulbous nosed Nanny McPhee arrives with her fer-
ruled Ashplant cane to begin cajoling the children into submission. Oldest
boy Simon, a shit, urges the others into rebellion but he is no match for this
‘government nanny’. Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) is the bumbling undertaker
father wrapped up in his work after ‘a bout of influenza at Archway’ that
has ‘been carrying off the old folk’. He shares the morgue with the camp,


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England? Whose England? Selling Albion in comic cinema

gossiping Mr Wheen and Mr Jowls. Angela Lansbury appears as Great Aunt 11. http://www.
Adelaide, subsidizing the family economy on the condition he re-wifes: a movies/?id=nanny
stipend that keeps him above financial ruin and out of the poorhouse. Cedric mcphee.htm. Accessed
acquiesces and proposes to the dreadful Mrs Quickly (an allusion to Falstaff’s 15 September 2009.
tavern wench). Snobbishness and avarice are overcome after suitable chaos 12. http://www.
and Cedric ends up with newly educated, former scullery maid Evangeline. movies/?id=hotfuzz.htm.
Nannies, toast served in racks, Gladstone bags and Dickensian under- Accessed 15 September
takers all make this part of the Albion canon. In the film we see the white 2009.
cliffs, the arched rock at Durdle Door in Dorset and the countryside of 13. See the website:
Buckinghamshire. The cast is peppered with Albion stalwarts: Colin Firth, duchyofcornwall.org/
Angela Lansbury, Celia Imrie and Imelda Staunton (the last three grotesquely designanddevelopment_
impressive). It grossed over $122 million worldwide.11 poundbury.htm.


Hot Fuzz (2007) usurps the traditional representation of Albion. Super top-cop
Nicholas Angel is relocated to the rural snooze of Sandford, Gloucestershire,
which ‘won village of the year I don’t know how many times.’ There is a post
office, a pub named The Crown and a market, all on the high street. In The
Swan Hotel, geriatric staff doze in wing-backed armchairs at the open fire.
Crime wise, the long arm of the law is a flabby one, ill-used, until the village
serenity is disrupted by adolescent drinking. Unintelligible locals with ‘ooh-
arr’ accents attend the church fete and other village niceties until the cobbles
and arches reveal something a tad more sinister: there be murder and bad-
ness afoot! The sinister cabal of shop owners and Women’s Institute members
resort to mass murder to protect Albion’s privileged enclave whilst profit-
ing from urban developments. This Albion is set at odds with director Edgar
Wright’s characteristic high speed editing and multiple film referencing. Here,
Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(George Roy Hill, 1969) and American buddy boy cop films meet The Village
Green Preservation Society, adding up to over $80 million worldwide.12
In Albion, London is a village like the toy town the Prince of Charles
helped construct at Poundbury.13 It is a place free of foreigners and drugs.
Albion is used as a framing device, a context, for comedy and it is an eminently
exportable one. This attractive amalgamation consists of classic London sights
(St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge), countryside (fields, cottages, rolling hill and dale)
and village (churches and cricket on the green). Within comic cinema, Albion
is usually contextualized in Acts 1 and 2 and used as a backdrop for the rest
of the story. Albion becomes a subtext, speaking of a world that never was, a
nostalgia for something that never really happened. This is no criticism: those
who exploit the Albion myth for commercial gain are very skilled in doing so.
It is an appealing concept. But it is not true.
We can see two reasons for these representations of Albion in comedy:
firstly, to demonstrate a preference, a nostalgia, for a conservative but attrac-
tive England that still kept ‘the old ways’; and secondly, for economic reasons.
Faux nostalgia and great music has aided the success of the stage versions of
Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Albion here becomes mollifying:
an escape from the dreary naturalist tradition, an economic incentive and


COST 1.1_art_ritchie_33-42.indd 41 1/14/10 9:29:24 AM

Chris Ritchie

an idealisation. British comedy rarely cracks the American market but the
London of Notting Hill is an exception: it is certainly much more saleable than
the Salford of Shameless. In a way the image of Albion is as exotic to American
viewers as the Caribbean remains to the English, substituting Saxon churches
for sand. Watching Albion, we become foreigners in our own island.

Betjeman, John (1958), Collected Poems, London: John Murray.
Coogan, S. (2005), The Complete Alan Partridge, London: BBC.
Cornelius, H. (1949), Passport To Pimlico, London: Ealing Studios.
Curtis, R. (1994), The Vicar Of Dibley, London: BBC.
Hewitt, P. (1997), The Borrowers, Los Angeles: Polygram.
Hughes, K. (1968), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Los Angeles: MGM.
Lawrence, V. (1974), Rising Damp: Series 1, Leeds: ITV.
Mackendrick, A. (1951), The Man In The White Suit, London: Ealing.
Mackendrick, A. (1955), The Ladykillers, London: Ealing Studios.
Maguire, S. (2001), Bridget Jones’s Diary, London: Working Title.
Michell, R. (1999), Notting Hill, London: Working Title.
Newell, M. (1994), Four Weddings & A Funeral, London: Working Title.
Norton, Mary (1977), The Borrowers Omnibus, London: JM Dent.
Orwell, George (1957), Inside The Whale, London: Penguin.
Perry, J. and Croft, D. (20070), Dad’s Army: The Complete Collection, London:
Paxman, Jeremy (1999), The English, London: Penguin.
Speight, J. (1965), Till Death Do Us Part, London: BBC.
Stevenson, R. (1964), Mary Poppins, Los Angeles: Disney.
Stevenson, R. (1971), Bedknobs And Broomsticks, Los Angeles: Disney.
Wright, E. (2007), Hot Fuzz, London: Working Title.

Ritchie, C. (2010), ‘England? Whose England? Selling Albion in comic cinema’,
Comedy Studies 1: 1, pp. 33–42, doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.33/1

Chris Ritchie created the innovative Comedy: Writing & Performance degree
at Solent University in 2006. He has written about and performed stand-up
comedy since 1991. He is the author of The Idler & The Dandy In Stage Comedy
(Edward Mellen, 2007) and the principal editor of this journal.
Contact: Southampton Solent University, East Park Terrace, Southampton,
SO14 0YN.
E-mail: doc.c.ritchie@googlemail.com


COST 1.1_art_ritchie_33-42.indd 42 1/15/10 8:52:19 AM

COST 1 (1) pp. 43–59 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.43/1

British Institute for Humour Research, University of Surrey

‘Pack up your troubles

and smile, smile, smile’:
comic plays about
the legacy of ‘the

There have been several plays concerned with the history, and legacy, of ‘the Troubles’ comedy theory
in Northern Ireland, produced since the ceasefires of 1994, that have chosen to por- Northern Ireland
tray events comically. The article will focus on five: A Night in November (1994) (the) Troubles
by Marie Jones; The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001) by Martin McDonagh; The Gary Mitchell
History of the Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da) (2002) by Martin Lynch, Connor Sigmund Freud
Grimes and Alan McKee; and Caught Red-Handed (2002) by Tim Loane. Henri Bergson
The article has four main aims: firstly, to offer a brief analysis of the comedy of
these plays; secondly, to argue that these plays offer audiences, in Northern Ireland
and elsewhere, an important, and often therapeutic, way of responding to ‘the
Troubles’; thirdly, to argue that many critics have failed to realize the significance
of some of these plays, in part as a result of their failure to appreciate the function of
the comedy; and, finally, to argue that it is through an analysis of the comedy that
insights may be gained as to why some of these plays have ‘travelled’ while others
have played only to local audiences.


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Tim Miles

1. A copy of the Agree Laughter is not just an expression of emotion. It is a public symptom of
may be found on the
official web site of the
engaging in a kind of conflict resolution.
Northern Ireland Office: (Terrence Deacon quoted in Carr and Greeves 2006: 25)
In his essay in Stepping Stones: The Arts in Ulster, 1971–2001 (2001), David
Grant commented on ‘the obvious equation between the eruption of violence
and the decline of theatre in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s’ (Carruthers
and Douds 2001: 27) claiming ‘the Troubles’ helped accelerate what was an
‘already inexorable trend’ (Carruthers and Douds 2001: 27). He goes on to say
that, despite this, in 1975, the Lyric, Northern Ireland’s principle producing
house, ‘enjoyed what remains its greatest ever box office success’ (Carruthers
and Douds 2001: 32) with a production of Patrick Galvin’s We do it for Love.
The play dealt directly with ‘the Troubles’ in a comic manner. Grant comments
on how ‘outsiders’ were ‘aghast at the uproarious response to jokes aimed
directly at the violence’ (Carruthers and Douds 2001: 32). ‘The Troubles’ seem-
ingly reached a close, firstly with the ceasefires of 1994, and then with the 1998
Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement), which saw the
peoples of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland vote in favour of
greater cooperation. The agreement was supported by all the major political
parties, on both sides of the border, with the notable exception of Ian Paisley’s
Democratic Unionist Party, and included a commitment to ‘exclusively peace-
ful and democratic means’.1
Following the key events of 1994 and 1998, several comedies concerned
with the history, and legacy, of ‘the Troubles’ have been staged in Belfast,
Dublin, London and elsewhere. This article will focus on four of them: A
Night in November (1994) by Marie Jones; The Lieutenant of Innishmore (2001)
by Martin McDonough; The History of the Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da) (2002)
by Martin Lynch, Connor Grimes and Alan McKee; and Caught Red-Handed
(2002) by Tim Loane. In doing so, I have four main aims: firstly, to offer a
brief analysis of the comedy of these plays; secondly, to argue that some of
these plays offer audiences, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, an impor-
tant, and often therapeutic, way of responding to ‘the Troubles’; thirdly, to
argue that some critics have failed to realize the significance of some of these
plays as a result of their failure to appreciate the plays’ comedy; and, finally,
and most importantly, to argue that different approaches to comedy may
be useful, and indeed necessary, in analysing comedy in different cultural
contexts. Indeed comedy is highly contextual, to the extent that seemingly
competing theories of comedy may be applicable to an understanding of the
similar subject matters comically treated – especially if they are performed
in significantly different contexts. In so doing, insights may be gained as to
why some of these comedies have ‘travelled’, while others have played only
to local audiences.
Three categories dominate humour theory, and have done so for some
time: theories of superiority, of relief, and of incongruity; a classification
almost universally accepted in recent literature. Critchley in On Humour
(2002), Billig in Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour
(2005), and Carr and Greeves in The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden mean-
ing of Jokes (2006), for example, all adopt this classification. What connects
all these theories is that they are all based in reception: they focus on what
comedy does to its audience. My aim here is not to evaluate the many theo-
ries of comedy, or offer some sort of overview of comedy theory, and I use
the terms ‘superiority’, ‘relief’, and ‘incongruity’ to broadly identify diverse


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‘Pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’

bodies of ideas. Instead, I aim to problematize the relationship between

comedy and cultural context. Double pointed out in his Ph.D. thesis, ‘An
Approach to Tradition of British Stand-up Comedy’, the link between incon-
gruity comedy and context:

[incongruity comedy] implies an intrinsic link between the joke and

its cultural context; humorous incongruity involves deviation from the
normal and the expected, and ideas of what constitutes abnormality or
unexpectedness will differ from culture to culture.
(Double 1991:1)

Northern Ireland presents an interesting example in this context, in terms of

what audiences may regard as ‘abnormality or unexpectedness’, for the paradox
is that despite ‘the Troubles’ being widely reported, those cultural representations
that exist outside of Ulster have often been seen as stereotypical. Linda Anderson,
for example, was quoted in The Guardian in 2005 as referring to Northern Ireland
as ‘one of the most over-narrativised areas of the world’ (Kennedy 2005), with
writers reinforcing clichés and stereotypes about the causes of violence. In Ulster
Loyalism and the British Media (1998), Parkinson makes a cogent case that the
British press was unprepared to cover ‘the Troubles’ when they started, and that
the British media often presented Unionism in an unfair and inaccurate man-
ner. It is true that many feature films, about Northern Ireland, released since
1994 have portayed Protestants unsympathetically (Resurrection Man, for
example), or Catholics as victims (In the Name of the Father and Some Mother’s
Son, for instance). Moreover, such films will usually focus on the ‘Troubles’ and
not other aspects of Northern Irish life. Maguire, in his book Making Theatre
in Northern Ireland (2006) suggests ‘… as I am writing, media images of street
riots across Belfast reinforce around the world the sense of over three decades of
undifferentiated violence. “Northern Ireland” and “The Troubles” have become
synonymous’ (Maguire 2006: 1).
Those who live in Northern Ireland are, of course, more likely to be aware of
the complexities behind the clichés, and what may seem incongruous to an audi-
ence at London’s Tricycle theatre may be quite different from that which seems
so to an audience at the Whiterock theatre just off the Falls Road in Belfast.
I also want to focus on the performative nature of the comedy. When
we watch a ‘serious’ play we may not know if our fellow audience members
are enjoying it. In a comedy, we can see, and hear, them laugh, and if they
are doing so at the same time as us, we can recognize a mutual experience,
a common sense of relief, or a common pleasure in an attack on those we
enjoy seeing ridiculed. Audience members may look at each other, more likely
than during a tragedy, seeking confirmation of shared pleasure. Humour may
be seen as ‘the oil of our social encounters’ (Carr and Greeves 2006: 5), and
a ‘group bonding exercise’ (Carr and Greeves 2006: 6). It involves an act of
mutual consent, itself acting as a metaphor for the Good Friday Agreement
whereby any constitutional change to the status of Northern Ireland could
only come about with the consent of the majority of its citizens.

A Night in November was first produced at Whiterock theatre, in Belfast, in
August 1994, amid the tensions of the recently established ceasefires, before
transferring to the Tricycle theatre in London in March 1995, where it was


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Tim Miles

considered sufficiently successful to be brought back in July 2002. Marie Jones’

play has had a number of other productions, in England, Eire, and elsewhere,
most recently at the Trafalgar Studios in London where it opened in October
2007, with the Northern Irish stand-up comedian, Patrick Kielty, playing all
the parts. The play is a monodrama, requiring only one actor to perform over
thirty characters, all seen through the eyes of a central character, Kenneth. He
is an embittered Belfast Protestant dole clerk, who initially relishes his petty vic-
timization of unemployed Catholics, and resents his Catholic boss, Jerry, who
will ‘never be one of us’ (Jones 2000: 68). However, when Kenneth attends the
November 1993 World Cup football qualifier between Northern Ireland and
Eire, he is appalled when some of the Northern Irish supporters start to chant
‘trick or treat’, this being a reference to the real events, the previous month,
when seven people were shot dead in the Rising Sun pub in Greysteel by mem-
bers of the Protestant paramilitary group the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force):

… it’s beyond words, it’s beyond feeling … I’m numb … Greysteel

seven Ireland nil … trick or treat … men walk into a pub on Halloween,
shout Trick or Treat, and mow down seven innocent people and these
fuckin’ barbarians are laughin’ … surely to God, surely to Christ these
are not the people I am part of … no, it’s not, don’t tell me, I’m not
hearing them, I’m not for I can’t fucking handle it …
(Jones 2000: 72–73)

Disgusted also by his wife, and his father-in-law, who support the crowd,
Kenneth decides to fly to the USA for the 1994 World Cup finals, to join
‘Jackie’s Army’. During the finals he finally accepts a new, all-embracing, Irish
Superiority comedy, or Schadenfreude, is the principal comic device in the
first half of A Night in November. From the beginning we are invited to experi-
ence ‘some eminency’, in Hobbes words, in comparison with Kenneth’s petty
self-importance, known even to his wife:

That day started like every other day starts out … check under car for
explosive devices … you have to keep one step ahead of the bastards …
[…] For dear sake Kenneth, who would want to blow you up?
I am a government employee.
You’re only a dole clerk Kenneth, will you catch yourself on.
(Jones 2000: 63)

Gary Mitchell has commented on what has often been seen as Protestant resist-
ance to the arts and arts education. In his play, Remnants of Fear, for example,
Charlie, a liberal who supports the peace process, argues with his hard line
brother about the different attitudes between Loyalist and Republican prison-
ers, from the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the IRA (Irish Republican
Army), respectively:

The IRA young men were studying. They were actually bringing in lec-
turers from Queens. Professors. While they were doing that the UDA
young men were marching in circles, playing snooker, lifting weights
and doing drugs.
(Mitchell, 2005: 130)


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‘Pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’

Tim Loane, the former artistic director of the Lyric, and whose play Caught
Red-Handed shall be considered later in this article, offered this explanation,
suggesting that Belfast is:

… a city built upon industry, upon nuts and bolts, ropes and steel-
works. The psyche of the city, the psyche of the North of Ireland, is
one that is about concrete things to do with certainty and belief and
faith and unshakeable things […] so that psyche does not lend itself
to creative writing, or creativity in many ways, because creativity is
asking questions, raising doubts, saying that there is uncertainty and
saying that there are things over and above concrete and steel that are
(Loane, quoted in McDowell: 15 May 2005)

In his radio play Stranded, Mitchell comments how Protestantism, despite

its origins in the Reformation, had, in Northern Ireland, reached a position
where intransigence overpowered any urge for change:

There is no work now, that is what we have been told and we always
believe what we are told, as long as it is Protestants telling us this …
When was it that we first said ‘Ulster says no’? 1916? 1921? 1995?
I don’t know. If a culture refuses to change, can it progress? Quakers –
are they stranded in time? No TVs, no cars. Quakers say no? I don’t
think so … I once believed in a Protestant country for a Protestant peo-
ple but the man I worked for drove a German car, watched American
films on his Japanese TV, while eating a Chinese meal. There’s some-
thing wrong here. Do Protestants make movies? Do Protestants make
cars? If not, why not? Was it because someone said no and we all
backed then up? I can’t remember, but I can remember saying ‘no’.
No United Ireland, No Pope here, No surrender. No change. No, no,
no, no!
(transcribed by the author from audio recording:
BBC Radio 3, 11 August 1995)

In A Night in November, these problematic attitudes to change and questioning,

are satirized when Kenneth, for example, is surprised when visiting the house
of his Catholic boss, Jerry, to discover that his books are not ’in size order or
colour’ but ‘look like they have been read’ (Jones 2000: 83); unlike Kenneth’s
‘burgundy leather bound classics … never opened, but they suit the bookcase,
match the wallpaper, blend in with the carpet …’ (Jones 2000: 83). While this
may appear to offer a form of social identity comedy, a form of incongruity, this
would be a mistake, for this forms part of a series of events, at which we are
invited to experience some sense of Hobbesian ‘eminency’: including Kenneth’s
pettiness, his wife’s social climbing; his father-in-law’s casual, and wholly irra-
tional, prejudice. We are offered no contextualization for Kenneth’s reaction,
but, instead, encouraged to laugh at such ignorance, especially so perhaps as
‘we’ are in a theatre, demonstrating our cultural capital.
Kenneth’s petty victories include joining the golf club from which
Catholics are barred, much to the approval of his wife: ‘… tonight I am
member of the golf club and at last she can up her status at aerobics’
(Jones 2000: 75) Similarly, the British military presence is belittled, but only


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Tim Miles

through the voice of Jerry: ‘Look, this is bloody ridiculous, will you please
come out from under my rhododendron bush, it is bright lilac and youse are
dressed in khaki, did youse learn nothing about camouflage …’ (Jones 2000:
89). However, the narrative arc shows Kenneth’s growing self- awareness,
and self-disgust, so the comedy of superiority shifts to him commenting
on the ludicrous behaviour of others, not through the voice of Jerry, but as

Yes … it was like that when I was growing up … as soon as the news
came on my ma reached for a brush … automatic reaction … don’t lis-
ten … just keep cleaning and everything will be alright … we have been
protected by hoovers and brushes all our lives …
(Jones 2000: 90)

Kenneth’s growing anxiety and self-hatred reaches a climax:

I wanted to scream, wanted to jump up on the counter with a thousand

giros in my hands and throw them at the people … here, go on, take
the money, take the money and spend it on whatever you like … I felt I
was standing there for hours just fantasising what I could do if I wasn’t
a stupid soul-less little prick … if it was even possible to change … was
it … is it?’
(Jones 2000: 77)

The relief theory of the comic, according to Carr and Greeves, is rooted in
primeval survival instincts and ‘mirrors the leap from perceived threat to no
threat’ (Carr and Greeves 2006: 23). It is, in fact, a sort of peace process. In
the second half of the play it is relief comedy that dominates. Once Kenneth
makes the decisions to leave Belfast, without telling his wife, to support the
Republic of Ireland at the World Cup he is filled with exuberance, a child-like
joy and happiness: ‘I was in that car from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when it
came to the edge of the cliff, it took wings … that was me’ (Jones 2000: 96).
In America he enthusiastically joins in with singing ‘stick your pizza up your
arse’ (Jones 2000: 106) following Ireland’s victory over the Italians; the vicious-
ness of ‘trick or treat’ has been replaced by relatively good-natured rivalry. He
musters the courage to tell another Irish supporter that he is a Protestant;
‘So am I’ (Jones 2000: 101) is the reply. Concern is proved to be unfounded,
and Kenneth can relax, as do the audience, whose attention is centred on the
lone performer. The play ends with Kenneth’s ecstatic affirmation of his new
identity: ‘I am free of it, I am a free man … I am a Protestant Man. I’m an Irish
Man’ (Jones 2000: 108).
Given the fragile state of the peace process when A Night in November
was first produced, there is little doubt that this was a brave and impor-
tant play. The celebration of the Irish football team, at the time largely full
of second or third generation emigrants based in England, represented an
important reclaiming of the Irish diaspora. Moreover, by acknowledging
Kenneth’s pain, and demonstrating the joy to be had in freeing oneself from
bigotry, the play sent out an important message. However, its continuing
success, especially with English audiences is problematic, in its simplis-
tic depiction of both sides of the community: Kenneth’s Protestant wife
and Ernie, his father-in-law, are deeply prejudice, the latter virulently so;


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‘Pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’

whereas Catholic Jerry and the supporters of the Irish football team are kind
and tolerant. The play asks us to see loyalism as a sort of ‘false conscious-
ness’ (Maguire 2006: 155), as it does the British presence on the island of
Ireland. Maguire also quotes Robin Greer’s review that the ‘implication is
that hatred and intolerance is only [done] by the ugly and bloodthirsty bar-
barians of the Protestant community’ (Maguire 2006: 154). Characterization
is conditioned by seeing everything through Kenneth’s eyes, and Maguire
comments on the nature of monodrama, that it ‘draws the audience to
the performer, and encourages them to subscribe to the control he exerts’
(Maguire 2006: 154 ). Parkinson in Ulster Unionism and the British Media
(1998) comments on ‘Unionism’s failure to project its case’ (Parkinson 1998:
161) and of the British public’s ‘broad indifference to the political wishes of
loyalists’ (Parkinson 1998: 161). This indifference is surely exacerbated by
the comedy: the joy of experiencing Kenneth being finally ‘free of it’ (with
its almost orgasmic climax reminding us of Freudian associations between
humour and the libido); the relief that he has overcome his intense anxi-
ety; and the pleasure at ridiculing bigotry and snobbery. The audience is
encouraged to share what is a vastly simplistic view of cultural difference in
Northern Ireland. Carr and Greeves cite an academic study about comedy
leading to a possible lessening of critical engagement:

A recent study by Professor Robin Dunbar found that laughter raised

people’s pain thresholds. His explanation is that shared social laughter
causes an endorphin rush and the release of oxytocin to the brain …
Endorphins are natural opiates. They make us feel relaxed, encourage
social and sexual interaction and increase our level of trust.
(Carr and Greeves 2006: 22)

So, we trust Kenneth and ultimately feel relaxed, and, of course, happy – this
is, after all, a comedy – despite what is a troubling play that ignores impor-
tant issues. These may be said to include: the diversity within Protestantism
(Roman Catholicism is, and has been for a long time, the largest single faith
group in Ulster, with the Protestant churches split into various denomina-
tions); and English historical culpability in fostering prejudice (phrases such
as ‘no surrender’, used by Kenneth’s father-in-law, are there to be laughed
at, with no awareness that this rallying call against the Home Rule movement
was used, by English propagandists, to recruit Ulstermen during World War I for
the killing fields of France). However, we have been encouraged to be relaxed
and trusting and ignore such troubling problems.
Michael Billig in Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour
(2005) stated that ‘The idea of a critical approach to humour sounds some-
what sinister. It suggests bossiness or craziness … [determining] what should
and should not be laughed at’ (Billig 2005: 1). As a result, Billig claims that
‘common-sense assumptions’ (Billig 2005: 2, 5) are inherent in much dis-
course on the comic. The assumptions Billig highlights include the supposed
benefits of comedy, saying, that there is ‘widespread positive evaluation of
humour in today’s popular and academic psychology’ (Billig 2005: 5). Billig
states that ‘only joking’ and ‘just kidding’ are among the most used phrases
in the English language, as though comic discourse is subject to some lesser
form of scrutiny. A Night in November is an example where comic success has
perhaps not been wholly positive, but has been at the expense of important
ideological, and cultural, complexity.


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Tim Miles


In April 2001, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced Martin McDonagh’s
first play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore at The Other Place in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
The play is set in 1993, while ‘the Troubles’ were still claiming many victims,
and is set largely in Inishmore, an island of the west coast of Ireland in Galway
bay. In the play, Donny accuses Davey of riding his bicycle into a black cat and
killing the animal, despite Davey’s denials. This is worrying for them as the cat,
‘wee Thomas’, is the much-loved pet belonging to Padraic, Donny’s son and the
self-proclaimed ‘lieutenant of Inishmore’: a man so violent and unstable, that he
is regarded as ‘too mad’ for the INLA (the Irish National Liberation Army). The
two men find a replacement cat, who is unfortunately ‘orange’, something they
try and disguise with the liberal use of black shoe polish. Padraic returns, from
torturing and bombing in ‘the north’ and is furious at the death of his cat, prom-
ising to kill Donny and Davey. Before he does this, three men appear, claiming
they killed ‘wee Thomas’, in order to lure Padraic back to Inishmore where he
is to be killed for murdering a ‘big man’ in the INLA. Before this new killing
can take place, however, Mairead, Davey’s sister shoots the three men, as she
appears infatuated with Padraic. She then shoots him too, however, so she can
take over as the new lieutenant of Inishmore. Donny and Davey are left to con-
sider such important matters as whether cats like to eat Frosties.
What is perhaps most noticeable about the comedy of The Lieutenant of
Inishmore is the variety of comic techniques used: including, comedy based
in incongruity; absurdity and nonsense; shock and violence; physical comedy
and slapstick, including ‘sight gags’; the grotesque; parody; dramatic irony
and comic asides; and comedy based in relief and superiority. It is, in many
ways, a remarkably accomplished piece of comic writing.
Simon Critchley in On Humour defines the incongruity theory of comedy as
when the ‘tacit social contract’ (Critchley 2002: 2) between teller and audience
is violated. Characters have a curious attitude to animals: Padraic is apparently
devoted to his cat, but is too busy to look after ‘wee Thomas‘ as he is ‘moving
around the country bombing places’ (McDonagh 2003: 10); Padraic discusses
animal welfare, toenails and digressions – ‘I have lost my train of thought, so I
have’ (McDonagh 2003: 13) – with his torture victim; and Mairead shoots, and
blinds, cows as a protest against the meat trade: ‘For who would want to buy
a blind cow?’ (McDonagh 2003: 19). Characters also have curious attitudes
towards each other: Mairead’s and Padraic’s romance is seemingly intense,
until she suddenly shoots him; when Donny, Davey and Padraic all have guns
pointing at their heads, there follows a discussion about the number of words
in the phrase ‘splinter group’; much is made of Davey’s hairstyle despite the
apparent gravity of the situation; and Donny, when asked if the murder of his
son upsets him, seems surprised by the question:

Davey: (pause) Are you sad, Donny?

Donny: Sad, why?
Davey: Sad them fellas are to be shooting your son’s head off him?
Donny: No. After your son tries to execute you, your opinions do change
about him.
(McDonagh 2003: 41)

Incongruity comedy forms an obvious link with absurdism and there is some-
thing Beckettian about the two clowns, Donny and Davey – the latter asking


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‘Pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’

towards the end of the play: ‘Will it never end? Will it never fecking end?’
(McDonagh 2003: 54). As clowns, they take part in physical comedy as, for
example, when ‘Donny steps back and kicks Davey up the arse’ (McDonagh
2003: 7), and, as clowns, they are quite incompetent, failing to wake up at a
given time, despite agreeing that it is important that they do so. They also
bicker, and blame one another for the situation in which they find them-
In The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious, Freud claimed that com-
edy was the socially acceptable way of expressing what would otherwise be
socially unacceptable. Much of the comedy in The Lieutenant of Inishmore lies
with the violent and the grotesque, and this also bears an important relation
to the comedy’s links with absurdism. The opening stage directions have a
cat with ‘its head half missing’ (McDonagh 2003: 7) as ‘bits of its brains pop
out’ (McDonagh 2003: 7). Later, the ‘blood-soaked living room is strewn with
body parts’ (McDonagh 2003: 46), and even the ‘orange’ cat has a grotesque
Superiority comedy may be seen as feeling glad it is not us who is threat-
ened with the violence of ‘mad Padraic’, and, in turn, we feel superior as he
is the lieutenant ‘in his own brain if nowhere else’ (McDonagh 2003: 20), at
least according to Donny. Similarly, we can laugh at Padraic and his desire to
‘splinter from a splinter group’ (McDonagh 2003: 16). However, we can also
feel relief as nearly all the violence happens offstage, and when it looks likely
to happen onstage it is immediately interrupted: ‘Padraic is just about to slice
the nipple off [belonging to James, his torture victim] when the phone goes
off’ (McDonagh 2003: 15).
The Lieutenant of Inishmore perhaps offers a satire on Republican vio-
lence, but its targets are too broad, and with a focus on ‘cat battering’ any
satirical edge is surely blunted. Unlike, A Night in November there seems to
be no obvious recommendation of the benefits of peace, and no clear tar-
gets, ‘legitimate’ or otherwise. Nor is there any sort of understanding of ‘the
Troubles’, Republican violence, or paramilitary factionalism; no awareness
of the events that fuel Republican violence, e.g., Cromwellian genocide, the
inflexible British adherence to economic liberalism that caused ‘the great
emptying’ following the potato famine, or the effect of internment without
trial. James sells marijuana, for which he is tortured by Padraic, but this
is largely part of the comedy of violence; there is little understanding of
the drug ‘turf wars’ that have arisen in Northern Ireland since the end of
‘the Troubles’ as dissident paramilitaries have moved into drug trafficking.
The trivial and the serious are conflated. Joey, for example, one of the assas-
sins, claims that there are ‘no guts involved in cat battering […] like some-
thing the British would do […] like on Bloody Sunday’ (McDonagh 2003:
26). He goes on to say: ‘Same as blowing up Airey Neave. You can’t blow
up a fella just because he has a funny name. It wasn’t his fault’ (McDonagh
2003: 26–27). Similarly, Padraic condemns the Guildford Four: ‘Even if they
didn’t do it, they should have taken the blame and been proud’ (McDonagh
2003: 30). All the characters are fools: Christy and Brendan, two of the
assassins hoping to kill Padraic, hopelessly misquote Marx; Donny and
Davey discuss the relative advantages of joining the INLA as opposed to
the IRA, solely in terms of opportunities for travel. All of the characters are,
in fact, little more than ‘thick Paddies’.
In Beyond a Joke: the Limits of Humour (2005), Lockyer and Pickering
comment that ‘comic meaning is also dependent on the settings and the


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Tim Miles

contexts in which a joke is told … What is funny at one time is not funny at
another’ (Lockyer and Pickering 2005: 9). The Lieutenant of Inishmore has had
huge commercial, and critical, success, but mainly outside of the island of
Ireland, winning many awards and having many productions in, for exam-
ple, the United States. To an English, and more so, an American audience,
where Irish Republican violence no longer has any significant impact, the
undoubted comic skill of this play has attracted large audiences. In Northern
Ireland matters are different. Ulster may be post-war but it is not post-con-
flict. At the time of writing, September 2009, a 600-pound bomb was made
safe by the roadside in County Armagh; according to the BBC website: ‘It
is suspected that dissident Republicans left the bomb.’ (BBC News 22 Sep
2009: ‘Dissident Republicans: threat to peace’). Sectarian violence, on some
level, has continued throughout the peace process. Neil Jarman, in a report
for the Institute for Conflict Research, published in 2005, entitled No Longer
a Problem? Sectarian Violence in Northern Ireland, claimed that in Northern
Ireland there was on average five attacks per month on churches, chapels, or
Orange Halls between 1994 and 2005; that there were 376 riots in the inter-
face zones of north Belfast over the same period; that the police recorded
294 ‘serious’ sectarian incidents between April 2001 and March 2004. At
least seventeen barriers (peace walls) have been built, extended or height-
ened in Belfast since the ceasefires of 1994. Comedy also requires distance.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore has never been produced in Northern Ireland.


The History of the Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da) was ‘a major success’ (Maguire
2006: 26) in May 2002 as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast.
Subsequently there was an Irish tour, three ‘sell-out’ runs at the Grand Opera
House in Belfast, and a transfer to the Tricycle theatre in London in May 2003.
The play is a comic romp through 33 years of ‘the Troubles’, between 1969 and
1992, covering key events, such as internment, the Anglo-Irish agreement, the
death of Bobby Sands, the Brighton bomb, power sharing and the trials involv-
ing ‘super grasses’. The story is told through the eyes of Gerry, a working class
Catholic, who struggles to survive ‘the Troubles’, with his friends, Fireball and
Felix, and a wide array of minor characters. Identification between audience
and performers is encouraged, not this time through monodrama (like in A
Night in November), though there is considerable multi-rolling creating a simi-
lar effect, but also through direct address.
There is superiority humour: the ineffectiveness and cruelty of the British
government policy is attacked, with ‘internment without trial’ being referred
to as ‘lock-em-up-for-fuck-all’ (Lynch, Grimes, McKee 2005: 17). While this
may be seen as a form of incongruity, describing British government policy in
vulgar terms, it forms part of a ridiculing of those who took part in, and were
responsible for, the violence: ‘the street barricade’ (Lynch, Grimes, McKee
2005: 34) is referred to as ‘Belfast’s greatest architectural triumph’ (Lynch,
Grimes, McKee 2005: 34); gunmen shoot themselves in the foot, metaphori-
cally and literally, and we can feel superior to most of the participants engaged
in the ‘war’. The play’s principle comic device, however, is relief. On many
occasions the play sets up an expectation of seriousness, to dissolve the matter
in humour – usually humour connected to sex, the body, or both. For exam-
ple, at one point Gerry’s son thirteen-year-old son, Colm, talks to his father
about the distress he feels about ‘the Troubles’:


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‘Pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’

Colm: Adults like fightin’ over religion and politics … adults kill people
over whether you’re Irish or British, and … and they blow people up in
pubs … and shoot people at their doors in front of their families and
other horrible things …
Gerry: That might well be true.
Colm: Adults are bad people.
Gerry: Are they?
Colm: They are daddy. I don’t want to be an adult when I grow up.
Gerry: Y’don’t.
Colm: I’d rather sit in my room, listen to Stiff Little Fingers, and mas-
turbate all the time.
(Lynch, Grimes, McKee 2005: 58)

The play acknowledges the pain caused to Colm by the war, while, at the
same time, suggesting he is like any other thirteen-year-old boy, in Belfast,
London, or elsewhere, interested mainly in thoughts of sex and popular cul-
ture. While Bergson commented that emotion is the enemy of humour, the
important point here is that the emotion is dissipated. The relief theory of
comedy relies on surprise, but paradoxically it is reassuring. A similar ‘ten-
sion then release’ joke structure is repeated frequently throughout the play:
for example, there is Gerry’s speech about the death of the Republican hunger
striker, convicted murderer, and member of parliament, Bobby Sands:

Gerry: Bobby Sands is dead. It was like a sledgehammer hittin’ my chest.

I didn’t think he’d do it. I didn’t think it’d go to the end. I thought some-
body, somehow, somewhere would step it. That woman … [Margaret
Thatcher] … is truly, truly a bastard.’
Fade lights. Blasts out a song by The Jam. Gerry is kneeling on his bed – face
down on all fours. He is about to have a haemorrhoids operation.
(Lynch, Grimes, McKee 2005: 59)

Pain is released by the humour of Gerry’s indignity. We may feel angry,

as Gerry does, at Sands’ death, but will quickly be made to feel better at
his expense. The play concerns itself with classic Freudian interests: birth
(Gerry’s babies), sickness (Fireball works in a hospital), sex (Felix is obsessed
by his wife’s breasts), and, above all else, survival. In acknowledging them,
in using theatre to enact ‘the talking cure’, the prospect of health and sanity
is offered. Towards the end of the play Gerry goes to a ‘post traumatic stress
councillor’ (Lynch, Grimes, McKee 2005: 7). He needs therapy, and this is
what this play offers its audience, through the repetition of the tension then
release joke motif, and the triumph of the libido. Attending a performance is
to attend a group massage session, a form of group therapy, for those who
need it. The play ends with the Good Friday Agreement being signed, and
with the sentimentality of Gerry, alone on stage, cradling his newly born

Gerry: … You’re one big blank page, that’s what you are. But you’re the
next page, our kid … You’re the next page.
Gerry smiles at his grandchild as the lights fade to BLACKOUT.
(Lynch, Grimes, McKee 2005: 69)


COST 1.1_art_miles_43-60.indd 53 1/14/10 9:31:11 AM

Tim Miles

2. I know this because I Unlike A Night in November and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The History
was, at the time of this
production, box office
of the Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da) was a dismal failure when it was per-
manager of the Tricycle formed in England. At the Tricycle, despite having the same cast as the
theatre. The Tricycle Belfast production, it played to tiny audiences2 and was largely savaged by
has a substantial Irish
audience and figures the critics. Their almost universal disappointment with the play was largely
were about half what because they thought it was simply not funny. Lynn Gardner, writing in
was expected by the The Guardian claimed that ‘wit seems quite beyond Mr Lynch’ (Gardner,
theatre’s management.
2003), while Sarah Hemmings, in The Financial Times, called it a ‘feeble,
coarse comedy’ (Hemmings, 2003). In The Evening Standard, Nicholas de
Jongh referred to the writers as having ‘a warped sense of humour’, and
called the play a ‘lumbering triviality’ (De Jongh, 2003), while John Peters,
in his review for The Sunday Times, talked disparagingly about ‘pub humour’
(Peters, 2003).
If A Night in November is a celebration of change, then The History of
the Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da) is a celebration of permanence, almost of
the banal: of the triumph of the continuation of the ordinary. The term
‘normalization’ is used in Northern Ireland to represent the movement
from ‘the Troubles’ to a society where its citizens’ concerns share more
common ground with their neighbours in Ireland, and across the Irish
Sea: job, home, family, and so on. Unlike The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the
play acknowledges the pain and real events of ‘the Troubles’; and unlike A
Night in November, the moral complexities of the conflict, for Gerry, and his
friends, exist on the margins of the violence, both complicit and appalled
by it. To an English audience in 2003, no longer fearful of Irish terrorism,
with no direct experience of ‘the Troubles’, possibly bored of media and
cultural representations of gunmen and barricades, there was no tension
and release, no therapeutic value, and, as a result, no comedy. To a Belfast
audience, in a city struggling towards ‘normalization’ this play is anything
but a ‘triviality’. It is an important reinforcement of the possibility of the
triumph of the ordinary: going to the pub, playing darts, having a family,
but without the spectre of violence.
It is curious that scholastic, as well as journalistic, criticism has not real-
ized the significance of this play. While Maguire devotes significant attention
to some of Lynch’s other plays in his otherwise excellent, and comprehen-
sive book, Making Theatre in Northern Ireland (there are eight pages on The
Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty, for example) and significant sections on other
‘Troubles comedies’ (six pages on A Night in November, for example), The
History of the Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da) gets only a series of minor refer-
ences, all in relation to memory or narrative technique. The play’s comedy
is not mentioned, let alone its social significance analysed. This is especially
curious given Maguire’s book is subtitled ‘through and beyond the Troubles’,
for surely that is precisely what the play is offering its audience, through the
comic device of tension and release.

Caught Red-Handed was first performed in the Northern Bank Building, in
Belfast, in February 2002. The play is set in what was then the future, in
2005. It is the eve of a referendum on a United Ireland, following an ‘ulti-
matum’ (Loane 2002: 14) by the American president (Hillary Clinton) to
the British Prime Minister (Michael Portillo). The Paisley-like charismatic
leader of the Alternative Unionist Party (AUP), itself a parody of the DUP,


COST 1.1_art_miles_43-60.indd 54 1/14/10 9:31:11 AM

‘Pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’

is simply know as ‘the Leader’ (giving him despotic associations). He has

staked his reputation on stopping the vote, claiming that it is ‘undemo-
cratic’ (Loane 2002: 15), that is until he suddenly dies, on the toilet. His
‘inner circle’ of supporters: Watson (a former paramilitary); McIlroy (a reli-
gious zealot); Wayne (the Leader’s son), and Wylie (the party’s spin doc-
tor), are unsure what to do, until they see Pat, a Catholic bar steward, who
is the spitting image of the Leader. They persuade Pat to impersonate the
Leader until they have successfully disrupted the vote. Initially, Pat is reluc-
tant, but he then becomes excited by the prospect of power, and the atten-
tions of the Leader’s wife, Constance. However, a change of heart leads
to him being almost assassinated by Watson, and Wayne takes over the
leadership, only to surprise the other members of the ‘inner circle’ when
he comes out as gay and embraces a liberal, progressive agenda. The play
ends just before the result of the vote is announced, with the outcome in
the balance.
Caught Red-Handed is a satire, on Unionist politics, as well as a wider
satire on Loyalist culture, and contemporary politics. Wylie is the party’s
PR spokesman who, when estimating the turnout for those supporting the
AUP claims: ‘Thirty thousand at least. Fifty for the press release’ (Loane
2002: 16). Watson, the macho former paramilitary thinks ‘re-thinking is a
sign of weakness’ (Loane 2002: 16), reflecting Constance’s reluctance to
drink tea, for doing so ‘seduces us to sit on the sofa and sort out our trou-
bles’ (Loane 2002: 39). The play attacks political duplity and Loyalist in-
fighting and violence. Indeed, David Trimble, when forced to resign as first
minister claimed that his downfall had less to do with his failure to defeat
the Republican parties, and more to do with his inability to work with Ian
Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. Pat, once in the guise of the Leader,
gets surprisingly enthusiastic about his role, at least initially, glorying in the
empty phrases of political rhetoric: ‘I am not now and never have been a
member of the Provisional Orange Order, so I cannot speak on their behalf.’
[…] ‘Selling their children off and spreading their tentacles to infiltrate and
control other countries as well as their own. That is the real Irish diaspora’
(Loane 2002: 40).
Similarly to The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the play adopts a range of comic
techniques, including those drawn from farce and slapstick. As with The
History of the Troubles references to sex and bodily functions are common: the
Leader is constipated (sufficiently so, it seems, to kill him), and, his replace-
ment, Pat, would ‘love to go at Celine Dion’ (Loane 2002: 27). The farcical
use of rapid entrances and exits is employed: ‘They [Wayne and Constance]
hear someone coming, panic, then wheel him off quickly. The moment they
disappear the opposite door flies open … (Loane 2002: 49). There is a neat
sight gag, and theatrical joke, whereby the same actor who played the Leader
reappears as Pat who ‘has a remarkable similarity to the Leader’ (Loane 2002:
21), and yet no one notices this for some time. The knowing bricolage of post-
modern irony is seen when Wayne and Constance break into Stormont to
the sound of ‘Mission Impossible type music’ (Loane 2002: 49), and fantastic
cartoon images are evoked when Constance is described: ‘smoke comes out
of her ears’ (Loane 2002: 36). The superiority comedy of anxiety is also seen
when, for example, Pat repeatedly chastises himself for swearing: ‘Shite, I for-
got (and again) Bollocks! (and again) Fuck!’ (Loane 2002: 28).
Religion is also satirized. McIlroy has visions of the risen Christ, who informs
the ‘inner circle’ that: ‘Now I have you, you orange bastards’ (Loane 2002: 24).


COST 1.1_art_miles_43-60.indd 55 1/14/10 9:31:11 AM

Tim Miles

Religious moral hysteria is ridiculed when McIlroy is ‘histrionic’ (Loane 2002:

34) when Pat and Constance embrace:

Pat beams and they leave arm-in-arm. Wayne is distraught and McIlroy his-
McIlroy: Ooohh, the storm clouds are gathering. The earth is preparing
to mock our very existence.
(Loane 2002: 34)

However, beyond these comic ideas, Caught Red-Handed offers the prospect
of the possibility of change within Unionist politics. The intolerance of the
Leader is replaced by his son, whose final speeches incorporate Kenneth’s
feeling of individual liberation from A Night in November, but also goes on to
offer far wider prospects for change and a lasting peace:

Yesterday I had a closet private life, a buried body, a transplanted father,

and over-sexed mother and peace in NI to worry about. But I can see
clearly now. And for the first time in my life I feel free.
(Loane 2002: 54)

There is another way for us. There has to be. I don’t exactly know
what it is yet and I can’t pretend I have all the answers because I want
to be up front with you. But I do know that I want us to find the way
together. And if we lose the referendum we deal with it. It’s not the
end of the world; it’s the new beginning of a new challenge… .
(Loane 2002: 57)

In his essay ‘Jokes and Joking: a Serious Laughing Matter’, Jonathon Miller
claimed that:

The value of humour may lie in the fact that it involves the rehearsal of
alternative categories and classifications of the world in which we find
ourselves. … [in comedy] we almost always have rehearsals, playings
with and redesignings of the concepts by which we conduct ourselves
during periods of seriousness.
(Miller 1988: 13)

The satire of the play points to all the ‘categories and classifications’ that have
prevented Northern Ireland’s Unionist politics, at least within the Democratic
Unionist Party, fully embracing the peace process: intransigence, intoler-
ance, religious zealousness, fear of ‘the other’, and, in fact, fear of change.
Commentators such as Susan McKay in Northern Protestants: An Unsettled
People (2000) have commented on the fear, and negative self-definition of
parts of the Loyalist community. The script of Caught Red-Handed includes
a poem by James Simmons entitled ‘Ulster says Yes’, and in the play’s final
scenes we see how this may happen: that Wayne can come out, and lead
a grass-roots Unionist party offering tolerance; that McIlroy can abandon
his religious judgementalism, finally acknowledging ‘How can something
so beautiful be wrong?’ (Loane 2002: 56) when he sees Pat and Constance
‘passionately embrace’ (Loane 2002: 56); that Watson finally realizes that his
‘principles’, which he claimed he would never ‘sacrifice’ (Loane 2002: 57) are


COST 1.1_art_miles_43-60.indd 56 1/14/10 9:31:11 AM

‘Pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’

actually little more than an ‘obedient grunts’ (Loane 2002: 57); and that Wylie
can acknowledge the power of honesty.
Caught Red-Handed has never been produced outside of the island of
Ireland. It may appear perhaps too schematic and idealistic to appeal to ‘out-
siders’, with many specific cultural and historical references (to, for example,
the 1973 strike that bought down the Sunningdale Agreement), yet the same
could be said of A Night in November, with its sell-out run at London’s Tricycle.
It is the play’s clear, culturally specific political targets that give it a context
that prevents the humour from travelling unlike the personal (and therefore
more accessible) targets in Marie Jones’ play. For the play to be funny (beyond
the sex and shitting jokes, sight gags and farcical door slamming) requires an
understanding of Unionist politics: again, context conditions comedy. Walter
Ellis, writing in The Sunday Times in 1994 summed up what many Unionists
regard as English attitudes towards them:

The English are not touched by our devotion. Rather, they think that
we ourselves are ‘touched’, Proper Paddies in fact. Vile is how they see
us, just like the Boers, and when we pledge our loyalty, they shy away,
embarrassed, as though we had just broken wind.
(Ellis 1994: 32)

Most English producers, and audiences, do not care enough about the Unionist
experience to find humour in Loane’s targeted barbs.

I have perhaps used comedy theory in an overly generalized way in my refer-
ences to superiority, incongruity and relief, and there are undoubtedly many
nuances, and complexities, that I have overlooked. Nevertheless, I hope that
by trying to argue that comedy is culturally located, and potentially politically
functional, that I may have made a contribution to a debate. Whether one is
considering political comedy, notions of offensiveness and ethics in comedy,
or some other aspect of the rich field of comedy studies, I am reminded of
the importance of Bergson’s insistence that ‘… to understand laughter, we
must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all
we must determine the utility of its function, which is a social one’ (Bergson
1980: 65). A Night in November offered the peoples of Northern Ireland a
character freeing himself of petty prejudice, but to an English audience per-
haps helps reinforce certain stereotypes. The Lieutenant of Inishmore offers a
rich comic tapestry but only to those who are sufficiently distanced from the
reality of the events it describes. The History of the Troubles (Accordin’ to my
Da) acts as a therapy to those who have been close to the violence of ‘the
Troubles’, but seems largely irrelevant, and unfunny, to those who have not.
The comedy of Caught Red Handed is perhaps unable to transcend its specifi-
city. Nevertheless, all these plays ask us to think about alternatives to vio-
lence and it is here that Bergson’s ‘utility’ lies.

Bergson, Henri (1980), On Laughter, Baltimore: John Hopkins University.
Billig, Michael (2005), Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour,
London: Sage.


COST 1.1_art_miles_43-60.indd 57 1/14/10 9:31:11 AM

Tim Miles

BBC News (2009), ‘Dissident Republicans: threat to peace’, 22 September, http://

news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/773157.stm. Accessed 24 September
Carr, Jimmy and Greeves, Lucy (2006), The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden
Meaning of Jokes, London: Penguin.
Critchley, Simon (2002), On Humour, Abingdon: Routledge.
Freud, Sigmund (1991), Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (ed. Angela
Richards), Penguin Freud Library, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
De Jongh, Nicholas, review of The History of the Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da)
in The Evening Standard. Theatre Record 21 May – 17 June 2003, P. 709.
Double, O. (1991), ‘An Approach to the Traditions of British Stand-Up
Comedy’, Ph.D. thesis, Sheffield: Sheffield University.
Ellis, Walter (1994), The Sunday Times, 26 June 1994.
Gardener, Lynn review of The History of the Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da) in
The Guardian. Theatre Record 21 May – 17 June 2003, P. 709.
Griffiths, Trevor (1976), Comedians, London: Faber and Faber.
Hemming, Sarah review of The History of the Troubbles (Accordin’ to my Da) in
The Financial Times. Theatre Record 21 May – 17 June 2003, p. 709.
Hobbes, Thomas (2003), Leviathan (eds Karl Schuhmann and G.A.J. Rogers),
Bristol: Thoemmes.
Jarman, Neil (2005), ‘No Longer a Problem? Sectarian Violence in Northern
Ireland’, Institute for Conflict Research, http://www.community-rela-
Accessed 5 May 2008.
Jones, Marie (2000), Stones in His Pockets, also featuring A Night in November,
London: Nick Hern.
Kennedy, Maeve (2005), ‘The Troubles with Fictional Troubles’, The Guardian,
land. Accessed 28 October 2009.
Loane, Tim (2002), Caught Red Handed, Belfast: Tinderbox.
Lockyer, Sharon, and Pickering, Michael (2005), ‘The Ethics and Aesthetics of
Humour and Comedy’, in Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering (eds),
Beyond a Joke: the Limits of Humour, Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, pp. 3–17.
Lynch, Martin, and Grimes, Connor and McKee, Alan (2005), The History of
the Troubles (Accordin’ to My Da), Belfast: Lagan.
McDonagh, Martin (2003), The Lieutenant of Inishmore, London: Dramatists
Play Services Inc.
McDowell, Wallace ‘Challenges and Reaffirmations in the Representation of
the Ulster Protestant’. Irish Theatre in England, 15 May 2005, National
Portrait Gallery, London.
McKay, Susan (2000), Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, Belfast:
Maguire, Tom (2006), Making Theatre in Northern Ireland: Through and Beyond
the Troubles, Exeter: University of Exeter.
Miller, Jonathon (1988), ‘Jokes and Joking: A Serious Matter’, in John Durant
and Jonathon Miller (ed.) (1988), Laughing Matters: A Serious Look at Humour,
Harlow: Longman, pp. 5–16.
Mitchell, Gary, Remnants of Fear (unpublished script).
Mitchell, Gary, Stranded (unpublished radio script).
Northern Ireland Office: The Good Friday Agreement. http://www.nio.gov.
uk/agreement.pdf. Accessed 29 October 2009.


COST 1.1_art_miles_43-60.indd 58 1/14/10 9:31:11 AM

‘Pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’

Parkinson, Alan F. (1998), Ulster Loyalism and the British Media, Dublin: Four
Court, Peters, John review of The History of the Troubbles (Accordin’ to my
Da) in The Sunday Times. Theatre Record 21 May – 17 June 2003, p. 709.
Stepping Stones: the Arts in Ulster 1971–2001 (2001), eds. Mark Carruthers and
Stephen Dodds, Belfast: Blackstaff.

Miles, T. (2010), ‘‘Pack up your troubles and smile, smile, smile’: comic plays
about the legacy of ‘the Troubles”, Comedy Studies 1: 1, pp. 43–59, doi:

Tim Miles is an Associate Lecturer, and Ph.D. student, at the University of
Surrey and a member of the British Institute for Humour Research. He is on
the steering committees for the British Institute for Humour and the Popular
Performance Network, and on the editorial board of Comedy Studies. His
PhD thesis is provisionally entitled ‘Discourses of offence in stand-up comedy’.
In 2009 he was awarded, jointly with Dr Kevin McCarron, a PALATINE devel-
opment award to research the teaching of stand-up comedy in UK Higher
Education: the findings of which are due to be published in 2010. He has
published on the work of the Belfast playwright, Gary Mitchell.
Contact: The British Institute for Humour Research, University of Surrey, Guildford,
Surrey GU2 7XH.
E-mail: t.miles@surrey.ac.uk


COST 1.1_art_miles_43-60.indd 59 1/23/10 8:03:22 AM

Journal of Screenwriting
ISSN 1759-7137 (2 issues | Volume 1, 2010)

Aims and Scope

The journal explores the nature of writing for the screen image; this includes not only
Editors writing for film and television but also computer games and animation. The journal
highlights current academic and professional thinking about the screenplay and intends
to promote, stimulate and bring together current research and contemporary debates
around the screenplay whilst encouraging groundbreaking research in an international
a&o&eY[\gfYd\8d]]\k&Y[&mc Call for Papers
Bmd]K]dZg The journal invites contributions from researchers and screenwriters which discuss any
bk]dZg8^mdd]jlgf&]\m aspect of the history, theory and practice of the screenplay. This may include articles
:YjjqDYf_^gj\ concerned with film, television and computer games screenplays. Articles should be
:&DYf_^gj\8j`md&Y[&mc between 4000 and 7000 words in length.

afl]dd][lbgmjfYdk ooo&afl]dd][lZggck&[ge

COST 1.1_art_miles_43-60.indd 60 1/14/10 9:31:11 AM

COST 1 (1) pp. 61–69 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.61/1


Mutual intelligibility:
depictions of England
in German literature
and thought

Inspired by the English comic stereotype of the ‘humourless German’, this article Germany
attempts to hunt out similar caricatures of the English within German language England
culture. This is given in the form of a historical overview of the English in German Canetti
literature stretching from Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz’s tragedy ‘Der Englander’ to Anglophilia
the work of the exiles Elias Canetti and Franz Baermann Steiner in wartime London. satire
Canetti’s posthumously published memoir Party im Blitz (2005) is the subject of caricatures
particular attention. The essay concludes with an assessment of the disproportionate stereotypes
historical relationship between Germano- and Anglophilia, and an assertion of hope
for increased reciprocal mockery between the two nations.

Über Mord, sogar Kannabilismus scherzhaft zu sprechen, fällt den 1. To joke about murder
Engländern viel leichter, als dies in Bezug auf Diebstahl zu tun.1 or cannibalism seems
to be far easier for the
(Franz Baemann Steiner: 1988) English than to do the
same about theft (Franz
Baumann Steiner).
Representations of the Germans in English comedy are well known; they are
grotesque, outlandish and flamboyant: Freddie Starr goose-stepping or Spike


COST 1.1_art_harris_61-70.indd 61 1/14/10 9:32:53 AM

James Harris

2. http://www.youtube. Milligan’s Hitler with a custard pie on his face. The murderous earnestness
PjyRwfedk. I would
of the Nazis has proved an unavoidable temptation for British comedians,
make a case for this a sore not to go un-rubbed, whereas, breathtakingly enough, in an inter-
being the single laziest national production like Where Eagles Dare (Hutton, 1968), Anglo-American
piece of comedy from
a supposedly intelligent actors have relished the chance to dress up as fascists while retaining moral
comedian I have ever un-impeachability. Even a supposedly sophisticated Anglophone comedian
seen. like Dylan Moran can pander to the laziest stereotypes about ‘Nazi’ Germans
3. And yet satirical in order to get a guaranteed laugh.2
representations of the
Nazi past do appear in One cannot readily find equivalent satirizing of the English in German
German everyday life; in culture. Even in the Nazi time itself, English formality and alleged haughti-
the popular appellation ness formed the basis of a successful German romantic comedy like the Die
of Hitler as ‘der Mann
mit dem Schnurrbart’ englische Heirat (1934). In this the English aristocrat Douglas Mavis manages,
(‘The Man with the over the course of the film, no less a feat than to get engaged twice and married
Moustache) or the satire
magazine Titanic’s front
once. It should not be forgotten that the film was released only a year before
cover of the dictator the release of Triumph des Willens/Triumph of the Will (1934). Germans them-
just before the 2006 selves have only recently begun to feel comfortable enough with their Nazi
World Cup. During the
tournament, German past to begin portraying elements of it in a comical light (see the 2007 comedy
Chancellor Angela Mein Führer – Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler/My Führer – the
Merkel made a point really truest truth about Adolf Hitler, starring the late Ulrich Mühe) – let alone
of attending German
games, to the extent that turning a satirical focus to their one-time liberators.3 To find a truly satirical
a newspaper headline representation of England and English ambitions in Germany, one might have
in Germany pictured a
grinning Merkel with the
to go back to the rather diabolical ‘Charlie and his orchestra’, a jazz ensemble
caption ‘Kommt sie zur supporting the aristocratic English fascist William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’),
WM?’ (Is she coming to who broadcast scathing diatribes against the Allies to the accompaniment of
the World Cup?) Titanic
replied with a front cover searing big band jazz.4
picture of Hitler along These days, German business English websites give slightly tormented
with the question guides to English humour (‘The English are famous for their humour. A little
‘Kommt er zur WM?’
(‘Is he coming to the practise is however required, to be able to laugh with the English’5 – the con-
World Cup?’). junction of humour and practise here is for me delightfully earnest and inap-
4. Also known as the propriate) and jabs at the English are, at least in the official sense, limited
‘Mr. Goebbels’ Jazz to the occasional bandied stereotype about boozy Englishmen abroad or the
Band’, Charlie and
his orchestra provide English obsession with Nazis. (That being less, presumably, than the German
yet another macabre obsession?).6
episode in the mass
insanity of the 1930s.
In truth, it seems difficult enough to find German comedy at all, never mind
English accented Karl narrow that focus to comedy concerning itself specifically with Germany’s
Schwedler would sing island neighbour. There is an abundance, however, of comment, analysis
popular swing hits,
before switching into and interpretation of England in the German language, and this article will
new, pro-Axis lyrics to attempt to provide an overview of some of the most intriguing instances of
well-known tunes, such such material.
as ‘Yes, the Germans
are driving me crazy/I If we conceive of the history of Europe as being marked by the mutual igno-
thought I had brains/ rance of the larger nations of each other, followed by a sudden explosion of
But they shot down my
planes’ to the tune of
intercultural exchange occasioned by the rise of mass communications, one
Walter Donaldson’s could see the early traces of the English language in German as witness-
‘You’re Driving me ing a host of positive associations. The early English loan words in German
Crazy’. The transmissions
were received by up were associated with either aristocratic sophistication (‘gentleman’, ‘smok-
to six million listeners in ing’, ‘dandy’) or democratic behaviour (‘parliament’, the adjective fair and,
England. more latterly fair play). German vocabulary in English seems to be, when used
5. http://www.e-fellows. at all, largely concerned with finely nuanced shades of existential suffering
php/10399 (angst, weltschmerz) or divisions of the army. As such, from the lexical level
6. Interestingly, chat room
up, England has an association with the liberal and democratic in German
discussions about the culture. Intriguingly enough, the extension of the word ‘humour’ itself in the
English (such as this one sense of ‘amusing’ has come into German from English.


COST 1.1_art_harris_61-70.indd 62 1/14/10 9:32:53 AM

Mutual intelligibility

To find what is likely the first extended portrait of an Englishman in German http://blog.handelsblatt.
culture, we turn now to the work of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz and his eintrag.php?id=10)
‘Dramatische Phantasey’ of Der Engländer (1777). Lenz wrote a series of dra- seem ready to switch
mas, inspired by Shakespeare, before being found dead in a street in Moscow. into English at every
available opportunity.
The play deals with an English nobleman, Robert, and his unrequited love One must be aware
for an Italian Princess, Armida. As he announces himself in Act I: ‘Ich bin ein that here Germans are
Engländer, Prinzessin, bin der Stolz und die Hoffnung meines Vaters, des Lord writing to each other;
I myself have been
Hot, Pair von England’ (‘I am an Englishman, Princess; am the pride and joy of astounded by the amount
my father, the Lord Hot, an English peer’) (Lenz: [1774] 1987). of times I have heard
Germans speaking to
Following the frustration of his romantic ambitions, and, in the face of the each other exchanging
entreaties of his elders to return to England, Robert commits suicide by stab- not just English words
bing himself with a pair of scissors, swearing eternal fidelity to his love even but entire phrases. There
is no doubt that the
in the life beyond. The picture presented in this play is of a generically head- English language enjoys
strong young man; his Englishness seems selected for no particular purpose an enormous prestige
other than to allow Lenz the dramatic licence of portraying an unrepentant in Germany – even a
book like Deutsch und
suicide, much in the same way Renaissance playwrights escaped the censor anders: die Sprache im
by writing their insults in Italian. Furthermore, Lenz’s English protagonists do Modernisierungsfieber,
analysing the
their musings in early High German, an unlikely choice for their language of ‘Pidginisierung’
communication, making the play correspond even more exactly to the anglo- (‘Pidginisation’) of
phone Venetians of, for example, Shakespeare. German, describes the
Anglo-Saxon idiom as
While one cannot say Der Engländer provides any particular ‘Englandbild’, ‘an expressive, sober,
Lenz mentions in his later play Der neue Menoza (1774) that ‘Ich macht’s wie flexible language’, of
der Engländer und schöß mich vom Kopf’ (‘I’ll do it like the Englishman and whose status as lingua
franca the ‘world can
shoot my head off’ – I translate crudely to keep the original’s force). This goes only congratulate itself’
along with a prejudice current to Lenz’s era (the mid- 1700s) that the English (Zimmer 1998: 34).
And this from the people
had a ‘certain inclination to suicide’; a story had apparently circulated at that worried about it.
time that an Englishman had committed suicide because there was nothing
new to read in the newspaper.
This association of England and an inclination to suicide is particularly
ironic given that it was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s most cel-
ebrated poet, who gave the continent its most indelible image of suicidal incli-
nation in the titular character of his 1774 epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen
Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Goethe was a noted Anglophile,
corresponded with Byron, ordered a statue of Shakespeare built at Weimar
and observations on English life and culture occur in his works. As he himself
observed: ‘die Sentimentalität der Engländer ist humoristich und zart’ (‘The
sensibility of the English is humorous and tender’).
On a more specific level, we find an account in Goethe’s autobiography
Dichtung und Wahrheit/Poetry and Truth (1808–1831) of what is likely to have
been Goethe’s first meeting with an Englishman:

I had much contact with a young Englishman staying in the Pfelischen

tavern. He could give a good account of his language; I practised it with
him and through this learnt much of his land and people. He was often
enough round at ours, and, without my having noticed his affection for
my sister, he had quietly encouraged her passions: for all of a sudden,
the situation became suddenly and unexpectedly clear. She knew him,
she valued him, and he deserved it. In our English discussions, she was
often present as the third party; we had tried to make the complexi-
ties of English pronunciation our own, and had taken on through this
not just the peculiarities of tone and sound, but also the strangest of
the personal qualities of our teacher, so that it sounded most peculiar


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James Harris

7. The German passage: when we seemed to speak together as out of one mouth. His efforts to
Mit einem jungen
Engländer, der sich in
learn by the same method as much of German were unsuccessful, and
der Pfeilischen Pension I believe I noticed that even every dalliance of love, written as well as
bildete, hatte ich viel spoken, were carried out in English.
Verkehr. Er konnte von
seiner Sprache gute (Goethe [1808–831] 2007)7
Rechenschaft geben,
ich übte sie mit ihm und
erfuhr dabei manches
Is there anything general to be extracted from this depiction of Goethe’s English
von seinem Lande und teacher, or does it remain squarely the depiction of a particular individual? One
Volke. Er ging lange element that could be defined as typical is the depiction of the linguistic incompe-
genug bei uns aus
und ein, ohne daß tence of the English; that is, their seeming inability to acquire foreign languages
ich eine Neigung zu in the same way as other nationalities. Goethe, the national poet of Germany,
meiner Schwester an spoke Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and English; Shakespeare, meanwhile, his
ihm bemerkte, doch
mochte er sie im stillen British counterpart, knew ‘smalle Latin and lesse Greeke’ (though apparently
bis zur Leidenschaft some Welsh).8 Such linguistic incompetence, one already remarked by Alfred the
genährt haben: denn
endlich erklärte sich's
Great in the late ninth century,9 would seem as legitimate a target of another
unversehens und auf culture’s satire as the German’s apparent high earnestness and inflexibility. Here
einmal. Sie kannte ihn, a problem is encountered of central relevance to the mutual cultural perceptions
sie schätzte ihn, und er
verdiente es. Sie war oft of Germany and England: whereas the average German has a good grasp of the
bei unseren englischen English language, a typical English person has very little command of German
Unterhaltungen die Dritte beyond the most basic pleasantries.10 Yet even here the English seem to have
gewesen, wir hatten aus
seinem Munde uns beide turned their own ineptitude into a comedic strength: one might think of the
die Wunderlichkeiten scene in the second Bridget Jones film where Bridget reduces an Alpine phar-
der englischen
Aussprache anzueignen
macy to flummoxed hysterics as a result of her attempts at the German tongue.
gesucht, und uns Yet Germans too know what it is like to struggle in a foreign language, and
dadurch nicht nur das many of those who visited England in earlier times would have had precisely that
Besondere ihres Tones
und Klanges, sondern experience. Our next observer of England, Theodor Fontane, finds himself in the
sogar das Besonderste London of the 1850s, struggling to express himself – in French: ‘During a French
der persönlichen table conversation in a London hotel, [Fontane] finds himself “wie ein Schuljunge”
Eigenheiten unseres
Lehrers angewöhnt, so [like a schoolboy], he doesn’t know French. “Was einem deutschen Dichter alles
daßes zuletzt seltsam passiert ist!” (The kind of stuff a German writer has to put up with!).’
genug klang, wenn
wir zusammen wie
This scene contrasts the provinciality of the German expatriate with the
aus einem Munde zu cosmopolitan tides of 1850s’ London, then capital of the most powerful
reden schienen. Seine nation on earth. Fontane worked in England during the years 1855–1858,
Bemühung, von uns
auf gleiche Weise so under the auspices of the Prussian Government, during its attempt to create a
viel vom Deutschen ‘Deutsch-English correspondent’ – a liaison between the two European pow-
zu lernen, wollte nicht ers. Following the failure of this to materialize, Fontane effectively became
gelingen, und ich glaube
bemerkt zu haben, the official PR of the Prussian Government in England. Reading through his
daßauch jener kleine diaries of the time, one gains a sense of how isolated the various European
Liebeshandel, sowohl
schriftlich als mündlich,
exiles remained in the London of the time; there remained a Francophone
in englischer Sprache London, an Italophone London and, in this case, a Germanophone London.
durchgeführt wurde‘. The Particularly indicative are the letters produced by Fontane under the aus-
section, from Part Two,
Book Six, is available pices of the Prussian regime and delivered to the British press. An example
online at http:// would be that to a British newspaper of Tuesday 20 October, 1857, with its
odysseetheater.com/ orthographical irregularities (‘great Scandinavian kingdom’) and Germanic
htm punctuation (‘Mr. Alberts of the legation told me, you had mentioned to him
8. The quote is from a fortnight ago, that you would have no objection to break of all connexion
Ben Jonson’s elegy to with that Anglo Danish gentleman. The commas here are directly transferred
Shakespeare (Preface to from written German; it is amusing to consider that this, an official missive,
the First Folio of 1623).
The argument is that does not appear to have been checked by an English native before being sent.
Shakespeare may have From the starting point of that composite ‘mylord’, we see again the linguistic
picked up some words
of Welsh from Welsh
ignorance in which England and Germany have remained of each other; and
actors in his company of course, the ever present German sense that they can speak English. As


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Mutual intelligibility

Goethe wrote ‘A German should learn all languages, so that in Germany no such as Robert Gough;
Shakespeare’s home
foreigner is uncomfortable, whereas abroad the German is always at home’ – ‘Stratford-Upon-Avon’
a very, if I may say, un-English statement.11 situates Stratford on the
Yet Fontane’s diaries contain analysis of England that goes beyond the old Welsh for river;
hence the River Avon is
deferent or admiring: we find him observing, around the time of his first visit in fact the ‘River river’.
to England: ‘Die Engländer sitzen immer steif wie Puppen, von einem lie- 9. Alfred bemoaned the
benswürdigen sich gehen lassen ist in Gesellschaft, noch dazu von Damen, lack of Latin learning
nie die Rede’ (Fontane [1857]: 1995), (‘The English sit as stiff as puppets; in in England, lamenting
that so general was
society, the idea of letting oneself go, and especially for women, is rarely come ‘its [Latin’s] decay in
across’). England that there were
The internationally agreed prejudice of the coldness of London social very few on this side of
the Humber who could
life, what Elias Canetti later dubbed ‘Nichtberührungsfeste’ (Canetti 2003: understand their rituals
68) (non-contact celebrations) strikes the Prussian visitor; this is the famous in English or translate
a letter from Latin into
english understatement at work – a word which has appropriately enough English ... so few that
found its way into German as a neuter noun. By the time of his second visit I cannot remember a
to England, such vague impressions of England have crystallized into more single one south of the
Thames when I came to
definite impressions, such as this of the 7th of June 1857: the throne.’
10. The British-based
And this was the best of it: Prince Smith has become a convinced comedian Henning
German. From the moment that, after a stay of several years in Germany, Wehn and Otto Kuhlne
have made British
he noticed – ‘the whole German nation, in its thickest fellow, has some- linguistic ineptitude a
thing what the English people in its entirety do not know, namely hon- target by inserting large
German only sections
our.’ From this moment on his proud English heart was in his trousers. into their show, switching
This is splendid. The English have little or nothing of our sense of hon- into English again only
our and our humanity. Their ambition is a wholly other thing. They also, for Wehn to tell the
audience: ‘Übrigens:
of course, lack our sentimentality. Wir haben gerade
(Fontane [1857]: 1995) getan, was ihr macht,
wenn ihr im Ausland
seid. Ihr redet ja auch
If the relationship of Germany to England was not so encumbered by histori- immer nur in eurer
cal indebtedness and stereotypical mockery, there might be more analysis of Sprache. Wir haben
this type offered by Germans of England. The tone in German has little hostil- allerdings auf das Brüllen
verzichtet. Probiert das
ity but also a kind of up-tempo relish in cultural difference; it is one lost to us mal!’ (‘By the way, we
in a Europe which made the removal of Prussia from its maps a condition of just did what you did
when you’re abroad:
peace.12 you only speak your
Of the many word used to describe the events of Nazi Germany, own language. Of
‘gemütlich’ – an untranslatable word with a meaning somewhere along the course we went easy
on the shouting. Try it
lines of ‘holistic comfort’ – would be one of those further down the list. One some time!’) I personally,
of the side effects of their mounting persecution in Germany and Austria was however, would take this
that many Jews were forced to leave these countries and some of those did criticism more seriously
if I had not met Herr.
indeed make England the site of their exiles. Elias Canetti, the Austrian Jewish Kuhnle myself in Berlin
writer and Nobel Laureate (1981) wrote extensively about his impressions of and had him react to
every question I put
wartime London in a book published posthumously and recently as Party im to him in German in
Blitz. In this small, bitchy book, Canetti identifies the ‘coldness’, ‘self-control’ English – an unfortunate
and, over and over again, ‘pride’ of the English – a word which Canetti uses German attitude to
people learning their
extensively and to denote a venal sin. ‘Who,’ he asks, ‘whom I met in England, language, and one
was really free from pride?’ (Canetti 2003: 205). no less deserving of
Canetti’s impressions of England were established early, and in a posi- satire than English
tive sense, by his year in Manchester as a small boy. Canetti’s father was a
11. The English variant
convinced admirer of England: ‘… drum seien wir nach England gezogen, would presumably
weil man hier frei sei. Ich wusste, wie sehr er England liebte’(‘We came to be ‘the Englishman
England because you’re free here. I knew how much he loved England’) should learn no foreign
languages, but instead
(Canetti 1977: 60). go around the world


COST 1.1_art_harris_61-70.indd 65 1/14/10 9:32:53 AM

James Harris

talking their own The connection is there again between England and democracy: not an
language at the top of
the voice, drunk, while
obvious target then of the satire of a refugee from a nation in the grip of a
doing the locals the fascist dictatorship, as Austria was when Canetti fled it. As Canetti writes,
favour of urinating on he felt himself in a ‘type of idyll’ in England, and later listed his creative
their historic architecture’.
method as being to write in German while all around him spoke English.
12. On the 25 February
1947, the Alliierter
Yet at the same time aspects of the country revolted him, as he outlines in
Kontrollrat (Allied Control Party, ‘ich hatte in England gelebt, als sein Geist zerfiel’ (‘I lived in England
Council) proclaimed the as its spirit fell apart’) (Canetti: 2003). Canetti subscribes to the theory that
‘cessation of existence’
of Prussia. England gave its best with World War II, and since then has been on a grad-
13. ‘During the war, more
ual slide into spiritless materialism, encapsulated in the figure of Margaret
than fifty years ago, it Thatcher; she who inaugurated a culture of ‘Me for myself and the devil
was England’s salvation fetch the rest’. As Canetti lately elaborates: ‘Während des Krieges, vor mehr
that it was an island. It
was still an island, and als fünfzig Jahren, war es Englands Rettung, daß es eine Insel war. Es war
this advantage, such an noch eine Insel, und diesen Vorzug, der auch ein ungeheurer Vorteil war, hat
enormous advantage, it es verscherzt’ (Canetti: 2003).13
has thrown away’.)
I find this analysis very interesting: the insularity of England, so valua-
14. Spoken at a press
conference on the 14th ble as a territorial advantage in conflict, leads to, in times of peace, cultural
of January 1963. For insularity and provinciality. One might think of De Gaulle’s observation that
the full text, see http:// ‘L’Angleterre est insulaire [et] maritime’ (‘England is insular and maritime’).14
mini_site/cee/dico/c/ In actual fact there is no inherent need for an island to be insular in the pejo-
communautees-euro.htm rative sense: yet this is surely the feeling Canetti had when he arrived in
15. ‘The Englishman tends England to find he had just one reader – remarking, ‘Imagine what it means
to picture himself on the in a large country, which for me was the country of Shakespeare and Dickens,
sea: the German tends
to picture himself in the to have one single reader’ (Canetti 2003). Again, we see the English failure to
forest; it is difficult to explore other languages, and their intelligentsia’s absence of a sense of itself
formulate more precisely
the distinction in the
as part of a wider continental tradition.
two nation’s national In a sense, though, a need to attain a totalizing knowledge of European
sentiment’. culture or, more dangerously, peoples is a very German phenomenon, and
one remarked on by the English Germanist Jeremy Adler as ‘ein gewisser kon-
tinentaler Hang, Völker zu essentialisieren’ (‘a certain continental tendency to
describe peoples in essentialist terms’) (Adler 2003: 226) – and no emigrant
author can have indulged this tendency as fully and as widely as Canetti. In his
chef d’œuvre Masse und Macht/Crowds and Power (1960), Canetti devotes ten
pages to describing ‘Massensymbole der Nationen’, roughly, ‘shared group
symbols of the nations’ (Canetti 1960). In the section dealing with Germans,
he offers the following distinction: ‘Der Engländer sah sich gern auf dem Meer,
der Deutsche sah sich gerne im Wald; knapper ist, was sie in ihrem nationalen
Gefühle trennte, schwerlich auszudrücken’15 (Canetti 1960).
Canetti, born in Rustschuk in what is now Bulgaria, resident in Wien,
London and Zürich and fluent in multiple languages, is a world literary figure,
a cosmopolitan presence: a ‘German language’ author rather than a German
one. And yet – to adopt Canetti’s generalizing tone – it is difficult for me to
imagine an English literary figure writing a comparable sentence. For a start,
the formulation of the phrase is apparently inviolable; there, in their water
bound or land-locked status, the difference between two nations is precisely
encapsulated. But what does it mean?
Some theories, then; that the primal Aryan spirit, so headily evoked by
Nazi propaganda, is being referenced; that the strength of the British navy has
somehow left the average Engländer in a state of spiritual nauticality. Whatever
exactly is meant, I would argue that what is interesting here is what such a
statement is undertaking: a philosophical investigation. For me, the reaction
of Germans to England has been, rather than a simple desire to take the piss,


COST 1.1_art_harris_61-70.indd 66 1/14/10 9:32:53 AM

Mutual intelligibility

a philosophical desire to figure the place out. Canetti writes elsewhere of 16. One might think at a
pinch of the mid-
his first impressions of England’s ‘order’, of his love affair with England that Victorian interest in
‘though ever interrupted, ever springs back to life’ – and it is his Englandliebe German life and letters
that inspires him to take an investigative approach towards it. By contrast, in evidenced by Carlyle
and George Eliot; a
England,16 Germanophilia is a much more paltry tradition, evidenced most later Germanist , D.J
damningly by the fact that the majority of Anglophones do not even know Enright, described being
the term exists. one as ‘characteristically
defying English literary
Canetti was befriended in London with the poet and sociologist Franz prejudices’, http://
Baermann Steiner, a fellow exile and refugee from Prague Jewry. The two www.accessmylibrary.
would often meet in the Student Movement House, in order to discuss sociol- summary_0286-
ogy in the presence of sociological artefacts – ‘to be able to discuss Ashanti 2796650_ITM.
proverbs and meantime look at Kossi’ (the Ashanti prince). Like Canetti, 17. (In England) after a
Steiner often offers his interpretation of England in aphoristic form, as the few years and despite
notable objections, the
quote that opens this essay demonstrates. He comments on English loneli- foreigner shares the
ness, materialism, black humour and ‘anti-historical democracy’ (Steiner feeling of an intense
1988: 65), but even more than this: English nationalism. He
fears leaving England,
because, wherever he
Gleichzeitig teilt sich dem Fremden im Verlauf weniger Jahre, trotz lives, he will live on a
less important part of the
entschiedenstem Einspruch, ein Gefühl des intensiven englischen globe. He – who was
Nationalismus mit. Er hat Angst, England zu verlassen, denn wohin nothing in England –
auch immer er sich bewegt, er wird auf einem wenigen wichtigen will fear entering into
a terrible anonymity
Teil der Erdkugel leben. Er, der in England ein nichts war, fürchtet elsewhere, even though,
anderswo in einer grausigen Anonymität unterzugehen, wenn auch in in other countries, the
anderen Ländern besser gefegt, gebaut, gekocht und geliebt wird als in sweeping, building,
cooking and loving
England. 17 is done better than in
England, and specifically London, was for Steiner a place of refugee, a second
home – Canetti ranked London alongside Paris and Rome as sites of impor-
tance to world literature – and it was a London still at the heart of a mighty
empire. The England that Canetti and Steiner describe is largely gone; and it
must be said, it was a London (and even upper class central England) no more
indicative of the country as a whole than it is now. Yet we see in the quota-
tion an iron backbone of respect for Steiner for the country that has taken
him in; it is simply not the standard reaction of a refugee, alienating as some
aspects of their new culture might be, to mock their place of asylum. We must
also remind ourselves that the English are probably in a minority among the
nations of the world in their apparently irresistible desire to turn everything
into a joke. It just seems to be the case that the historical relationship between
Britain and Germany has not been a particularly rich source of comedy on the
German side.
The relationship between England and Germany has grown more compli-
cated since World War II; although, one could say that the relationship between
the cultural leader and follower of the two cultures is, at least linguistically,
more clearly defined than ever. Few Germans would now even insist on Willy
Brandt’s famous utterance ‘If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m
buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen!’ – not in a Germany of companies
where a single Anglophone presence at a company meeting ensures the entire
meeting is conducted in English. It is hard to imagine an English company mak-
ing similar concessions to a non-native speaker.
The relationship between Germany and England, then, is a lopsided one;
as is claimed in The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Germans, ‘the Germans gen-
erally adore England and have suffered in the past from unrequited love’


COST 1.1_art_harris_61-70.indd 67 1/14/10 9:32:53 AM

James Harris

18. Ate in the Greyhound: (Barkow and Ziedenitz 1993: 32–33). Though this is pop-sociology, I do
the landlord is known
as Furz [fart], which
believe that the note we have found struck most often by our distinguished
hopefully is less Germanophone commentators is an admiring attempt at the analysis of a
significant in English related and historically powerful culture. One could argue that the nature of
than in German. In
Germany he’d be a the analysis was so alien to the nature of its own subject that the interpreta-
hopeless case: first of tion itself was doomed to go awry.
all, it ruins the appetite, Nowadays, comedic dialogue of sorts could be said to be taking place. Mark
and second, you could
never answer the Britton has made a name for himself in Germany with the slogan ‘Britischer
question ‘where are you Humor – aber in deutscher Sprache!’; over the channel, Henning Wehn has
eating tonight?’ (Fontane
[1852] 1995: 22).
recently adeptly parodied the role of the humourless German on the English
comedy scene. German comedy itself is experiencing an enormous ‘comedy
boom’ and perhaps will not always restrict itself to home-grown targets.
Slowly, gradually, cautiously, one might hope that the relationship between
these two great nations will grow more amicable and that the Germans will
eventually feel historically unfettered enough to give the English the good
piss-taking they frequently deserve. That would only be, as both German and
English people like to say, fair.
Certainly there are signs from our Prussian correspondent, Fontane, that
that could once have been the case:

Erst in Greyhound gegessen; der Wirth heißt Furz, was im Englischen

hoffentlich weniger besagen will als im Deutschen. Bei uns wäre der
Mann verloren, denn einmal untergräbt es den Appetit, zweitens könnte
man auf die Frage: »bei wem essen Sie?« nie Antwort geben.18

It seems fair to say that this is a seam of humour fairly mutual to both German
and English comedy, and I would like to conclude by hoping that that fart is
heard loudly across the borders of our two nations; that it is a grenzübersch-
reitend (border crossing) one, and that if German and English culture cannot
unite on the level of metaphysical enquiry they can at least briefly coalesce to
exchange puerility.

Adler, Jeremy (2003), Afterword, Party im Blitz, Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag.
Barkow, Ben and Ziedenitz, Stefan (1993), The Xenophobe’s Guide to the
Germans, West Sussex: Ravette.
Canetti, Elias (1960), Masse und Macht, Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag.
Canetti, Elias (1977), Die Gerettete Zunge, Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag.
Canetti, Elias (2003), Party im Blitz, Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag.
Dean, Paul, ‘Writing for Antiquity: The Ironies of DJ Enright’, (2003) http://
Fontane, Theodor ([1852] 1995), ‘Tagesbücher 1852, 1855–1858’, Theodor
Fontane: Grosse Brandenburger Ausgabe, Berlin: Aufbau Verlag.
Jolles, Charlotte (1995), ‘Introduction to Tagesbücher 1852, 1855–1858, Theodor
Fontane: Grosse Brandenburger Ausgabe, Berlin: Aufbau Verlag.
Lakatos, Jane (2006), ‘Business Englisch: Der Feine Unterschied‘, http://
Lenz, Jakob Michael Reinhold (1987), ‘Der Engländer’, I.I, in Werk (ed. Damm,
Sigrid) Band I, Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag.
Lenz, Jakob Michael Reinhold (1987), ‘Der neue Mendoza’, in Werk Band I,
Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag.


COST 1.1_art_harris_61-70.indd 68 1/14/10 9:32:53 AM

Mutual intelligibility

Polenz, v. Peter (1968), Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, Berlin: Walter de

Gruyter Verlag.
Steiner, Franz Baumann (1988), Fluchtvergnüglichkeit; Feststellungen und
Versuche, Stuttgart: Flugasche Verlag.
von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang (1963), Maximen und Reflexionen, Munich:
Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.
von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang [1801–1831] (2007), ‘Aus meinem Leben:
Dichtung und Wahrheit’, Sämtliche Werke Band 14, Frankfurt am Main:
Deutscher Klassiker Verlag.
Zimmer, Dieter E. (1998), Deutsch und anders – die Sprache in Modernisierungsfieber.
Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.

Harris, J. (2010), ‘Mutual intelligibility: depictions of England in German
literature and thought’, Comedy Studies 1: 1, pp. 61–69, doi: 10.1386/

James Harris is a writer and translator resident in Berlin. He is the Associate
Editor of Comedy Studies and has published work in The May Anthologies, The
Liberal and Bordercrossing Berlin. His blog is accessible at http://thefourline-
E-mail: james-b-harris@hotmail.com


COST 1.1_art_harris_61-70.indd 69 1/23/10 8:05:05 AM


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COST 1 (1) pp. 71–83 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.71/1

University of Wolverhampton

Take my mother-in-law:
‘old bags’, comedy
and the sociocultural
construction of the
older woman

This article investigates how older women are depicted in jokes, how jokes about joke-telling
mature women conform to or challenge stereotypical notions of the older woman, female comedians
and explores the sociocultural function of laughing at and with ‘old bags’. The article the carnivalesque
asks questions about the role and functions of jokes about older women and argues gender
that jokes are lies in search of the truth. Jokes can neutralize fears and defuse ten- comedy and ethics
sions; but they also reveal what disturbs us. The thinking underpinning the article popular performance
is informed primarily by Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas about carnival and the carniva- Mikhail Bakhtin
lesque, though Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘disciplinary power’ and Edward Said’s
concept of orientalism are briefly referenced. An earlier version of this article was
presented as a paper at the ‘Playing for Laughs’ conference at Leicester De Montfort
University in February 2009.


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1. Where possible I have I’m not saying the mother-in-law’s ugly, but she uses her bottom lip as
acknowledged the
source of jokes cited.
a shower cap. She’s found a quick way of making yogurt; she just buys a
However, many jokes, bottle of milk and stares at it for a couple of minutes. A man knocked on
such as this one, do not the door and asked if I’d like to donate something to the home for the
have a single, authored
source and where this is aged. I said, ‘Yes, take my mother-in-law.’1
the case the joke is not
referenced. Additionally,
I have adapted some of Jokes about mothers-in-law and older women have a long provenance.
the jokes. According to Jim Holt, The Philogelos, or Laughter-Lover, is the world’s oldest
surviving book of jokes, probably compiled by two authors during the fourth
or fifth centuries A.D. Joke number 263 of The Philogelos runs something like
this: ‘I had your wife for nothing’ [says one man to another]. ‘More fool you
[comes the reply]. I’m her husband; I have to have the ugly bitch. You don’t’
(Holt 2008: 13).
That joke, which could be at least 2500 years old, points to the longevity
and persistence of jokes about women and also demonstrates the distinguish-
ing characteristics of such jokes, where mature women are viewed as essentially
unattractive, troublesome and inconsequential. Both Britain and America seem
to have particular problems with older women – if the content of jokes and the
way in which mature women are treated through comedy is anything to go by.
Far from being revered, wise elders, older women are very often the butt of the
joke. Indeed, there are entire websites featuring jokes about older women (for
example, http://www.jokesaboutwomen.net/). In addition to the already men-
tioned mothers-in-law, the list of frightful and therefore risible mature females
includes nuns, spinsters, hospital matrons, and mothers of dubious pedigree –
especially stepmothers, charwomen, widows and older divorcees.
The mature woman is often depicted in popular culture as formidable,
dreadful, and frightening; and a wide range of derogatory vocabulary is used
to describe her – for instance: bitch, witch, harridan, battleaxe, harpy, gor-
gon, dragon, tartar, old boiler and miserable old cow. ‘Redoubtable’ is a more
polite, but nevertheless clear reference to any and all of the previous derisive
terms. In contrast, there is an ostensibly kinder terminology, although this
removes an older woman’s potency altogether – old dear, wrinklie, gimmer,
poor dab, Nan, Gran, Grandma and sweet old thing.
Women are not born old, of course; ipso facto, all women will once have
been young. For the purposes of this article, and given UK life-expectancy
figures for 2005–2007 – the average life expectancy for women is 81 years
(source: Office for National Statistics) – I am defining women as ‘older’ when
they have attained, let us say, the age of 42.
My critical thinking is informed primarily by Mikhail Bakhtin’s work in
relation to carnival and the carnivalesque, in suggesting older women are
manifestations of that ‘eccentricity’ which Bakhtin maintains is legitimized by
carnival (cited in Hawthorn 1992: 16); and that through reclaiming the joke,
even where it is derogatory, they can take ownership of it.
Whilst Bakhtin is the main theorist influencing this article, the discussion
is also informed by two other theorists: Michel Foucault’s (1926–1984) notion
of ‘disciplinary power’ helps the understanding of how jokes position gen-
der identity by disseminating concepts of an idealized female body. Foucault’s
notion of disciplinary power derives from his use of the panopticon as a meta-
phor for the way in which power operates – through its use of ‘hierarchies,
inspections, exercises and methods of training and conditioning’ (Foucault,
cited in Gordon 1980: 158). Diane Macdonell, summarizing Foucault, sug-
gests that the consequence of this for the individual is that the ‘body’ is thus


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‘connected with processes of meaning: it is tied to an identity’ (Macdonell

1986: 109). In response to this, I argue that jokes are used to reinforce nega-
tive imagery of older women and to negate them, as a punishment for their
non-conformance with a sociocultural archive of rules that disenfranchises
women who are perceived to have lost their looks and their sexual allure.
The second theorist acknowledged is Edward Said (1935–2003), whose con-
cept of orientalism is helpful for its description of ‘the way in which the Orient
is “controlled” by making statements about it [and] describing it’ (Said 1991:
3). Following Said, my argument is that, like the Orient, definitions of women
have been established by others (perhaps men in particular) making statements
about them and describing them. Jokes contribute to the totality of statements
and descriptions used to establish a set of rules about older women. It is that
which makes women the subject of cultural hegemony and, since comedy is an
aspect of culture, it follows that comedy practice will demonstrate features of
‘cultural imperialism’, as defined by Said in Culture and Imperialism (Said 1993),
in the comedic forms and styles that have been privileged. Where Said refers to
‘narratives’, we can understand these to include jokes: ‘the power to narrate or
to block other narratives [...] is very important to culture and imperialism, and
constitutes one of the main connections between them’ (Said 1993: xiii). Hence,
we can perceive jokes made about women and ways of describing women
through jokes as aspects of that discourse of culture and imperialism.
In addition to referencing the theorists identified, the term ‘phallogocen-
trism’, as used by Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), is acknowledged, specifically
for its notion that, ‘the hidden, legitimizing presence […] is […] the Father,
whose authority is a starting point or unconsidered assumption’ (Hawthorn
1992: 30). Traditionally, most comedians have been male, whose historical
domination of public forums for the telling of jokes is a means of promulgat-
ing a patriarchal view of the world – paradoxically, a view that has not often
been challenged by female audiences.
Mikhail Bakhtin’s belief that ‘laughter and its forms represent […] the
least scrutinized sphere of the people’s creation’ (Bakhtin 1984: 4) provides
a motivation for examining jokes about older women. Jokes tend to depict
women in one of three dimensions. One-dimensional gags caricature women
by using a single attribute to symbolize the woman in the joke – as in Donald
McGill’s postcards, for example, where an unfeasibly large pair of bosoms
often identifies older women. Two-dimensional gags stereotype women: as in
jokes that combine a status – the mother-in-law, for instance – with one other
characteristic, like endless chattering. Three-dimensional jokes show women
as characters – where the woman is more of a subject, rather than an object,
and is given a first name, for example, along with other personalizing details.
What is not seen to a great extent is a fourth-dimension, where older women
can be comical, yet also complex and multifaceted.
Almost all jokes about older women relate to one of three subjects – their
controlling relationships with immediate family; their trivial interests (mostly
gossiping, curtain-twitching or shopping); and, above all, a variety of negative
manifestations of the menopause, including fluctuating moods and ill-temper,
deteriorating physical appearance and diminishing sexual allure, and either a
lack of interest in sex or an insatiable desire for it.
I would like to turn now to some jokes to illustrate how older women are
treated in comedy. There are twelve categories of joke featuring older women
that I identify. In offering these examples, I am mindful of the words of Max
Eastman who asserts that, ‘the correct explanation of a joke not only does not


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sound funny, but it does not sound like a correct explanation’ (cited in Holt
2008: 119). Nevertheless, I have taken this opportunity to provide some com-
mentary on the subtext of a selection of the jokes, though space precludes a
full discussion of all of the gags.


‘Simon,’ his wife said, nose buried in the paper, ‘it says here that the
government is going to trim the navy; it’s going to destroy six superan-
nuated battleships.’ Simon looked up and said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that,
dear. You’ll miss your mother.’

In this version of the classic mother-in-law joke, the comedy derives from
misplaced imagery. The idea of a battleship (which is a warship of the heavi-
est type) is juxtaposed with the term ‘superannuated’ (meaning: ‘too old to
serve usefully’, according to the New Collins Concise English Dictionary) and
the phrase is relocated from the context of the armed forces to a domestic
environment. This joke provides a good example of the one-dimensional gag:
Simon’s mother-in-law is reduced to a single object that is at once fearsome,
yet moribund – formerly powerful, it is now rendered obsolete. The joke serves
a male view of the world and does not only demean the mother-in-law, but
also derogates Simon’s wife.
The following, shorter gag exemplifies jokes that serve primarily as a
means of expressing simple dislike of older women as a homogenous group.
The comparison with the body’s waste matter is a clever use of language,
but also points to an underlying view that older women can be, literally,

Q. How is an older woman like a laxative?

A. They both irritate the shit out of you.

In the next two categories of joke, the way in which the identity of older
women is constructed through comedy can be discerned. In the first example,
the gag relies on defining the mature woman as essentially superficial. In the
second, Tommy Cooper’s joke depends on the extent of the husband’s lack of
interest in his wife’s appearance – which could be a joke against him, were it
not for the underlying suggestion that he does not notice his wife because she
has ceased to be of physical relevance.


What dominates the thoughts of women as they get older? 16–20: sex
and shopping; 20–40: shopping and shopping; 40–60: getting old and
wrinkly; and shopping; 60–80: the price of electricity; and shopping; 80
plus: whingeing and shopping.


A bloke gets home from work. His wife greets him at the door. She says:
‘Do you notice anything different about me?’ He says: ‘You’ve got new


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shoes.’ She says, ‘No.’ He says, ‘You’ve had your hair done.’ She says,
‘No.’ He says, ‘You’re wearing a new dress.’ She says ‘No.’ He says, ‘I
give in. What is it?’ She says: ‘I’m wearing a gas mask.’
(Tommy Cooper)


Two elderly women were out driving; both could barely see over the
dashboard. They came to a junction. The lights were red, but they just
went through. The woman in the passenger seat thought to herself: ‘I
must be losing it; I could have sworn we just went through a red light.’
After a few minutes, they came to another junction and the lights were
red again; and again they went right though. This time, the woman
in the passenger seat was almost sure that the light had been red. At
the next set of lights, sure enough, the light was definitely red and
they went right through and she turned to the other woman and said,
‘Elaine! Did you know we just ran through three red lights in a row!
You could have killed us!’ Elaine turned to her and said: ‘Oh, shit, am
I driving?’

That joke is an example of the two-dimensional gag. In this instance, the eld-
erly women are stereotyped by their size (they are short: ‘little old ladies’). But
the driver is accorded a first name (Elaine), which gives her status, as does the
fact that she owns a car. This version of the joke relies for its comedy on the
clichéd supposition that women are bad drivers and implies a joke-teller who
is unseen and male. The punchline subverts what we think is going to hap-
pen – that the joke will centre on some kind of comedy accident. Instead, the
gag leads to the point where not only is the belief that women are bad drivers
confirmed, but the elderly female driver concerned does not even realize that
she is driving.


I saw six men kicking and punching my mother-in-law. My wife said,

‘Aren’t you going to help?’ I said, ‘No. Six should be enough.’
(Les Dawson, quoted by Carr and Greeves 2007: 147)

A man went on a safari holiday with his wife and the mother-in-law.
One night, the missus wakes to find her mother gone. They go to look
for her and, in a clearing, they came upon a chilling sight. The mother-
in-law was backed up against a thick, impenetrable bush, and a large
male lion stood facing her. The wife cries, ‘What are we going to do?’
‘Nothing,’ said her husband. ‘The lion got himself into this mess; let
him get himself out of it.’


An old man tells his friend, ‘despite her age, my wife really doesn’t
seem to be growing old gracefully. Last week, she took part in a wet
shawl contest.’


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Generally speaking, mothers-in-law are generally speaking.

(Jarsz 2008: 357)
Q. Why do men die before their wives?
A. To get some peace and quiet.


What does a 75-year-old woman have between her breasts that a

25-year-old doesn’t? Her navel.
If you’re an older woman and you get called in for a mammogram, look
on the bright side. At least this is one kind of film they still want you to
appear topless in.
(Haskins and Whichelow 2008: 45)
Q. Why is a handgun better than a woman?
A. You can trade in an old .44 for two new .22s.


Ianto and Myfanwy, an elderly couple, meet in a retirement home. They

hit it off and, after a few months, Ianto asks Myfanwy to marry him.
She appears a little hesitant and asks him a few questions. ‘Perhaps
I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but … how’s your health?’
‘It’s OK,’ he answers. ‘I can still enjoy life.’ ‘And how are you fixed
financially?’ ‘Fine; I’m comfortably off.’ Finally, she asks: ‘And how’s
your sex life …?’ ‘Well, infrequently,’ he declares. Myfanwy ponders this
for a few moments before asking, ‘Now, is that one word or two …?’
(Phillips 2005: 48–49)

That last joke is more complex than many of the others and is an example of the
three-dimensional joke. The elderly woman, Myfanwy, is depicted as a charac-
ter, the protagonist of the gag, and provided with enough personal details to
allow us to form a picture of a real woman in a particular place. Unusually, the
power of the punchline is awarded to the female; however, the comedy derives
from her misunderstanding of what Ianto has said and the joke concludes by
confirming the notion that older women are sexually desperate.


How do you know when your wife is dead? Your sex life remains the
same but your dirty clothes basket overflows.


How does an older woman keep her youth? By giving him money.
An elderly woman phones the fire brigade in the middle of the night. ‘Please
come at once – a couple of big hairy bikers are outside, trying to climb up to


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my bedroom window.’ Madam, we are the fire brigade – you need to call
the police.’ ‘Why? I thought you were the ones with the ladders!’


There was a golfer, called Harry. He hit into the rough and, in rescuing the
ball, he fished out a displaced genie, who gratefully grants him a wish.
‘I’d like peace in the Middle East,’ says Harry, handing the genie a map.
The genie studies it, sighs and says: ‘Five thousand years … it’s impos-
sible … no one, not even the Lord, can ever hope to achieve it. Have
you a second wish?’ ‘Well,’ admits Harry, ‘my wife, Pearl, has a horror
of oral sex. Any way you could change her mind?’ The genie scratches
his head, looks at Harry for a long while and says: ‘Just hand me that
map of the Middle East again, will you?’
(Maureen Lipman)

A problem of recounting a number of jokes within a short space of time and

related to a particular theme is that is not generally how they appear during a
stand-up comedian’s act. A comic would probably select only a few such jokes
during a routine. So the sheer volume of them in proximity to one another draws
unusual attention to the jokes. Under normal circumstances, such jokes are a
steady drip, rather than a flood. But studied in plethora older-woman jokes are
as discriminatory as those that focus on ethnicity or colour or disability, not least
because they hinge, mainly, on demeaning women for attributes about which
they can do nothing – the natural ageing process and its impact on appearance.
Moreover, depicting older women as essentially bossy, bad-tempered and toxic is
as reductive and discriminatory as using jokes that describe the Scots as mean or
the Irish as stupid. In fact, since the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations Act
(2006), it is unlawful to engage in unjustified direct and indirect age discrimina-
tion, and all harassment and victimization on grounds of age is prohibited.
Perhaps my point about the discriminatory aspect of jokes against older
women can be demonstrated by replacing the phrase ‘mother-in-law’ in some
selected gags. Take this one, for example:

Bill: I was sorry to hear that your mother-in-law died. What was the
George: We haven’t had any yet.

If the term ‘mother-in-law’ is replaced with a different phrase, the joke is

more overtly objectionable:

Bill: I was sorry to hear that your Muslim neighbour died. What was the
George: We haven’t had any yet.


Q. What’s the definition of mixed emotions?

A. When you see your mother-in-law backing off a cliff in your new


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With some alteration, that gag could read thus:

Q. What’s the definition of mixed emotions?

A. When you see a black car-thief backing off a cliff in your new Mercedes.

In this third example:

Have you heard about the man who took his mother-in-law to the zoo
and threw her into the crocodile enclosure? He is now being sued by
the RSPCA for being cruel to the crocodiles.

The replacement phrase renders the joke obviously cruel:

Have you heard about the man who took his disabled girlfriend to the
zoo and threw her into the crocodile enclosure? He is now being sued
by the RSPCA for being cruel to the crocodiles.

Of course, those jokes might not be amusing, in any case; but I suggest they
would provoke less of a frisson if their target was mothers-in-law, rather than
race or disability.
Male stand-up comedians, who are in the overwhelming majority, have,
generally, made the jokes about older women to which I have referred. Two
thousand years of jokes against older women is, arguably, a consequence of the
hegemony of the male comedian and one of the manifestations of phallogocen-
trism. There are fewer high-profile female comedians – a fact that is alluded to
by Ricky Gervais in the following quote in which he mischievously exploits our
knowledge of comedians in drag: ‘anyone who thinks women aren’t funny is an
idiot: two of my favourite comedians of the last twenty-five years are Lily Savage
and Dame Edna Everage’ (Ricky Gervais, quoted by Carr and Greeves 2007: 168).
Nevertheless, the fact of male hegemony in comedy is supported by evidence
that, in the first week of 2009 (3–9 January), The Independent newspaper’s enter-
tainments listings for comedy showed 186 stand-up comedians performing in
that week across the UK; of those, just 9 per cent, were women, and only about 2
per cent were women who are, as far as I can ascertain, over the age of 42.
Yet, tellingly, a significant number of female comedians in the twentieth
and twenty-first centuries achieved perhaps their greatest success once they
had passed the age of forty – for instance, the Americans Lucille Ball, Phyllis
Diller and Joan Rivers and British entertainers Hylda Baker, Beryl Reid and
Joyce Grenfell. It is as though unfettered by the need to be cute and feminine
in a conventional sense, women are unleashed in ways that permit an audi-
ence to laugh at them, on their own terms. But it is noticeable that, far from
avoiding jokes that denigrate older women, older female comedians often
appropriate jokes targeted against older women, perhaps as a form of self-
deprecation that is also a pre-emptive strike against an audience that might
otherwise use the female comedian’s age as an excuse to heckle. In openly
acknowledging their most obvious physical feature – their age – and doing so
at an early stage of the act, older female comedians are doing no more than
male comedians who admit to distinguishing characteristics in order to neu-
tralize their impact, allowing them to move on to what they actually want to
talk about in their acts (for example, Jonny Vegas and his appearance or Julian
Clary and his sexuality). That said, the line drawn by older female comedians


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between conforming to or challenging stereotypical notions of mature women

can be a fine one.
To look at one current example in some detail, Janice Connolly assumes the
persona of a mature Stockport housewife, called Mrs Barbara Nice. (Connolly
has been a regular performer in Peter Kay’s television programme Phoenix Nights
and has her own one-woman show Hiya and Higher.) A keen Take-a-Break
reader, the character’s reference points are the interests and attributes of older,
working-class women. She starts her show by telling the audience that she has
donned her ‘mules of amusement’ and specializes in audience participation. Her
material describes buying clothes from hospice charity shops and how delight-
ful it is to find someone who has just died who shares her taste in outfits. She
talks of making a meal for her husband of cauliflower, cod and mashed potatoes
which, she notes disappointedly, is: ‘very white on the plate’; and gives voice to
a common ruse of trying to avoid meeting a neighbour, whom you know but
do not really like, in the supermarket by hiding up an aisle and pretending to be
lost in detailed study of ‘the sugar and salt content on a can of mushy peas’. In
its content, Connolly’s material could be said to exploit the prejudices of audi-
ences against a certain kind of older woman. The way in which she delivers
it, however, subverts any demeaning aspects. Connolly’s tongue-in-cheek tone
and delivery and, especially, her use of active audience involvement empower
both the persona of Barbara Nice and the comedian Janice Connolly.
The success of Connolly’s stage persona suggests that audiences, per-
haps female audiences especially, permit older women to be funny when they
cease to be sexually threatening. Richard Wiseman, in Quirkology: The Curious
Science of Everyday Lives, reports that 71 per cent of women laugh when a
man tells a joke, but only 39 per cent of men laugh when a woman tells a
joke (Wiseman 2008: 183). Moreover, Robert Provine’s 1996 research into the
psychology of laughter found that:

Neither males nor females laugh as much to female speakers as they do

to male speakers […] The limited cross-cultural evidence suggests that
males are the leading humor producers and that females are the leading
laughers. These differences are already present by the time that joking
first appears around six years of age.
(Provine 1996: 38–47)

There are gender differences, too, in the material used by professional come-
dians. Wiseman’s research indicates that only 12 per cent of male comics
use self-disparaging humour, compared with 63 per cent of female comics
(Wiseman 2008: 184). Male comics often use jokes against women aggres-
sively, whereas female comedians deride themselves, perhaps to militate
against potential aggression – Joan Rivers, for example: ‘I think I’m the one
who caused my husband’s heart attack. While we were making love, I took
the paper bag off my head.’ Alternatively, female comedians can counterbal-
ance jokes against women by reversing the joke’s original target, thus:

An older woman goes to the doctor for a check-up and comes back
delighted. ‘What are you so happy about?’ asks her husband. ‘The doc-
tor said I have the body of a 25-year-old’, she replies. ‘OK’, says her
husband, but what did he say about your 50-year-old arse?’ ‘Oh, he
didn’t mention you at all’, says the wife, sweetly.


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I would like now to consider the sociocultural implications of laughing at and

with older women and to reflect on the ethics of joking. Jokes can be regarded
as a form of bullying, when considered from the perspective of concern for
the sensibilities of others, or even as an aspect of courtesy. In The Naked Jape:
Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes, Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves contend
that: ‘a joke is seldom, if ever, a victimless crime’ (Carr and Greeves 2007:
196). They also note that, ‘[the] jokes we tell and […] respond to reveal a great
deal about us. They can function at once to conceal and to expose our deepest
beliefs and bigotries’ (Carr and Greeves 2007: 7).
What, then, is a joke and what is its function? At their best, jokes are lies
in search of the truth. They can neutralize our fears and defuse tensions; but
they also reveal what disturbs us. In that sense, they are weapons, which is
what gives them their power to unsettle. So whilst there is hegemony within
the comedic world that reinforces the status quo, there is also taboo-breaking
and positive transgression that enables complex sociopolitical ideas to be
articulated in simple ways. At times, it can feel as though comedy is the sump
that collects the waste matter of our resentment and loathing. But comedy
also plays a crucial role in enabling us to be cruel in a neutral environment.
People are, indeed, treated badly by and in jokes: but that is rather the point
of them. Wiseman suggests that, ‘we laugh at the aspects of life that cause us
the greatest sense of anxiety’ (Wiseman 2008: 190). Historically, defusing col-
lective social angst was the function of the authorized ‘fool’, the precursor to
the professional comedian. But comedians are not solely responsible for the
content of jokes. Audiences legitimize comedians and therefore need to share
responsibility for the terms of engagement. Comedy is culture in microcosm
and the comedian is a conduit for that culture; she or he holds ‘the mirror up
to nature’ (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2). The performance space is
not, however, a real space; it is a hypothetical location in which context and
intention are paramount, but not fixed by societal norms. Hence, jokes satiriz-
ing older women should not be understood as necessarily having relevance to
real older women, because jokes occupy a separate realm from daily reality.
They form part of what the Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail
Bakhtin (1895–1975) describes in Rabelais and His World as the ‘second world’
and ‘second life’, which is ‘outside officialdom’ (Bakhtin 1984: 6).
Bakhtin investigated popular culture in mediaeval and Renaissance times
and he explores the world of carnival, in particular, as it features in novels by
the writer Rabelais. For Bakhtin, carnival is, ‘the people’s second life, organ-
ized on the basis of laughter’ (Bakhtin 1984: 8). He regards carnival as sub-
versive, because it ‘[releases us] from norms of etiquette and decency imposed
at other times […] and liberates us from prevailing truths and the established
order’ (Bakhtin 1984: 10).
Applying Bakhtin’s thinking about the carnivalesque as a framework for
understanding leads to the notion that jokes should not be subject to good
taste, etiquette, mores and legislation surrounding discrimination: the idea
that they should is a fundamental misunderstanding, perhaps even a deliber-
ate one, of sociocultural functioning. When conventions established for the
first life are (mis)applied to the second, it is rather like playing rugby league
using cricketing rules and conventions.
The terms of reference of the second reality are widely understood at a
deep, subliminal sociocultural level. We know when we are entering second
reality because the conventions are recognizable: ‘knock, knock; who’s there’;
‘there was an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman’; ‘a man walks into a


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bar’; ‘once upon a time’, and so on. Tone, style, vocabulary and phrasing indi-
cate that we are entering the second reality; and this also applies to the trans-
position of the second reality into first reality situations – humorous anecdotes
or joke-telling in the workplace or in the pub, for example. In such circum-
stances, the presence of the carnivalesque should be recognized, so that a
temporary release from established norms can be accommodated. In second
life situations, the use of profanities, lampooning of particular constituencies
and, even, misogyny is necessary, for as Bakhtin asserts:

It is characteristic for [carnival] to use abusive language, insulting words

or expressions [because] these abuses [are] ambivalent: while humiliat-
ing and mortifying they at the same time [revive and renew].
(Bakhtin 1984:16)

Bakhtin submits that, ‘degradation […] has not only a destructive, negative
aspect, but also a regenerating one’ (Bakhtin 2008: 21).
It is curious that, as the culture has become more aware of virtual reality
in cyberspace, it seems to have lost the capacity to engage with second reality
in the form of carnival. Discernment – the ability to be discriminating and to
make distinctions between contexts and intentions – is a condition of matu-
rity, and a sense of humour is an indication of maturation. Bakhtin reminds us
that, according to Aristotle, a child does not begin to laugh before the fortieth
day after birth and, only from that moment, does she or he become a human
being (Bakhtin 1984: 69). Moreover, as Provine points out:

[We] have much less conscious control over laughter than over speech
[…] people are about 30 times more likely to laugh when they are in a
social situation than when they are alone […]
(Provine 1996: 38–47)

A conundrum for comedy lies in the tension between equality and diversity
values and legislation, and the fact that, as Carr and Greeves observe, ‘a good
joke can make us “lose control of [our] social self-edit function”’ (Carr and
Greeves 2007: 181).
For some male comedians – and, indeed, male audiences – jokes that
pillory the older woman are the price women pay for having the ‘temerity’
to undermine ideas of the archetypal mature woman as hausfrau or mother
figure. Older women who refuse to cooperate with notions of the mature
woman as nurturer and helpmate risk being punished with death by a thou-
sand punch-lines. But it is imperative that comedians have the right to tell
such jokes and that audiences understand why that needs to be the case, not
least because one alternative to the acceptance of Bakhtin’s ‘second reality’ is
the pervasiveness of what Holt describes as the ‘tyranny of bourgeois moral-
ity’ (Holt 2008: 119), which is far more concerning. As Carr and Greeves point
out: ‘[a] great many of the individuals who take offence at a joke […] do so on
behalf of a minority group of which they themselves are not members’ (Carr
and Greeves 2007: 191).
The agendas of those who wish to proscribe demeaning jokes need to
be opened up to greater scrutiny and problematized. They are by no means
as ideology-free or as concerned about equality and diversity as those who
promulgate them would have us believe. Discriminatory jokes allow deroga-
tory views to be brought to the point of recognition, so that they can be


COST 1.1_art_shade_71-84.indd 81 1/14/10 9:54:56 AM

Ruth Shade

challenged or neutralized. It is for that reason that sexist, ageist jokes need
to be accommodated by older women, because strategies are available to
mitigate the impact of negative jokes. Women can choose not to laugh; they
may heckle; they might work as comic performers, take ownership of the
material and reconfigure it. But they should not be infantilized by the pre-
tence that if pejorative jokes are not made, they will cease to exist; or that
if jokes are placed under suspicion in ‘legitimate’ forums, they will not be
displaced to other, underground or Internet, forums; or that the deep-seated
beliefs that they reveal will not continue to be embedded in society and in
the culture.
Applying the rules of engagement from the first reality to carnival reality is
misplaced. Instead, let women subvert the joke and use it for their own ends:

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a mature, independent, self-assured

princess happened upon a frog, which hopped into the princess’s lap
and said: ‘I was once a handsome prince, until an evil witch cast a spell
upon me. One kiss from you, however, and I will turn back into the
dapper, young prince that I am, and you will become young and beauti-
ful once more. Then, my sweet, we can marry and set up house in yon
castle, where you can prepare my meals, clean my clothes, bear my chil-
dren, and forever feel happy.’
That night, as she enjoyed a meal of lightly sautéed frogs legs seasoned
in a white wine and tarragon cream sauce, she thought to herself: ‘I
don’t think so.’

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984), Rabelais and His World (trans. Hélène Iswolsky), First
Midland Book Edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Carr, Jimmy and Greeves, Lucy (2007), The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden
World of Jokes, London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Foucault, Michel (1991), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans.
Alan Sheridan), Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Gordon, Colin (1980), Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge, Selected Interviews and
Other Writings 1972–1977, Brighton: The Harvester Press.
Haskins, Mike and Whichelow, Clive (2008), Wrinklies Joke Book: The Old Ones
Are The Best, London: Prion.
Hawthorn, Jeremy (1992), A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory,
Sevenoaks: Edward Arnold.
Holt, Jim (2008), Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes,
London: Profile Books Ltd.
Jarsz, Hugh (2008), Roar, Titter and Snort Joke Book, London: Prion.
Macdonell, Diane (1986), Theories of Discourse: An Introduction, Oxford: Basil
Phillips, Dilwyn (2005), More Welsh Jokes, Talybont: Y Lolfa Cyf.
Provine, Robert R. (1996), ‘Laughter’, American Scientist, 84:1, pp. 38–47, http://
cogweb.ucla.edu/Abstracts/Provine_96.html. Accessed 18 August 2009.
Rabinow, Paul (ed.) (1991), The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s
Thought, London: Penguin.
Said, Edward (1991), Orientalism, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Said, Edward (1993), Culture and Imperialism, London: Chatto and Windus.


COST 1.1_art_shade_71-84.indd 82 1/14/10 9:54:56 AM

Take my mother-in-law

Shakespeare, William, (1982), Hamlet (ed. Harold Jenkins), The Arden Edition
of the Works of William Shakespeare, London: Methuen.
Wiseman, Richard (2008), Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives,
London: Pan Books.

Shade, R. (2010), ‘Take my mother-in-law: ‘old bags’, comedy and the
sociocultural construction of the older woman’, Comedy Studies 1: 1, pp. 71–83,
doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.71/1

Originally from south Wales, Ruth Shade is Head of Department and Principal
Lecturer in Drama at the University of Wolverhampton. Her specialist teach-
ing areas are storytelling theatre, popular performance and comedy. Her
research interests are women and comedy, popular performance and English-
language performance practices in Wales. She is the author of Communication
Breakdowns: Theatre, Performance, Rock Music and Some Other Welsh Assemblies
(2004), published by the University of Wales Press.
Contact: University of Wolverhampton, Wulfruna Street, Wolverhampton,
WV1 1LY.
E-mail: r.shade@wlv.ac.uk


COST 1.1_art_shade_71-84.indd 83 1/14/10 9:54:56 AM

Studies in Comics
ISSN 2040-3232 (2 issues | Volume 1, 2010)

Aims and Scope

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COST 1.1_art_shade_71-84.indd 84 1/14/10 9:54:56 AM

COST 1 (1) pp. 85–100 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.85/1

Queen’s University of Belfast

Court jesters of the GDR:

the political clowns-
theatre of Wenzel &

The Da Da eR clown productions of Hans-Eckardt Wenzel and Steffen Mensching Liedertheater
were deemed too risky for publication in East Germany (the GDR) and have largely (song theatre)
remained a secret among the initiated. Originally members of the Liedertheater GDR
(song theatre) group ‘Karls Enkel’, Wenzel and Mensching branched out from 1982 censorship
onwards into the realm of clowns, acquainting themselves with the history and the- clowns
ory of this theatrical tradition from commedia dell’arte through to Karl Valentin. carnival
With their masks, parodic linguistic hybrids and awareness of the particular sig- comedy
nificance of body, time and space that constitutes the clown’s chronotope (Bakhtin Bakhtin
1981), they created a grotesque mise-en-scène from which to comment on the last political song
years of the GDR, finally laying the dying state to rest in a chorus of laughter in German unification
1989. This article will also show how Wenzel and Mensching dealt artistically with
the abrupt shift from socialist to capitalist society in the 1990s after the fall of the
Berlin Wall.


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David Robb

1. An earlier version of INTRODUCTION

this article appeared as
‘“Wenzel & Mensching: ‘There are times when one has to be a fool or a clown to survive unscathed.’
A Carnivalesque
Clowns” Act Spanning
(Programme entry for Latest from the Da Da eR, Schwerin Film Festival,
the GDR and United October 1990)
Germany’, in German The film Latest from the Da Da eR (Deutsche Film AG) directed by Jörg
Studies Review XXIII, 1,
2000, pp. 53–68. Foth and written by and featuring the East German poet clowns Hans-Eckardt
2. Berlin Tagesspiegel
Wenzel and Steffen Mensching has just been released on DVD in the UK
quoted in concert and in North America in the autumn of 2009. For the first time this remark-
programm of the able political clownesque phenomenon has finally been made available to an
Hammer-Revue, Potsdam,
11 December 1993. English speaking audience. The following article will examine the work of the
All translations from the duo in the historical context of the final years of the GDR and, in doing so,
original German titles present Wenzel and Mensching’s act as an example of political comedy in a
and texts in this article
are by David Robb. context of censorship and taboo. It will explore how the duo, faced with the
3. The former received an transformation from socialist to capitalist society in the early 1990s, drew on
Amiga golden record for their knowledge of the clown’s tradition of humour from commedia dell’arte up
sales in the GDR. to Valentin and Brecht to keep their comedy sharp and relevant.
4. It was always unclear For twenty years together Hans-Eckardt Wenzel and Steffen Mensching
whether the Karl refered
to Karl Marx or Karl formed a theatrical clowns’ act that spanned the 1980s in the GDR and the
Valentin. The ambiguity, 1990s in united Germany.1 Described by the Berlin Tagesspiegel as ‘Brecht plus
however, could be Goethe times Weill to the power of Eisler divided by Valentin equals Wenzel
exploited by the group
wherever it suited them. & Mensching!’,2 they did indeed constitute a mixture of literary cabaret, politi-
5. The FDJ were actively cal song and clownesque comedy. Originally they were members of the East
involved in the promotion Berlin Liedertheater (song theatre) group ‘Karls Enkel’, who, between 1976 and
of all youth music 1985, built up an ardent following in the GDR amongst students, intellec-
concerts. It was usually
inconceivable to put tuals and fans of folk and political song. Abetted by this exposure Wenzel
on a show without the and Mensching also carved careers for themselves as poets. But while their
consent of the FDJ. See
Robb 1998:156–165.
respective poetry volumes (Wenzel 1984, 1986; Mensching 1984a, 1987) and
Wenzel’s records (Wenzel [1987] 1995; Wenzel [1989] 1995)3 always sold out
immediately, Karls Enkel’s Liedertheater productions were deemed too risky for
publication and to this day have remained a secret amongst the initiated. Their
only legacy lies in the video recordings and manuscripts collected throughout
the 1980s by the Song Centre of the Academy of Arts in East Berlin. After
the fall of the Berlin Wall in autumn 1989 Wenzel and Mensching’s reputa-
tion spread in the wake of DEFA’s film adaptation of Latest from the Da Da eR
(1990) and accolades such as the Heinrich-Heine-Preis (1990), the Deutscher
Kleinkunstpreis of Mainz (1991) and the Kabarettpreis of Nuremberg (1995).
Since the duo broke up in 1999 both have pursued successful careers, Wenzel
as a solo singer-songwriter winning countless national prizes for his song
albums including his German adaptation of Woody Guthrie songs on Ticky
Tock (2003), and Mensching as a poet and author with critically acclaimed
novels such as Jacobs Leiter (2003) and recently as the manager of the theatre
of Rudolstadt. But it is their, mostly unknown, work as theatrical clowns in
the GDR which will form the basis of this article. With reference to the theory
of Mikhail Bakhtin, one of Wenzel and Mensching’s sources of inspiration,
I would like to examine the comedic essence of an extraordinary clown act
which bridged two political systems.
Karls Enkel (meaning ‘Karl’s grandchildren’)4 formed in Berlin in the
autumn of 1976 at the time of the controversial expulsion from the GDR
of dissident protest singer Wolf Biermann. Their first programme of songs
earned them the nickname ‘Biermann’s Enkel’ from the Central Committee
of the Free German Youth (FDJ),5 but a motion to ban them was defeated on


COST 1.1_art_robb_85-100.indd 86 1/14/10 10:01:36 AM

Court jesters of the GDR

their behalf by a friend in the Berlin District Committee of the FDJ (Körbel
1993). Thus began a thirteen-year career on the borderline between tolerance
and prohibition. In this sensitive period in GDR arts, new techniques were
being explored to express the inexpressible or taboo, resulting in the emer-
gence of a whole culture of signs and subtexts. One system which lent itself to
this practice of codification was the Russian literary theorist and philosopher
Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival. At the time Wenzel and Mensching were
students of ‘cultural studies and aesthetics’ at the Humboldt University in
East Berlin where Professor Wolfgang Heise introduced them to the available
Bakhtin work in German at that time, Literatur und Karneval (1969). The self-
renewing significance of the carnival during the so-called stagnation years of
the GDR was readily viewed as a potential secret code: a metaphor for change
or otherness. Researching carnivalesque theatre forms such as the commedia
dell’arte, Wenzel and Mensching perfected techniques such as masked role
play, the use of puppets, illogical use of stage objects and robust slapstick
comedy, incorporating these into their literary, political song act. All these fac-
tors culminated in Karls Enkel’s grotesque reflection of GDR reality on stage.


After initial experimentation in A Goethe Evening in 1982, it was in the
Hammer-Revue later the same year that Wenzel and Mensching were to real-
ize the full theatrical potential of the carnivalesque. This joint project of Karls
Enkel, Beckert & Schulz, and Wacholder was conceived against the back-
ground of simmering political disenchantment, increased by the stationing
of new Soviet SS20 rockets in the GDR and the prohibition of the unofficial
peace movement known as ‘Swords to Ploughs’. Indeed the taboo theme of
pacifism was to feature strongly in the revue.
The Hammer-Revue was an evening of songs, music, poetry and clowns
scenes. The production took the form and structure of a Piscator proletarian
revue of the 1920s, but this was ironically inverted to parody socialist real-
ity of the 1980s itself. While, for example, the main characters of the ‘Red
Revues’ had been the capitalist, the policeman and the proletarian hero, those
of the Hammer-Revue were the dictator, the general, the ‘fellow traveller’ and
the clown. The ambivalent characteristics of these figures, on the other hand,
derived much from the commedia dell’arte. In adapting these two alternative
theatrical forms for the GDR stage, the directors Wenzel and Mensching
unearthed a basic irony: Piscator’s revues, like the commedia dell’arte, had
parodied precisely the historical master-servant relationship which the GDR
claimed to have resolved.
Also of significance were the costumes and full masks, worn in a Karls
Enkel production for the first time. These, as particularly evident in the debut
of Wenzel and Mensching as the clowns Weh and Meh, served to increase
the potential for political parody. The donning of masks had traditionally
been a satirical response to the social masks of convention and etiquette. As
Rudolf Münz states, its function was ‘to expose the masked-ness of life by
using masks’ (Münz 1979: 97). In 1993, after viewing a video recording of the
original Hammer-Revue performance, Wenzel remembered the institutional-
ized masking of the truth in the GDR:

It was as if the actors from that time, as masked realists, had set their
last hopes on portraying an upside-down world […] The country that


COST 1.1_art_robb_85-100.indd 87 1/14/10 10:01:36 AM

David Robb

6. In one performance, had defined itself as historical advanced was, by means of illogical his-
the association of this
scene with GDR reality
torical ‘dualectic’, in the process of re-interpreting reality. And it seemed
was emphasized when that everything was masked just like the actors on the old video record-
the road manager ing had masked themselves. The ‘weapons of war’ were called ‘peace
momentarily opened
the curtains to reveal weapons’, the resolution to station rockets wasn’t called ‘Stationing
a portrait of Walter Resolution’ rather ‘Double Resolution’ […] Pacifism was given the mask
Ulbricht behind the stage of the ‘class enemy/war opponent’.
(Seeboldt 1983).
(Wenzel 1983: unpagenated, original emphasis)
7. Bleib erschütterbar,
doch widersteh!’ was
nonetheless interpreted The mask traditionally possesses a dualistic symbolism. Whether the mytho-
by the authorities in logical figure of Hermes, the Indian trickster or the court jester, the clown
Cottbus as a ‘call for
organised resistance figure is never static. Frequently it embodies a unity of opposites such as tragic
against the GDR’. and comic, clumsy and acrobatic, or good and evil (von Barloewen 1987: 43).
Cottbus was the This duality could be seen in the carnivalesque commedia dell’arte where seri-
only town where the
production was banned. ous and comical figures were often unified in one character – the Harlequin,
This was later uplifted. for example, being renowned for his transformations. In the twentieth century
See Kießling 1983
this dual motif has often been mirrored in mistaken identity scenarios such
as Hynkel and the Jewish Hairdresser in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940),
8. Münz writes of the
commedia dell’arte: or Galy Gay and Jeriah Jip in Brecht’s Man Equals Man (1926). In this duality
‘The main means of also lies an element of utopian renewal as in the change from one state to
effect was the grotesque
comparison “whereby
another in carnival, e.g., from knave to king. It is therefore significant that
the most heterogeneous the three main characters of the Hammer-Revue, the clown, the dictator and
things were brought into the general, all undergo metamorphoses. Mensching, the aggressive dictator,
relationship with each
other often in surprising is transformed into a helpless clown when he is derided with laughter by the
ways” (Münz 1979: cast in a scene reminiscent of the ritual carnivalesque humiliation of the king
152). Included quotation (Bakhtin 1984: 197).6 The general, played by Dieter Beckert, displays a mixture
Pirker 1927.
of gallantry and madness. The latter is reflected by the skeleton puppet he
carries with him. Like the mask, the puppet has a grotesque ambivalence.
On one hand, it denotes a harmless doll, on the other, it reflects the general’s
degradation into madness and the deception behind the logic of the military
world. Beckert’s metamorphosis reaches its climax during his performance of
Peter’s Rühmkorf’s ‘Remain Shakeable and Resist!’ When he drops his mili-
tary jacket on the ground and walks off stage, he symbolically rejects the logic
of the Cold War. With this, he also demonstrates how gestures and costumes
can speak louder than censorable words.7
Wenzel’s large red painted mouth is a carnivalesque symbol of death and
destruction, but also rebirth (Bakhtin 1984: 317). Throughout the Hammer-
Revue his pranks reflect the traditional rogue-like characteristics of the
Harlequin. But laughter and exuberance transform into melancholy introspec-
tion when he demasks himself before singing his own ‘Feinslieb, du lachst
dazu’ (‘My love, you just laugh at it’) (1982). This song, about the dying of
love but also the opportunity of a new beginning, invites analogy with the
stagnating socialist ideal in the GDR. With this metamorphosis Wenzel leads
the audience out of carnival fervor and back into everyday reality.
Other carnivalesque techniques are used in the Hammer-Revue to under-
mine static models of thought. Absurd juxtapositions of contradictory phenom-
ena8 abound, for example, the arbitrary topsy-turvy use of stage objects. This
is reminiscent of the carnival, in which, as Bakhtin states, objects are ‘turned
inside out, utilized in the wrong way […] Household objects are turned into
arms, kitchen utensils and dishes become musical instruments’ (Bakhtin 1984:
410–12). Wenzel’s clarinet is used in the course of the evening as a telescope,
a gun, a stick or a microphone. One scene, for example, is reminiscent of


COST 1.1_art_robb_85-100.indd 88 1/14/10 10:01:36 AM

Court jesters of the GDR

Karl Valentin’s ‘The Bewitched Music Stand’ (Valentin 1978: 525–534) in being 9. Back cover of Bakhtin
(1984) Rabelais and his
an absurd slapstick constructed around a music stand. Attempting to piece the World.
stand together Mensching clambers around Wenzel’s body, ending up in an
upside-down position with his legs wrapped around Wenzel’s neck. This tra-
ditional clowns motif is symbolic of a world turned topsy-turvy. The ‘continual
rotation of the upper and lower parts suggests’, according to Bakhtin, ‘the rota-
tion of earth and sky’ whereby ‘the buttocks persistently try […] to take the
place of the head and the head that of the buttocks’ (Bakhtin 1984: 353).
In Wenzel and Mensching’s subsequent production News from the Da Da
eR (Da Da eR being a wordplay incorporating the terms DDR and Da Da)
this upside-down motif supports a parody of the absurdities of GDR travel
restrictions. Here the music stand is introduced as a model railway, a ‘PIKO
Model Railway’. The various legs and arms of the stand are given names such
as ‘the locomotive’ and ‘the adapter’ to which the clowns attach conspiratorial
significance: ‘Get your hands off the adapter. If I catch you once more on the
adapter, then I’ll give you a panning!’ (News from the Da Da eR 1983). Playing
on the power of association heightened by the atmosphere of taboo – the
clowns appear to be about to attempt to flee the republic! – Weh and Meh
increasingly draw the audience into a game of nonsense which ends in the
clowns’ farcical entanglement with the music stand.
Such word games or linguistic hybrids play a frequent role in News from
the Da Da eR. A trait of popular humour dating back to the Latin parodia sacra,
Bakhtin describes a hybrid as ‘the repulsion of the foreign-born sacred word’
(Bakhtin 1981: 77). A dialogic process takes place in that two styles meet in
the same word, ‘the language being parodied […] and the language that paro-
dies’ (Bakhtin 1981: 75): for example in Wenzel’s reference to Mensching as
his ‘blooming comrade’ in the song ‘The Singer’s Curse’, which plays on the
ambiguity between ‘comrade’ and ‘Party Member’. In this way the official lan-
guage is ridiculed as empty rhetoric. In the scene ‘It is a special honour for me’,
a parody of an official prize-giving ceremony, ‘Akademie’ of Arts (the venue for
the performance) is transformed into ‘Epidemie’ (epidemic) of Arts. The clowns
lavish one another with ironical distinctions, stabbing each other with med-
als and feigning agonizing deaths. Documented on video, the audience, whose
participation in such mind-numbing official ceremonies is a necessary part of
professional life, roars with laughter (News from the Da Da eR 1983).
In the scene ‘Tenor in a divided world’, from August 1989, a hybrid is
constructed from the ambiguity of the word ‘Stimme’ meaning both ‘voice’
and ‘vote’. Wenzel has not seen his ‘Stimme’ since he was last at the polls – a
reference to the election rigging in Dresden of that year. In an ensuing slap-
stick, Mensching performs an operation on Wenzel’s throat, locates the voice
and exclaims: ‘There you are, I’ve got it. A typical model from the 1950s, solid
in basic construction, euphoric in basic tone, a bit dirty’ (Wenzel & Mensching
1991: 21). Here they are alluding to the irrelevance of the communist party
leaders who still wallowed in the achievements of the construction years of
the GDR in the 1950s. Exploiting the dialogic potential of a word, the clowns
thus find an aesthetic solution to a political contradiction.


Bakhtin’s writings on laughter have also been interpreted as ‘a subtle condem-
nation of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinist Orthodoxy’.9


COST 1.1_art_robb_85-100.indd 89 1/14/10 10:01:36 AM

David Robb

10. See Karls Enkel’s Indeed, the parallels between the function of laughter at a Wenzel and
treatment of the theme of
anarchy in Enkel 1980.
Mensching concert – its critical power as well as its limitations – and in the
carnivals of the Middle Ages, are at times striking. At certain officially sanc-
11. Despite a concerted
effort by the Stasi (GDR tioned times of the year the medieval carnival took place. Only here was it
secret police) to recruit possible to celebrate ‘the people’s unofficial truth’and to momentarily discard
Wenzel to inform on
other band members,
the official truth propagated by the church (Bakhtin 1984: 90). A comparable
Wenzel held firm and polarity existed in the GDR: the dogmas one paid lip service to in public ceased
avoided contact. Finally to be valid in one’s own private sphere, where jokes at the shortcomings of the
the attempt to recruit
him was called off. See state were commonplace. The ‘unofficial truth’ was associated with laughter
Robb (ed). 2007: 242. and mockery, and Wenzel and Mensching instinctively knew how to exploit
Based on Stasi report this. As Bakhtin states, ‘laughter liberates not only from external censorship
BStU MfS XV/2522/78
from 11 March 1981, but first of all from the great interior censor; it liberates from […] fear of the
p. 281. sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power’ (Bakhtin 1984: 94). The laughter
12. Der Kulturbund even at a Wenzel and Mensching concert enabled momentary release from other-
sponsored two of Karls wise all-powerful social taboos.
Enkel’s productions. This
institution contained the But like the carnival, it is false to assume that Karls Enkel concerts consti-
members Wolfgang tuted a hot bed of political subversion. In carnival, the expression of utopian
Heise and Karin Hirdina,
two of Wenzel and
change – in the transformations, the grotesque images and the upside-down
Mensching’s lecturers at antics – was merely symbolic: the social hierarchy reverted to normal as soon
the Humboldt University. as the carnival was over. Similarly the concerts of Karls Enkel provided an
Wolfgang Heise, as an
‘victim of fascism’ had outlet for pent-up frustration in the GDR. The audience revelled in this brief
a certain invulnerability divergence from the norm, not unlike the carnival, where ‘for a short time
and was able to protect life came out of its usual […] consecrated furrows and entered the sphere of
them. Roger Woods
writes: ‘A widely utopian freedom. The very brevity of this freedom increased its […] utopian
acknowledged past as radicalism’ (Bakhtin 1984: 89).
an anti-fascist who has
suffered at the hands of
But while the carnival exuded a disrespectful boisterousness this did not
the Nazis […] inhibits rule out the conformity of its participants in normal life. As Bakhtin states: ‘In
the Party from taking medieval man’s soul, attendance at official mass could coexist with a gay par-
legal action against
an individual’ (Woods ody of truth in which a world is “turned inside out”’ (Bakhtin 1984: 95). Here
1986: 19). again lies a parallel. Outside of their artistic lives Wenzel and Mensching did
13. This information is based not subscribe to the political opposition. Although previously refused entry
on interviews with the to the Party because of ‘anarchic tendencies’ (Wenzel 1997),10 Wenzel was,
cast as well as on
articles in the pamphlet from 1980, a member of the Socialist Unity Party (SED).11 He believed in the
Die Hammer-Revue- reformabilty of socialism and that this was best achieved from working inside
Dokumentation 1982, the system. Mensching shared this point of view:
14. Ständer writes that the
rumours that Wenzel In spite of the stagnation, one had the feeling (and that was certainly
and Mensching had also a self-deception in terms of how it turned out) that something had
complete freedom had
been instigated by the
to happen. That’s why we stayed here. We thought we had to promote
Stasi. In fact: ‘Both of something – to laugh at the situation in order to change it or at least to
them could point to ridicule it to the extreme.
several bans’.
(Mensching 1984b)

Protected from the censors with good references from allies in the cultural
establishment12 they were able to avoid prohibition. The Hammer-Revue was
performed around the whole GDR13 only running into difficulties in Cottbus in
March 1983, where a temporary ban was uplifted after the influential mediation
from the Academy of Arts of the GDR and the Committee for Entertainment
Arts. Wenzel and Mensching earned the tag ‘Court Jesters of the GDR’, envied
by colleagues for their privileged status (Ständer 1997: 25).14
It was, however, also due to their aesthetic of laughter that Wenzel and
Mensching achieved a ‘fool’s freedom’. Carnivalesque laughter, according


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Court jesters of the GDR

to Bakhtin, eluded censorship more easily than satire. It does not raise itself 15. Gaukler, Clowns
und Komödianten.
above the object of derision, ‘it is directed at all and everyone […] it asserts Tragikomödie im Film.
and denies, buries and revives’ (Bakhtin 1984: 11–12). Bakhtin finds an Von Chaplin bis Fellini.
example of this in the grotesque writings of the Renaissance author François Bundesarbeitsgemeins-
chaft für Jugendfilmarbeit
Rabelais. The following recount of Rabelais’ avoidance of the stake is some- und Medienerziehung
how reminiscent of the contrasting fates of Wenzel and Mensching and Wolf e. V. Weekend
Biermann – the latter’s scathing and direct political humour having being Seminar 8–10 July,
1988 (Vogelsburg
banned in the GDR: near Volkach, 1988),

We must admit that Rabelais’ prank in the style of Master Villon was
fully successful. In spite of the frankness of his writings he […] suffered
no serious persecution […] Rabelais’ friend Dolet perished at the stake
because of his statements, which although less damning had been seri-
ously made.
(Bakhtin 1984: 268)

Wenzel’s artistic motivation as a clown supports this theory. While the clow-
nesque element of productions such as in The Comical Tragedy of the 18th
Brumaire (1983) and Season in Hell (1992) were underpinned by serious politi-
cal analysis, Wenzel insists that their motivations were, in the first instance,
artistic and not political. As a clown he cannot afford the seriousness of poli-
tics for its own sake:

The political doesn’t interest me in the first instance as a clown. For

me the problem becomes political only after I’ve solved it aesthetically:
I look for the hidden thing where the philosophical contradiction lies.
And for me the philosophical always lies in the funny aspect.
(Wenzel 1994)

The carnivalesque therefore, while containing a symbolic revolutionary com-

ponent, should not merely be reduced to political subversion. It is rather an
aesthetic abstraction of something larger – the historic, collective will for uto-
pian renewal. Because of its abstract, laughing nature it is usually deemed
harmless or at least containable by authorities. At the same time, this is
relative to the explosiveness of a given political situation. Karl Valentin, for
example, whose topsy-turvy clownesque antics were initially tolerated by
the Nazis, found it increasingly difficult to work in the Third Reich after his
film The Inheritance was banned in 1936 for portraying too much ‘misery’.15
Wenzel and Mensching’s freedom to perform was likewise dependent on the
goodwill of the authorities – the aforementioned incident in Cottbus in March
1983 being indicative of this. Six years later, during the Peaceful Revolution
of autumn 1989, their fool’s freedom ceased to have validity. Amidst wide-
spread unrest surrounding the fortieth anniversary of the GDR celebrations
on 7 October, the duo was arrested prior to a concert in Hoyerswerda and
held in the custody of the Stasi for one night before being expelled from the
region (Mensching 1994b; Ständer 1997: 25).
There are many other examples from twentieth century theatre and film
where carnivalesque motifs have been used with varying degrees of politi-
cization. The wild images of carnival in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise
had poignant political significance given that the film was made during Nazi-
occupied France and released in 1945 to coincide with the country’s liberation.


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David Robb

The idea of fertility and renewal was likewise portrayed in the physical coarse-
ness of the Parisian proletariat seated in the gods. Manfred Schneider writes:
‘The cinema carnival […] of Children of Paradise was at the same time an
appeal to the passionate force of the people in a torn France that was occu-
pied by enemy troops’ (Schneider 1985: 11).
In Chaplin’s Great Dictator the mistaken identity between Hynkel and
the Jewish hairdresser effectively enables the latter to transform into a dic-
tator and deliver a truly utopian speech for mankind. The role inversion – a
traditional motif derived from the ritualized mask-wearing of carnival, and
used in Renaissance theatre from commedia dell’arte to Shakespeare to reveal
the discrepancy between appearance and reality – artistically facilitates the
expression of an anti-Nazi statement. The comical ambivalence of Chaplin’s
performance, however, was resented by the Left (Tichy 1974: 104). His
adoption of Nazi techniques to convey his message – the musical accompa-
niment of Wagner’s Lohengrin and the oratory style – blurred the distinction
between pathos and irony and invited the interpretation that he was parody-
ing political dogma in general, whether fascist or humanist. Such ambiguity
is, however, in keeping with carnivalesque ambivalence. The same contra-
diction provided a stumbling block for Wenzel and Mensching in their roles
as Don Quixote and Sancho Pansa in their 1985 production, Spaniards of
all Lands, on the subject of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil
War. GDR dissidents in the audience, looking for a blatant anti-Stalinist
stance, were disappointed by the comical but abstract dialogues on the rela-
tionship between idealism and realism. The ironical pathos of Quixote was
misunderstood as a typical GDR glorification of the International Brigade
(Robb 2001: 156–172).
Brecht, on the other hand, makes extensive use of carnivalesque motifs to
support a clearly defined ideological message. In The Good Person of Szechwan
(1940), for example, the motif of disguise reflects the maskedness of society.
The Shen Te-Shui Ta dual configuration symbolizes the alienation of the
prostitute Shen Te in the capitalist world. The gods, who are searching for
evidence of the goodness of humanity, do not acknowledge this contradic-
tion – they are only interested in appearance not reality. However, the trans-
formation of the ‘good’ Shen Te into the hard and exploitative Shui Ta cannot
be said to have utopian significance. The author merely adapts a carnivalesque
technique for his own ends. As Richard Sheppard writes:

While Brecht is drawn to the carnivalesque ethos because of its sub-

versive potential, he is critical of it when, deprived of a well-defined
location, it overflows its proper boundaries, becomes a way of life and
prevents a serious confrontation with moral and political issues.
(Sheppard 1990: 308)


Wenzel and Mensching are very much part of a tradition of twentieth cen-
tury clowning that has much in common with Brechtian alienation. The ironic
ambiguity of character, the techniques of montage and disruption, the con-
stant challenging of static perceptions of reality – these are also major features
of Wenzel and Mensching’s act. Indeed, described by Brecht in 1922 as ‘one
of the most penetratingly intellectual figures of our time’ (Brecht 1967: 39),


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Court jesters of the GDR

it is the clown Karl Valentin who is often described as ‘the teacher of Bertolt
Brecht’ (Schulte 1968: 126). What these men have in common is a particu-
lar attitude with regard to space and time. Valentin’s work, which has been
summarized as ‘critique of a static concept of time’ (Wöhrle 1985: 50), corre-
sponds, in some respects, to Brecht’s approach to a ‘free availability of space
and time’ (Jendreiek 1969: 212–213). Dieter Wöhrle writes:

In Valentin’s play with time, the present is explicitly determined in rela-

tion to the past – even here Valentin upsets the usual view of those for
whom only the finished and completed can be ascertained, while the
open present evades a concrete knowledge – and in this way he steers
his glance precisely towards the unusual within the present.
(Wöhrle 1985: 53)

One is also reminded of Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival chronotope. Literally

meaning ‘time-space’ (Bakhtin 1981: 425), the chronotope is a concept which
reflects a temporal and spatial perspective of a work of art. In contrast to the
static world outlook of the Middle Ages, the carnival chronotope was spatially
universal, temporally reflective of the ‘inconclusive present’ (Bakhtin 1981: 26).
Wenzel and Mensching’s aforementioned carnivalesque antics – the ambigu-
ous hybrids and absurd dialogues – are the embodiment of such spatial and
temporal transgression. As their dramaturg Heiner Maaß writes, ‘the clown
[moves] into timelessness’. This is evident in their autumn 1989 production
Old News from the Da Da eR where Weh and Meh glide from scene to scene
with a perfect awareness of their chronotope. The GDR reality is reflected in
a grotesque light and thereby relativized and made to appear as an ambiva-
lent part of a greater universe. No longer revue sketches, this now constitutes
theatre; the theme is the comical and sad disintegration of the GDR or rather
an alienated, grotesque reflection of this called the ‘Da Da eR’. What Bakhtin
terms the ‘small scale time’ of everyday reality is abandoned for the ‘time at
large’ of carnivalesque clowns’ tradition. Bakhtin writes: ‘Only through popu-
lar culture was [the] contemporary world able to make contact with “time at
large”. This popular culture gives depth and connectedness to the carnivalized
images of communal scenes’. Bakhtin continues in the same essay: ‘A phe-
nomenon belonging to small scale time may be purely negative, only hateful,
but in time at large it is ambivalent and always attractive because it belongs to
existence itself’ (Bakhtin 1985: 37–38).
In Old News from the Da Da eR, renamed Latest from the Da Da eR after
the fall of the Berlin Wall, the scenes and songs reflect the historical turn-
ing point. With a mixture of rage, grief, relief and anticipation, the clowns
and their audience lay the GDR to rest finally in a chorus of laughter. Weh
and Meh constantly manipulate the perspective of the audience. They can
do this since clowns have, once again in the words of Bakhtin, a ‘meta-
phorical significance […] one cannot take them literally […] they are not
what they seem […] their being coincides with their role, and outside this
role they simply do not exist’ (Bakhtin 1981: 159). Weh and Meh can reflect
any standpoint they choose, whether it be that of the humbled leader-
ship, the betrayed ‘old communist’, the Stasi or Party members who have
changed colours overnight, the disappointed left-wing intellectuals or
the re-emerging nationalist lynch-mobs. The audience, seeing their own
reflection in the parodied characters, are drawn into the unfolding comedy
and tragedy of the GDR.


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David Robb

16. The theatre in the ‘Do you remember the 1980s?’ is a parody of the aging leadership.
Palast der Republik.
The intendant of the
Sprinkling powder on each other’s hair, the clowns simulate two old men who
theatre was horrified reminisce on a glorious past. It emerges, however, that neither can remember
and later told Wenzel the 1980s. Weh has an idea: ‘Weren’t you the ancient state security general
and Mensching she was
absolving herself of all who celebrated his 80th birthday in the 1980s? […]’ (Wenzel & Mensching
responsibility for their 1991: 21). This reference to the hated and much feared Stasi chief Erich Mielke
performance. was extremely risky, all the more so as this scene was first performed on 11
17. Doberenz states how August 1989 in the theatre in the Palace of the Republic, the GDR govern-
the audience no longer
laughed at this last line ment building.16 The scene continues with further jibes at the undemocrati-
after the Politbüro had cally elected Politbüro:
lost its monopoly of
power. The line was
subsequently removed. Weh: […] Then [in the 1980s] all words that started with ‘pol’ were for-
Meh: Police were allowed.
Weh: That’s an exception that confirms the rules, like the Politbüro.
(Wenzel & Mensching 1991: 30)17

The clowns continue to relentlessly lampoon the GDR political hierarchy. With
ironical self-pity they sing of the personal tragedy unfolding: ‘I never ceased to
toil for my state/Ruled partially day and night/Now I’m old and have reaped a
fine mess/They laugh at me on the scrap heap/It’s my own fault – that’s what
I get/Never expect thanks for anything’ (Wenzel & Mensching 1991: 30). In
December 1989 a new song ‘You shouldn’t wake dead dogs’ was added to
satirize the new opportunism of the Stasi turncoats who have destroyed all
trace of their crimes. With gay abandon, the clowns dance in the style of
Rumpelstilzchen singing: ‘Take the discs and the German mark/Come lets
burn the files in the park’ (Wenzel & Mensching 1991: 31–32).
After the fall of the Wall the mood of euphoria began to change. By
January 1990 the Peaceful Revolution, originally led by artists and intellectu-
als demanding change within socialism, was overtaken by the population at
large. The scene ‘The clowns deserve to be shot’ was added to reflect this new
twist. Wenzel and Mensching feeling themselves, alongside other members of
the GDR cultural elite, accused of intellectual collaboration with the old order,
ironically offer themselves up to the audience for execution. In a typically car-
nivalesque inversion, the clowns turn a situation upside down to reveal its
absurdity: in doing so inviting contemplation on the mood of revenge which
dominates the media (1991: 53–54). In the film Latest from the Da Da eR this
scene is expanded: an entrance-paying crowd in carnival atire storms the
prison where Weh and Meh live. With whipped-up emotions the mob pur-
sue the clowns through the streets shouting ‘Hang them up!’ Reminiscent of
Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum (1959) they flee to
Paris but are unable to escape the clutches of an invisible authority. Howling
like abandoned dogs, they reflect how the master-servant relationship, unre-
solved in the communist era, is still valid today. But there was now a twist:
on the threshhold to a new era and political system in 1990 Weh and Meh
were back where they started as the court jesters, but now in a system that
percieved no need for them.


The utopian aspect of Wenzel and Mensching’s clowning had always been
abstractly linked to the idea of a reformable socialism. Now abandoned to a


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Court jesters of the GDR

capitalist fate, the clowns cut rather sorry figures. Karin and Heinz Hirdina
remarked: ‘Wenzel and Mensching now sing differently about distant climes,
the pain is conclusive, there is no longer an alternative’ (Hirdina, Heinz and
Karin 1991: 53). With the dashing of this option, Weh and Meh symbolically
banish themselves to a surreal underworld. In the Rimbaud inspired Season in
Hell from 1992 they attempted to come to terms aesthetically and philosophi-
cally with the new times.
For Wenzel, Rimbaud was the poetic expression of a man on the fringes of
society, a situation which Wenzel could identify with in the early 1990s in uni-
fied Germany: ‘It was as if one had died and then woken up in a different part
of the world, the part of the minority, of the losers’ (Wenzel 1997). The clowns
sing of how the world is divided into two artificial groups: the winners and the
losers: ‘It’s a lost man/who can dance in the skin of the winners’ (Wenzel &
Mensching 1992). Taken from a poem dedicated to Rimbaud in Mensching’s
Berlin Elegies (Mensching 1995: 49), these lines express identification with the
French poet who in Une Saison en Enfer/Season in Hell rejected the victor men-
tality of the western world. In interview Wenzel spoke of the suppression of
the emotional, feminine side of people, what he termed ‘the masculinization
of society’ (Wenzel 1992). In this respect Season in Hell represents a symbolic
search for these values of the ‘others’, the non-victors, which from the outset
appears doomed to fail.
In the ‘Briefcase scene’ the clowns enact a bitter master-servant conflict.
This is an aesthetic abstraction of the servile situation in which many east
Germans found themselves in the early 1990s as their country was literally
annexed by West Germany, to whose laws and system they now had to adapt.
In this scene as soon as Meh submits himself to Weh’s psychological power
game, he is condemned to lose, because Weh determines the rules:

Weh: You have to open the briefcase.

Meh: But I don’t have a briefcase.
Weh: Open it, I tell you.
Meh: OK, I’ll open the briefcase which I don’t have. And then?
Weh: Take out the blood.
Meh: What blood?
Weh: Do what I tell you.
Meh: I can’t find any blood in the case that I don’t have.
Weh: What’s in your case then?
(Wenzel & Mensching 1992)

A few scenes later this dialogue recommences:

Weh: What’s in your case then?

Meh: First you open your case then I’ll tell you what’s in mine.
Weh: OK, then I’ll open my briefcase.
Meh: What do you see?
Weh: A hell!
Meh: Close your case immediately – I don’t want a hell.
Weh: If you give me the blood, I’ll close the case with the hell.
(Wenzel & Mensching 1992)

Step for step Meh gambles all of his cards, convinced that he is reach-
ing a compromise with his adversary. As Wenzel explained: ‘Beyond reality


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David Robb

18. Program pamphlet for a conflict is enacted that actually takes place in reality’ (Wenzel 1997). The
Aufenthalt in der Hölle.
image of dependence is reinforced by the choreographed physical interaction
which seems subservient to a mathematical logic. The scene exudes a sinister
tension which underlies the whole production. There is no comical carniva-
lesque resolution. In an open condemnation of so-called democratic western
society Weh and Meh conclude: ‘This poetry of life is simply not CAPABLE
OF WINNING A MAJORITY!’ (Wenzel & Mensching 1992).
What has become of the laughing clowns? The direct political criticism
shows how Wenzel and Mensching’s clown’s aesthetic has changed since
the GDR days. Hinting at the crisis which looms for the clowns, the pro-
gramme for Season in Hell reads: ‘At the end of their ODYSSEY, on streets
of concrete in quiet surroundings the smile of the clown freezes to a grim-
themselves into the darkness of history’.18 Weh and Meh do indeed seem
effectively unemployed. The above quotation is reminiscent of Heinrich
Böll’s character Hans Schnier in The Clown, who, financially and emotion-
ally bankrupt, turns to begging because the new west German society of
the ‘economic miracle’ cannot deal with the concept of ‘the loser’. Weh
and Meh are similarly torn. In the GDR, the collective laughter had been
the acknowledgment of a common plight. Now, Wenzel believed, the
audiences were not interested in witnessing the reflection of their own
shortcomings – they just come to be entertained. But quoting from Brecht’s
Fatzer, Wenzel stressed that he saw contemporary western civilization as a
‘loser’ culture:

‘From now on and for a good while/ There will be no more winners/
In your world, but rather only/ the conquered’. We have to admit that
to ourselves and then this clowning might have a point again […] The
clowns are dead. It’s a long process […] But at the moment it is unclear
where it is going.
(Wenzel 1994; Brecht 1978: 116)

Despite the absence of laughter Wenzel and Mensching do find a poetic reso-
lution to the conflict in Season in Hell. The so-called ‘winners’ are reduced
to clowns who unite with all the ‘losers’ of the world singing: ‘In the end
the nutcases and the brain boxes unite/ As losers on the side of the victors’
(Wenzel & Mensching 1992).
Throughout the 1990s and up until they ceased to perform together in
2001, Wenzel and Mensching continued to fill small theatres all around east
Germany. They still generated controversy: in 1994 they were sacked from
their regular cabaret slot on the SAT1 TV show because the scene ‘Sperm
Donation for the Pope’ was judged as an ‘offence towards religious feelings’
(Wenzel 1994; Ständer 1997: 25). None the less, the cult status which they
and other political performers enjoyed in the 1980s in the GDR had subsided.
Their role to provide an outlet for the critical intelligentsia in the GDR no
longer applied. It is questionable to what extent this grouping, while empa-
thizing with Weh and Meh’s depiction of the ‘Ossi-Wessi’ (East-West) con-
flict, still identified with the clown’s ‘view from below’. For those interested
in the perspective of the ‘other’, however, the carnivalesque continued to be
The challenge for the clowns Weh and Meh in the 1990s lay in their
combining of their traditional clownesque techniques and the new political


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Court jesters of the GDR

directness made possible by the ending of censorship. Mensching observed in 19. This quotation is a
transcript from the live
interview with Doberenz in 1991: revue Weihnachten in
Afrika in 1994. The
In the past we were forced into using the fool’s costume because it was published text differs
slightly, see ‘Rückkehr
only within this role that we could express certain things. Now that des verlorenen Sohnes’
you can say things in different ways there’s much more volantariness (1999), pp. 114–117.
involved so that now we’ve been released from the situation of the court 20. To read more about
jester. I believe the point has now come where the faces that we actually the Stasi (secret police)
observation of Wenzel
tried to hide behind the make-up now come to the fore again producing and Mensching see
a bizarre polarity of mask and person. David Robb, ‘Political
Song in the GDR: The
(Wenzel & Mensching 1991: 140–144) Cat- and -Mouse Game
with Censorship and
Exploiting this polarity, the clown can use his trump card of alienation, which Institutions’, in Robb (ed.)
2007: 227–254.
Heiner Maaß describes as ‘reversing the mirror of contemplation’ (Maaß
1991a: 67). A classic example of this can be found in Christmas in Africa from
1994. The prodigal son (Weh) returns home where his mother (Meh) leads a
proud homeless existence under a bridge. With a grotesque reversal of logic
the mother rejects her son because he has squandered his life: ‘Your father is
so disappointed in you’. After an extended dialogue the son eventually replies
pleadingly: ‘But mummy, it’s not that bad being the Federal President!’19
The inversion of the angle of vision casts a relativizing light on the issue of
winners and losers in the Germany of the 1990s. The political statement is
clear, nevertheless Wenzel remains the timeless clown Weh with the comical,
carnivalesque aspect. By transforming into the ‘Federal President’ the clown
shows that he is still, as Heiner Maaß states, ‘the embodiment of a vision of
utopia […] from which the endless joy of life shines’ (Maaß 1991b: 155).
This article has traced the development of the Wenzel and Mensching
political clowning act from the early 1980s in the GDR through to the 1990s
in united Germany. It has attempted to show how, in the taboo-ridden pub-
lic arena of the GDR, their grotesque mise-en-scène – the hybridic wordplays
combined with the costumes and masks and physical slapstick – created a
surreal clowns’ time and space, giving them the status of court jesters and
protecting them (to a certain degree) from censorship.20 During and after
the transformation to capitalist society Wenzel and Mensching continued
to play to audiences, locating and parodying the character traits emerging
in the new society in which the biggest taboo was the acknowledgement of

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Wenzel & Mensching, Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag.
Robb, D. (2001), ‘Clowns, Songs and Lost Utopias. Reassessment of the Spanish
Civil War in Karls Enkel’s Spanier aller Länder’, in Debatte 9, 2, pp. 156–172.
Robb, D. (ed) (2007), Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s,
Rochester/NY: Camden House.
Schneider, M. (1985), Die Kinder des Olymp. Der Triumph, der Schaulust, Texte,
Dokumente, Kommentare, Frankurt am Main: Fischer.


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Court jesters of the GDR

Schulte, M. (1968), Karl Valentin, Reinbek: Rowohlt.

Sheppard, R. (1990), ‘Upstairs-Downstairs – Some Reflections on German
Literature in the Light of Bakhtin’s Theory of Carnival’, in Richard
Sheppard (ed.), New Ways in Germanistik, Providence, Oxford and Munich:
Berg, pp. 278–315.
Seeboldt, Stefan (1983), ‘Erinnerungen eines Roadmanagers’, in Hammer-
Revue 82 Dokumentation, Potsdam: Brandenburgische Landeszentrale für
politische Bildung, unpagenated.
Ständer, R. (1997), ‘Wenzel & Mensching. Die Kult-Clowns aus der Da Da
eR’, Folk-Michel, 4, pp. 24–26.
Tichy, W. (1974), Chaplin, Reinbek: Rowohlt.
Valentin, K. (1978), Alles von Karl Valentin: Munich and Zurich: Piper.
Wenzel, H. E. and Mensching, S. (1983), Neues aus der Da Da eR, unpublished
video, Berlin: Lied-Zentrum der Akademie der Künste der DDR.
Wenzel, H. E. (1984), Lied vom wilden Mohn. Gedichte, Halle and Leipzig:
Mitteldeutscher Verlag.
Wenzel, H. E. (1986), Antrag auf Verlängerung des Monats August. Gedichte,
Halle and Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag.
Wenzel, H. E. (1987), Stirb mit mir ein Stück. Liebeslieder, LP: Amiga (CD:
Buschfunk, 1995).
Wenzel, H. E. (1989), Reisebilder, LP: Amiga, (CD: Buschfunk, 1995).
Wenzel, H. E. and Mensching, S. (1989), Altes aus der Da Da eR, unpublished
video recording of stage production, Berlin: Lied-Zentrum der Akademie
der Künste der DDR.
Wenzel, H. E. and Mensching, S. (1989), Letztes aus der Da Da eR, unpublished
video recording of stage production, Berlin: Lied-Zentrum der Akademie
der Künste der DDR.
Wenzel, H. E. and Mensching, S. (1991), Allerletztes aus der Da Da eR/ Hundekomödie,
edited by Andrea Doberenz, Halle and Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag.
Wenzel, H. E. (1992), in interview with Petra Schwarz, Eastside, SFB2, May.
Wenzel, H. E. and Mensching, S. (1992), Aufenthalt in der Hölle, unpublished
manuscript and video in Wenzel’s achive, Berlin.
Wenzel, H. E. (1993), ‘Die Unschärfe alter Aufnahmen’, in Hammer-Revue 82
Dokumentation, Potsdam: Brandenburgische Landeszentrale für politische
Bildung, unpagenated.
Wenzel, H. E. (1994), personal interview, Berlin 9 March.
Wenzel, H. E. (1997), Personal interview, Berlin 10 October.
Wenzel, H. E. and Mensching, S. (1999), Weihnachten in Afrika, in Der Abschied
der Matrosen vom Kommunismus. Texte der Revuen, Berlin: Eulenspiegel
Verlag, pp. 81–122.
Wenzel, H. E. (2003), Ticky Tock, CD: Conträr.
Wöhrle, D. (1985), Die komischen Zeiten des Herrn Valentin. Von der Rezeption
zur Werkanalyse, Rheinfelden: Theater unserer Zeit/Schäuble Verlag.
Woods, R. (1986), Opposition in the GDR under Honecker, Hampshire and
London: Macmillan.

Robb, D. (2010), ‘Court jesters of the GDR: the political clowns-theatre of
Wenzel & Mensching’, Comedy Studies 1: 1, pp. 85–100, doi: 10.1386/


COST 1.1_art_robb_85-100.indd 99 1/14/10 10:01:36 AM

David Robb

David Robb is a Senior Lecturer in German at Queen’s University of Belfast.
He came to Belfast in 1999 after doing post-doctoral research at the University
of Sheffield and the Humboldt University. His main areas of research lie in
German music and song and also in the figure of the clown in literature, film
and drama. He is also a singer/songwriter who has performed extensively in
Germany. His main publications to date are: Zwei Clowns im Lande des verlo-
renen Lachens. Das Liedertheater Wenzel & Mensching (Berlin: Ch. Links-Verlag,
1998); Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s (Rochester/NY:
Camden House, 2007) and Clowns, Fools and Picaros. Popular Forms in Theatre,
Fiction and Film (editor) (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2007).
Contact: School of Languages, Literatures and Performing Arts, 10 University
Square, Queen’s University of Belfast, Belfast BT7 1NN.


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COST 1 (1) pp. 101–111 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.101/1

University of Salford

Comedy improvisation
on television: does it

Improvised shows can be cheap to make, funny and can show off some exciting new improvisation
talents. So why do we not see more of them on television? Is it because improvisation comedy
simply does not work on television? television
We have seen successful shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? which audience
uses the general ‘short form’ game-based style of improvisation, and Curb Your
Enthusiasm which uses ‘long form’ and realistic settings to create an on-going
story based around specific characters. But how many others could we count? Do
we include panel shows that are, to some degree, improvised? Do we include reality
There is little written about improvised comedy shows on television and their
success, so a large amount of my research was done through interviews with peo-
ple who have been involved with these shows. I will also discuss the differences
between America’s improvised programmes and improvised shows made in the
United Kingdom. Also, how do producers feel about letting people do, in effect, what
they want on screen? Will we ever see a live, improvised show televised uncut? Does
improvised comedy work on television?


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Braínne Edge

As an improvisational comedian, I know only too well the struggles of explain-
ing my company’s show to people who have not seen it. The easiest way, as is
the same with most improvisers the world over, is to say, ‘Do you remember
Whose Line Is It Anyway? Our show is like that.’
There are various definitions as to what performance-based improvisation
actually is. Chris Johnston, in his 2006 book The Improvisation Game, defines
improvisation as ‘The spontaneous invention of words, behaviours, sounds or
movement within a context understood as fictional, aesthetic or representational’
(Johnston 2006: xiii). Some practitioners believe that only once a performer’s mind
is fully free of thought, almost in a trance-like state, is that performer truly impro-
vising. Also, the phrase ‘understood as fictional’ is very relevant to this article,
and it describes the reason why reality television will not feature in my research.
Within this article I will be discussing improvisation as it would be used
in performance on its own, not as an aid to a final performance but as a per-
formance itself: a comedy performance where nothing has been planned, a
performance where it indeed is all made up on the spot. The main focus of my
research is looking at television shows usually shot in front of a live audience,
as opposed to single-camera improvised shows such as HBO’s Curb Your
Enthusiasm (USA), or Hat Trick’s Outnumbered (UK).


Improvisational theatre has been around for centuries, but I am going to start
with Chicago in the 1950s and show the path that the UK and the USA took
from that era to the present day. I begin with Viola Spolin and her son Paul
Sills at Chicago’s Compass Theatre. Spolin and Sills saw that improvisation
helped within the rehearsal process and what started as a way to enhance the
plays they were directing became the actual plays themselves.
Around ten years later in the UK, Keith Johnstone was discovering for
himself the beauties of improvisation, unaware of the writings of Viola Spolin.
His techniques grew first through his teaching, and then through his direct-
ing and writing. He created ‘The Theatre Machine’ which gained recogni-
tion throughout the early 1970s. ‘The Theatre Machine’ was a precursor to
TheatreSports, a popular competitive show which was completely improvised.
Improvisation was beginning to be used as a show in its own right, as opposed
to being a useful drama tool.
While Johnstone was developing his show in the UK, Chicago’s ‘The
Second City’, along with Paul Sills and others, was becoming the place to learn
‘improv’. They arranged the shows so that there was a fair balance between
devised pieces and improvisation shows on different nights. (They discovered
that improvisation does not work when played side by side with stand up
and sketch comedy due to the differing mindsets required of the audience.
An audience primed for improvisation, they found, will let the performers get
away with much more than they will with a scripted piece.)
Some of the improvisation slots were based around a formation called
The Harold: a multi-scene, long-form improvisation technique devised by
Del Close where performers perform separate scenes that may or may not
link together, instead of the short improvised ‘games’ Johnstone had formu-
lated. These shows grew to be so popular that some of the comics who had
gone through this process were tempted away by NBC and producer Lorne
Michaels to help create the still popular, live comedy sketch show Saturday


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Comedy improvisation on television: does it work?

Night Live (and from the Canadian The Second City, students were selected to
take part in SCTV, Canada’s answer to Saturday Night Live).
Keith Johnstone’s ‘TheatreSports’ became popular throughout the UK and
Europe and spread to the US in the early 1980s, but it lacked the necessary
components to be a huge commercial success in America. This was, however,
intentional. Johnstone purposely did not focus on money-making and gim-
mick performing; he was much more interested in the process of improvisa-
tion. Because of this, more commercially successful versions of the format,
such as ImprovOlympic and ComedySportz, were spawned in the US.
As ‘alternative’ comedy emerged in the UK in the 1980s, comedy improvi-
sation also gained popularity in the UK. Mike Myers, of Wayne’s World
(Spheeris, 1992) and Austin Powers (Roach, 1997) fame, moved to London
and began teaching the comedy improvisation techniques he had learned at
Toronto’s The Second City. His students were the people who became ‘The
Comedy Store Players,’ based at the Comedy Store in London. Only three
years later, in 1988, the producers used the games this troupe had learned,
coupled with their knowledge of Johnstone’s TheatreSports, to create what
has become arguably the most popular improvisation show ever, Whose Line
Is It Anyway?, first on radio, and then a year later on television. It was the
natural progression that this style of theatre, and indeed comedy perform-
ance, would one day make it onto our television screens.

As both major improvisation movements occurred in the UK and the US,
I will be comparing and contrasting the programmes created for both of these
markets. I shall begin in the UK.
Before improvised shows started to be recognized on British television
(aside from a few experiments in the mid-1970s) they were better known on
radio. There are many examples of radio comedy shows that were adapted to
television such as The Day Today, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Little Britain,
and The Mighty Boosh. However, there are also improvised radio programmes
that seemed as though they should have been made into television shows but
never were, such as The Masterson Inheritance and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.
When asked why these shows never made it to the screen (which is deemed a
rise to glory by most), I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue producer, Jon Naismith com-
mented: ‘Speaking personally, I am dead against it. I think when you have a
perfect radio show there’s little point (other than the money) in exposing its
unique audio charms to the glare of a TV studio’ (I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue,
January 2003). Josie Lawrence, cast member of The Masterson Inheritance (and
more famously Whose Line Is It Anyway?), also talked about the possibility of
the fully improvised half-hour radio play being brought to the small screen:
‘… this would have been impossible since it would have required the use of “a
box of funny hats or something”’ (Radiohaha. November 2008).
She is exactly right. With the medium of radio, it is easier for an audience to
suspend belief without visuals distracting them from the performers’ imaginary
premises. A television audience tends to believe what they see, which is why
quick improvised games, such as those on Whose Line…? work so well. They can
believe the cast are where they say they are for a short period of time. To show a
long-form piece of improvisation, the stage would most likely need to be blank,
with only a very limited number of props used, and the result would appear
cheap and unsuitable for broadcast. This may explain why the only improvised


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Braínne Edge

shows that have continuously succeeded on mainstream British television have

been panel shows (although it is apparent that the majority of these are at least
partially scripted, or recycled comedians’ sets).
Another famous improvised show that featured on terrestrial television in
the UK was Give Us A Clue, a televised version of the party game ‘charades’.
This worked, I would once again argue, because of that element of competi-
tion, or the ‘game’ aspect. Indeed, Colin Mocherie from Whose Line …? has
explained it well by saying: ‘There is the excitement of a sporting event. Will
they complete the game successfully? How will they deal with a difficult sug-
gestion? Etcetera’(Just how popular is improv?, 1997). Another show, QI, also
known as Quite Interesting, relies on prompts to anecdotes and stories from
the panel who are trying not to answer the question, per se, but to gain points
by being ‘interesting’.
My research has shown that there are no American improvised radio
shows (except for panel shows and quiz shows like You Bet Your Life with
Groucho Marx) prior to Whose Line Is It Anyway? However, there have been
some attempts since the turn of the century, for example The Listeners on
KBOO Radio (community radio) in Portland Oregon, but most of these exper-
iments are low-key and short-lived. The trend prior to Whose Line ...? was for
improvisation to provide a root for sketch and sitcom comedy, but not to be
the performance itself.
My research has turned up only a small number of other British impro-
vised television1 shows since Whose Line...? Most notable among these was
Thank God You’re Here, which ran for only one poorly viewed series in 2008
in the UK: it was developed in Australia and was also produced in the US.
In America there have been many improvised shows created since Whose
Line ...?2 I will talk about only a few shows shown on some of the largest
networks, but my research has brought up many more. In 2004, after the
American version of Whose Line ...? was cancelled by the Warner Brothers net-
work and went into syndication, Drew Carey produced and starred in a new
show called Green Screen. The format was very similar to Whose Line ...? and
a lot of the same games were used. The only difference was that the entire
show was performed on a green screen set with the idea being that, after the
taping, animators would add in all the things that were needed such as back-
grounds, props, and costumes. The result was a visually stunning show. For
example, an entire three-minute scene in episode two has only the heads of
the players left intact; the rest of their bodies are substituted with stop-frame
animation of two GI Joe toys. Understandably, this show cost a lot of money
to make and each episode took twelve weeks to complete. The show only got
up to episode five of their twelve-show run as, according to the Whose Line ...?
website, it was up against stiff competition from other networks. The show
certainly had some funny moments, but it seemed (1) very much like a show
aimed at children (which was probably not the intention) and (2) overly com-
plicated. The complete series was later shown on the Comedy Central chan-
nel where it was also not renewed for a new series. It could be suggested that
this would have been a format that may have provided long-form improvisa-
tion with a possible platform on television, but once again, the cost and time
would have been immense.
Soon after Green Screen, another new improvised show appeared on the
PAX network: World Cup Comedy. The format took three teams of impro-
visers, many of whom had not worked together before, and pitched them
against each other in a competitive format where the audience would choose


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Comedy improvisation on television: does it work?

the winning team at the end of three rounds. Over the course of the series,
teams could play as many times as they won. The format was fast-paced,
and quite funny on occasion, but it seemed, at times, that the cast were
struggling to connect with each other. Also, as cast member James Bailey

The challenge there was that if there was a tech glitch or [it was] not
funny enough, you had to improvise it again, often from the same sug-
gestions. If you did that three or four times, your brain started to fry
because you were trying so hard to not repeat anything you had done
(Bailey 2009, personal interview)

This again shows the limitations of improvising for television – to have to

keep going until it is ‘laugh-out-loud’ funny. Andy Smart of the London-
based The Comedy Store Players also picks up on this point: ‘It is much better
for an audience to see the failure as this then heightens the laughter when
something is flying’ (Smart 2009, personal interview).
Around the same time World Cup Comedy was aired, the Australian show
Thank God You’re Here was picked up and remade. This show took celebrities
and placed them into improvised scenes where they would have to respond to
the situation given to them. It appeared to me that any guest without exten-
sive improvisational experience seemed to get defensive and self-conscious.
They would try and put themselves ‘higher’ than everyone around them in
the scene, creating an awkward tension. For example, near the end of each
episode there is a group round: this is where all four guests take part in a
group improvisation. In the episode with Shannon Elizabeth, Tom Green,
Chelsea Handler, and George Takai, this scene descended into chaos when
Elizabeth tried to kiss everyone in the scene in order to win. It could be argued
that this was pure improvisation, and it was certainly spontaneous, but it was
also apparent that she did not know what else to do to become the centre
of attention in this scene. Often times actors in the scenes would prompt a
response from the guest and then ignore the response or suggest they were
wrong in what they said, effectively blocking and denying the action. In my
experience, these are some of the biggest mistakes a performer can make in
scenic improvisation.
Judging from how this show’s format has spread from its beginnings in
Australia to the US and the UK (and other countries), Thank God You’re Here
has a format that can work. It certainly works in Australia, where it is now into
its fourth season. Yet the format still seems to be hit and miss in other mar-
kets. Upon viewing episodes from Australia, the US and the UK it seems to
me that the key to success is that the Australians allow their scenes to be more
fluid, less restrictive, more natural. Whereas the UK and US versions seem to
have more of an ‘agenda’ to each scene – the actors are already briefed with
what they need to say, they have learned a script. In Australia it also appears
they have specifically picked their guests so they fit more organically into the
Referring back to Whose Line …? this programme worked best when it
was allowed to run free. Fluidity can only be achieved when the cast of such
programmes are allowed to feel that anything can happen (as is crucial to
improvisation as a form of performance): Whose Line …? shot much more than
was actually needed in order to achieve this, whereas with a format like Thank


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Braínne Edge

3. This Is Spinal Tap God You’re Here perhaps this is not possible due to time restraints, schedules,
(Reiner, 1984), Waiting
for Guffman (Guest,
money etc.
1996), Best In Show While more attempts at producing improvised shows have been made in
(Guest, 2000), A Mighty the US than in the UK, American shows are still not making a noticeable
Wind (Guest, 2003), to
name a few. These films impact on ratings. However, they are producing shows such as Larry David’s
all used improvisation as Curb Your Enthusiasm, which has been using improvisation in a scenic format,
the basis of their scenes. similar to the films of McKean, Guest and Shearer.3 Each episode has a basic
format, but the dialogue in each scene is improvised in front of the cameras.
Further, another improvisation show that appeared on Canadian TV in 1999
was Improv Heaven and Hell, similar to Whose Line …? but shot in real time,
so there is no editing. (Incidentally, Whose Line …? is edited from about two
and a half hours of footage to make a thirty minute show.) Andrew Clark, in
a 1998 review in the Calgary Sun, explained the American/Canadian inter-
est and acceptance of improvisation on television. ‘Whose Line ...? worked
because it was a novelty and because improvised comedy played perfectly to
the British appetite for quick wit and daring. Canadian viewers, by contrast,
are more accustomed to improv humour … Canadians get improv even when
they don’t realize it’ (Mcleod 1998).
These shows, however, were not designed for British audiences.
Improvisation on television in the UK seemed to disappear in the late 1990s
and its recent return has made little impact. Conversely, the shows in America
were growing, especially ones aimed specifically at young people. For example,
Sponk!, a Whose Line …?-style children’s show using twelve- to seventeen-year-
olds as the performers, proved to be quite popular in 2002 on the Noggin cable
channel. Whose Line ...? itself has been re-edited and is still being shown on the
ABC Family network in the US.
So why are people in America and Canada getting to see these shows but
the UK audience are not? I can only suggest that producers are nervous about
putting their money into a show with an unpredictable outcome and this is
indeed what Manchester-based comedy producer Gill Isles suggested on the

The main issues with improvisation on TV are trust and expense. TV

shows are really expensive to make ... so for TV commissioners to hand
this amount of money over to a project with no script and no guaran-
tee of how funny the show will be when it’s eventually delivered, then
that is a big financial risk to take. Therefore it’s only performers/produc-
ers with a proven track record that may be given the opportunity to try
this ... But even a show like this is highly structured to ensure that there
is an innate funniness to it.
(Isles 2009, personal interview)

In his 2006 book, Chris Johnston also touches on a point raised in this

Generally speaking in our mainstream culture, at least in the UK, an

audience will rather see a ‘known’ personality improvise on stage even
if he hasn’t a clue how to improvise, rather than watch an unknown
group who’ve spent their lives perfecting the art.
(Johnston 2006: 190)

This would limit the amount of shows that could be made in this area as there
are so few famous improvisers. Andy Smart, from The Comedy Store Players,


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Comedy improvisation on television: does it work?

mentioned that during the initial planning for the UK version of Thank God 4. Lee Simpson is a
member of the London-
You’re Here there were issues with this. based improvisation
troupe, The Comedy
These days it is almost impossible for an impro TV show. Which is a Store Players, as well as
being a cast member
shame ... There are very few people that can do top level impro, but on Whose Line Is It
those that do, make it look very easy. Thus TV producers think any soap Anyway? in the UK. He
also founded London-
star or presenter can. Paul Merton and Lee Simpson4 were constantly based Improvised
suggesting people [for Thank God You’re Here] but ITV would come in Theatre company
with their list of guests who were on to plug shows/books/films. Improbable.
(Smart 2009, personal interview) 5. Give Us A Clue,
1979–1992, (UK) was
a charades-style show
Ratings suggest that we did enjoy watching these types of shows on televi- which featured famous
sion: Whose Line …? ran for nearly ten years (and is still syndicated both in the people of the time –
arguably an improvised
UK and the US) while Give Us A Clue5 ran for just under twenty years in the show in the competitive
UK. So why can we not make a new improvised show that is as commercially sense.
popular? 6. Reno 911 was a parody
Situations were largely
improvised and all the
I asked Jim Sweeney, cast member on the British version of Whose Line Is It improvisation or sketch
comedy troupes such as
Anyway? why he thought that there was not much improvised comedy on tel- The Groundlings and
evision in general. He drew reference to the show he is involved in currently The State.
at the Comedy Store, London. In this improvised show, scenes are created 7. Crossballs was a
from audience suggestions in a style similar to Whose Line …? but it is not as short-lived show on
Comedy Central that
fast-paced. Some scenes can last up to half an hour. Sweeney suggests that involved a panel of four
‘TV demands jokes, a constant supply of jokes. There’s no room for slow pas- people who were there
sages or silent pieces or stuff that is not belly laugh material’ (Sweeney 2003, to debate. Two of the
people were improvisers:
personal interview). the other two were ‘real’
Dick Chudnow, Founder of America’s ComedySportz franchise, was asked people. Chris Tallman
was the host of this
the same question. His response was almost word for word what Sweeney show.
suggested, but his second point was something much more technical, and
something I had not considered. Chudnow stressed that ‘… a big problem is
the actual filming. Where to put the cameras, what angle to put the cameras
at. So much would be missed.’ (Chudnow 2003, personal interview). He went
on to explain about how Whose Line …? was filmed in a small place for short
periods of time. It was easier to guess where things were going to happen and
where to put the cameras because there was not a lot of movement. Showing
long-form would be a lot harder as many things would have to go on and ‘...
you lose the spontaneity’ (Chudnow 2003, personal interview).
Chris Tallman, a cast member on Reno 911,6 Crossballs,7 World Cup Comedy
and Thank God You’re Here in the USA said this, ‘I love improvising and I’ll do
it until I die. I think it is wonderful. But as far as filmed entertainment goes,
TV & film, improv is a technique for creating material …’ (Tallman 2009, per-
sonal interview).
It appears even some of the people who are performing in these short-
form improvised concepts on television do not think it is ideal. Maybe
improvisation will be confined to the pre-production of sketch comedy
shows? Andrew Currie, an improviser from the Canadian improvised show
Heaven and Hell, comments ‘For years, the standard line has been “improv
doesn’t work on TV”. That’s changed, thanks to Whose Line’ (Just how pop-
ular is improv?, 1997).This quote is over ten years old. Maybe it has come
full circle? Maybe the only show that did work on TV was Whose Line ...?


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Braínne Edge

It occurs to me that shows and performers who appear improvised get a

great audience response (see the 1996 US show Kwik Witz, which was com-
pletely scripted but took the appearance of an improvised show), but some-
thing that is specifically billed as an improvised show gets little. Could this be
due to the anticipations of a cynical audience combined with the television
medium being such a slick and polished machine?


Dick Chudnow makes the point that ‘People don’t like Whose Line Is It Anyway?
because it’s improv, they like it because it’s funny’ (Chudnow 2003, personal
interview). So maybe all good comedy improvisation is confined to live per-
formance, or radio. Jim Sweeney has worked within improvisation for over three
decades. He suggests that improvisation is best seen live rather than on televi-
sion, he comments that ‘… improvisation is a live beast’ (Sweeney 2003, per-
sonal interview). Personally, I agree with this statement, but I also think there
must be a way to get improvisation to be seen by a wider audience. Perhaps
television is not the way forward for this. Maybe one day we will see improvised
shows streamed live on the Internet with suggestions shouted from computers
all over the world. But of course, there would have to be the interest.

So, does improvisation on television work? I began this research with the idea
that I would be able to gather information and then develop an improvised show
that would work on television but still keep the ethos of an improvised show.
During this time I have discovered that the majority of people who work in
improvised mediums not only believe that it does not work, but that it should not
work. It could be argued that once the ‘moment’ is caught on film that the spon-
taneity has been destroyed. Maybe the future of filmed improvised ‘moments’
is something along the lines of Improv Everywhere, ‘Improv Everywhere causes
scenes of chaos and joy in public places.’ (Todd, 2001). Where this spontaneous
moment is caught on many cameras strategically dotted around the location,
many bystanders end up therefore being part of the situation or scene. This idea
has even been picked up recently for use in Advertisement.
Usually, improvised moments are filmed in front of a live audience, caught
on tape, played to another audience, syndicated, and then watched repeatedly
by fans of the genre – myself included. During my research I found one clip in
particular from Whose Line ...? that, when I watched it, I realized that I could
repeat the words along with them. I had watched that episode so many times
I could remember what they had just made up.
Arguably, the only fully improvised show that has ever worked on television
was Whose Line Is It Anyway? and, since then, any improvised shows have had to
deal with the comparison. Improvised television, as it once was, seems unlikely
to reappear – more hybrid shows like in the USA Kwik Witz and Free Radio and
in the UK Mock the Week, Argumental and QI seem to be a more comfortable
format for producers to take a chance on. Improvisation may be confined to the
panel show, intermingled with scripted pieces (Argumental being slightly differ-
ent as it is delivered as a ‘debate’ show, where members of each team get up on
their own and improvise arguments for or against topics).
In conclusion, it would seem that comedy improvisation can work on
television, but rarely does. Producers seem to want to guarantee a hilarious out-
put so much that they work out formats that are overly complicated and ‘safe’,


COST 1.1_art_edge_101–112.indd 108 1/14/10 10:39:29 AM

Comedy improvisation on television: does it work?

but improvisation works best when it is neither of those things. And this is its
downfall. Let us just hope for a Whose Line ...? reunion.

Bailey, James T. (2009), cast member World Cup Comedy, personal interview,
June, Los Angeles, USA.
Chudnow, Dick (2003 and 2009), founder of ComedySportz USA, personal
interview, June, Wisconsin, USA.
Cook, William (2001), The Comedy Store: The club that changed British comedy,
London: Little Brown Books.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, (2009), http://www.hbo.com/larrydavid/about. Accessed
August 2009.
Forking up the Advocates (August 1998) REVIEW – IMPROV HEAVEN &
HELL, http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_10.08.98/art/comedy8.html.
Accessed February 2003.
Goldberg, Andy (1991), Improv Comedy, California: Samuel French.
Halpern, Charna, Del Close, (2000), Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation,
Colorado: Meriwether Publishing Ltd.
Hargrave, Andrea Milwood (1991), Taste and Decency in Broadcasting: Annual
Review 1991, London: John Libbey.
Holmwood, Leigh (January 19th 2008), ‘Merton falls flat in gloomy night
for ITV’, The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jan/21/
tvratings.television1. Accessed August 2009.
I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, interview with producer, Jon Naismith, (January
2003), http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/clue/interviews/everything.shtml
Accessed December 2009.
Isles, Gill (2009), Manchester Based Comdey Producer, personal interview,
June, Manchester.
Johnston, Chris (2006), The Improvisation Game: Discovering the Secrets of
Spontaneous Performance, London: Nick Hern Books Ltd.
Johnstone, Keith (1979), Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, London: Methuen.
Johnstone, Keith (1999), Impro for Storytellers, London: Faber and Faber.
Just how popular is improv? (1997), http://www.geocities.com/ashamuffin/
popular.html. Accessed February 2003.
Kozlowski, Rob (2002), The Art Of Chicago Improv, New Hampshire:
Lewisohn, Mark (1998), ‘Radio Times’ Guide To TV Comedy, London: BBC
Consumer Publishing.
Mcleod, Tyler (1998), ‘Get ready for some hot improv’, Calgary Sun, Saturday,
10 October.
Pantankin, Sheldon (2000), The Second City: Backstage at the Worlds Greatest
Comedy Theater, Illinois: Sourcebooks Inc.
Seham, Amy E. (2001), Whose Improv is it Anyway?, Mississippi: University
Press of Mississippi/Jackson.
Smart, Andy (2009), cast member The Comedy Store Players, personal email
interview, June, London.
Sumner, J. B. (November 2008), Radiohaha: the online encyclopaedia of con-
temporary British radio comedy http://www.angelfire.com/pq/radiohaha/
TMI.html. Accessed December 2009.
Sweeney, Jim (2003), cast member Whose Line Is It Anyway?, personal inter-
view, May, London.


COST 1.1_art_edge_101–112.indd 109 1/14/10 10:39:29 AM

Braínne Edge

Tallman, Chris (2009), cast member, Reno 911, Crossballs, World Cup Comedy,
Thank God You’re Here (USA), personal interview, June, Los Angeles, USA.
Todd, Charlie (2001), Improv Everywhere, http://improveverywhere.com/. Accessed
December 2009.
Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Episode List, http://www.tv.com/whose-line-is-it-
Anyway&tag=search_results;title;1. Accessed December 2009.
Wright, John (2006), Why Is That So Funny?, London: Nick Hern Books Ltd.

Edge, B. (2010), ‘Comedy improvisation on television: does it work?’, Comedy
Studies 1: 1, pp. 101–111, doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.101/1

Braínne Edge’s varied improvisation training stems from classes with Keith
Johnstone, Neil Mullarkey (The Comedy Store Players, London), Mick Napier
(Annoyance Theater, Chicago), Kate Watson (The Second City, Chicago), and
Dick Chudnow (ComedySportz Founder), to name a few. She has performed
improvisation in just under half of the states in the USA, as well as all over the
UK and Ireland. She manages and facilitates a successful Improv and Stand
Up training programme at the Comedy Store, Manchester. Braínne achieved a
first-class honours degree in Media and Performance from Salford University
and a Masters of Art in Film and Video from The Surrey Institute of Art and
Design. Braínne founded the UK division of ComedySportz in 2001.
Braínne is also a Lecturer in Performance at Salford University and currently
heads its Television Comedy modules.
Contact: Salford University, Media and Performance Division, Adelphi Building,
Peru St, Salford, M5 4WT, UK.
E-mail: bron@comedysportz.co.uk

1. List of shows described as ‘improvised’ from the UK, to show how few improvised shows were
produced in the UK as opposed to the US.

Show Name Production Company Years

Whose Line Is It Anyway? Hat Trick/Channel 4 1988–1998
Trigger Happy TV Absolutely Productions/Channel 4 2000–2001
Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned Avalon/ITV 2000–2005
Mock the Week (partly improvised) Angst Productions/BBC 2005–present
In Your Ear ... With Neil Morrissey Fox TV UK/Channel 5 2006
(pilot only)
Outnumbered (partly improvised) Hat Trick 2007–present
Thank God You’re Here TalkbackTHAMES/ITV 2008
Argumental Tiger Aspect Productions for Dave 2009


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Comedy improvisation on television: does it work?

2. List of shows described as ‘improvised’ from the US.

Show Name Production Company Years

Kwik Witz (not actually improvised but

Beau & Arrow Productions 1996–1999
produced to appear that way)

Whose Line Is It Anyway? ABC/ABC Family 1998–2006

Curb Your Enthusiasm HBO 2000–present
Sponk! Noggin 2001–2003
On The Spot WB Network 2003
Reno 911 Comedy Central 2003–2009
Trigger Happy TV Comedy Central 2003
Crossballs Comedy Central 2004
World Cup Comedy PAX-TV 2004–2005
Drew Carey’s Green Screen WB Network 2004
2005 (one off Upright
ASSSSCAT Improv Special Bravo
Citizens Brigade Special)
Wild N Out MTV 2005–2007
Campus Ladies Oxygen 2006
Thank God You’re Here NBC 2007
Factory Spike TV 2008
Free Radio VH1 2008–present

Source: (Most information sourced from http://fuzzyco.com/improv/television August 2009.)


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COST 1 (1) pp. 113–124 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.113/1

University of Kent

Who’s in charge?
manipulation and
comic licence in the
work of Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is a prolific joker and social commentator. While many comedians comic licence
restrict their rebellions to verbal attacks, Thomas’ material takes direct, practical consensus
effect via pranks. Under the protection of comic licence, Thomas is permitted to manipulation
engage in a range of mercilessly subversive activities, and to celebrate them onstage. Mark Thomas
Like all comedians, Thomas is bound by the limits of his licence: his live audiences negotiation
will reject material that crosses the line. stand-up
However, the boundaries of that licence are malleable, and audiences are not nec-
essarily as discerning as one might think. This article argues that manipulation and
influence are necessary components of comic licence. I first examine the nature of comic
licence, demonstrating that its source has serious implications for its limits and bound-
aries. I then analyse Mark Thomas’ performance in detail, weighing up the extent to
which the audience may police the boundaries of comic licence against the possibility
that the comedian may dupe them into laying down their resistance altogether.


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Sophie Quirk

Mark Thomas is a social commentator whose work spans several genres. He

has been an activist, campaigner, journalist, writer and performer, but above
all he is a comedian. It is not only political purpose and ideology that unites
Thomas’ work and gives it his distinctive mark. Thomas performs stand-up
comedy and enacts witty pranks on the campaign trail. Even in his New
Statesman column, he offered a bounty to any individual willing to assassinate
George W. Bush with ‘a lethal papier-mâché weapon’ (Thomas 2002). It is
joking which characterizes Thomas’ work.
Thomas and his associates have an impressive record: they have taken both
the British and Turkish governments to court, and targeted big business from
Coca-Cola to the arms trade (Thomas 2008a: 2006). His website displays a strik-
ing curriculum vitae of achievements, including a change to the law on inherit-
ance tax following Thomas’ exposure of unfair loopholes in his 1998 Dispatches
programme, and the collapse of initial plans to build the Illisu Dam, a big busi-
ness project which would have displaced thousands of local inhabitants and
destroyed important Kurdish cultural centres (Thomas & YWGAV 2009).
Pranks form a central theme in Thomas’ work, and it is here that the prac-
tical effects of his comedy are most direct and obvious. In the wake of the
2009 scandal over abuse of expense privileges by Members of Parliament,
Thomas and his associates kidnapped a bay tree belonging to MP Margaret
Moran, and issued an open letter demanding her resignation as a ransom. The
ransom was not delivered, and the tree was publicly beheaded in Trafalgar
Square (Thomas & YWGAV 2009). When the Serious Organized Crime and
Police Act (SOCPA) made it illegal to demonstrate in a designated area sur-
rounding Parliament Square without police authorization, Thomas arranged
for hundreds of individuals to protest by sending in applications which ranged
from the frivolous to the meaningful. As each protest required an application
to be processed and approved, the tactic achieved administrative mayhem
(Thomas 2007).
Thomas’ pranks are distinctly comedic in themselves. To apply the term
‘hostage’ to an inanimate and non-sentient tree constitutes a wittily incon-
gruous subversion. Similarly, to use the police applications process against
itself demonstrates an instinct for mockery. These acts are not only eloquent
protests; they are also funny. Many of Thomas’ pranks are relived onstage,
with his stand-up material often hinging on accounts of his exploits as a cam-
paigner. Here Thomas submits the practical joke for his audience’s appre-
ciation and approval, signalled mainly through laughter and other positive
Despite the strong current of egalitarianism and human decency that runs
through Thomas’ work, it may be argued that some of his activities are not
very nice. ‘Kidnapping’ a tree is theft of property; even if we accept the argu-
ment that it was paid for by the taxpayer and is merely being returned to its
rightful owner. Beheading it is unkind, not only to the owner but to the tree
itself. In his 2007 show ‘Serious Organized Criminal’, Thomas reports upon
the campaign against SOCPA, eliciting much laughter at the expense of the
frustrated, over-worked policemen whom he repeatedly placed in difficult,
anxiety-provoking positions (Thomas 2007). Yet Thomas’ audiences do not
revile him for unkindness; indeed, such a response would appear inexcusably
curmudgeonly. Like any comedian, Thomas is excused from certain conven-
tions of ‘decency’ because of the comic licence under which he works.
As Mary Douglas (1970) demonstrates, the joke is essentially a means
of challenge and negotiation. The joke may attack the obvious sources of


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Who’s in charge?

authority in the form of politicians or law enforcers. Otto (2001) provides

several examples, from various cultures and epochs, where despots actually
changed their rulings as a result of politically-motivated lampooning from
court jesters. Indeed, it was one of the functions of the jester to provide the
monarch with counsel that other advisors, lacking the protection of comic
licence, would not dare to offer. The joke is also an important means of nego-
tiation on the popular level, where it is used to challenge our collective values,
behaviour and ways of thinking. Mintz’ account of audience behaviour during
a Redd Foxx routine on the subject of oral sex shows this process in action;
while the older members of the audience demonstrated discomfort during the
discussion of a topic which they perceived as taboo, the upcoming generation
used the routine to create and affirm a new set of rules:

The younger people in the audience leaned toward Foxx, often applauded,
raised their hands or fists as though cheering a political speaker with
whom they were in agreement […] For them Foxx was the counter-
culture spokesman with the courage (and the comically protected situ-
ation) to state publicly and openly that the sexual taboo against oral sex
was[…]no longer valid.
(Mintz 1985: 76, original emphasis)

As Douglas asserts, a joke relies upon challenge, for jokes are characterized by
identification and mockery of the discrepancy between common practice and
that which is considered logical, fair or ‘better’. Mintz articulated this function
of the joke in the eloquent phrase, ‘a critique of the gap between what is and
what we believe should be’ (Mintz 1985: 77). Comic licence is a vital social
tool; when used properly, it allows the joker to challenge what is considered
unquestionable and to play with ideas that may be considered dangerous,
taboo or disgusting, safe from the possible repercussions of anger or damage
to reputation.
Comic licence does, however, have limits. Douglas explains what we know
from experience: ‘there are jokes that can be perceived clearly enough by all
present but which are rejected at once[…]Social requirements may judge
a joke to be in bad taste, risky, too near the bone, improper or irrelevant’
(Douglas 1970: 152). For Douglas, the key to successful joking is to remain
within the boundaries of consensus. The choice of topic and its handling must
be carefully managed to avoid trespassing upon ‘values which are judged
too precious and too precarious to be exposed to challenge,’ or those other
aspects of the social structure which are not deemed to be open for comment
and debate (Douglas 1970: 152).
Thomas’ work aims to be influential, engaging audiences in energetic cri-
tique of their social structures and eliciting their agreement with Thomas’ radi-
cal political outlook: yet we know that Thomas can only succeed by remaining
within the boundaries of acceptability. Balanced precariously between two
vital but opposed tasks, Thomas must skilfully negotiate and manipulate those
boundaries. To understand this process, we must first discern what it is that
gives comedians their licence.


Several theorists have suggested that comic licence is a result of the marginal-
ity of joking as a practice. Morreall (2005: 69–74) has observed that jokes are


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Sophie Quirk

managed by special rules; in particular, as recipients of the joke, we must not

be troubled by concern about either truthfulness, or repercussions upon the
well-being of those involved. Bergson similarly states that laughter requires us
to be dispassionate spectators, ‘for laughter has no greater foe than emotion’
(Bergson [1900] 2008: 10–11). Critchley (2002: 87–88) and Linstead (1985: 761)
pose similar models which describe the joke as the inhabitant or creator of a
marginal reality. For them, the joke takes place in a safe-space on the side of
everyday interaction, where many of the rules governing honesty and decency
may be relaxed. Here, risky ideas may be tried, even road-tested for suitability
as mainstream attitudes, without the risk of infecting ordinary interaction.
In his discussion of the comedian as social critic, Kaufman (1997) interprets
the practice of joking through Johan Huizinga’s analysis of the special rules gov-
erning ‘play’. Huizinga (1970: 24–25) produces a somewhat confused account of
the relation between ‘play’ and the ‘comic’, asserting that these are independ-
ent concepts, but also acknowledging that they are linked, with the comic hav-
ing a ‘subsidiary’ relationship to play. Kaufmann demonstrates that joking is, in
practice, governed largely by the rules of play, following which it seems logical
to resolve the quandary by revising Huizinga’s model such that the ‘subsidi-
ary’ practice of joking takes place within the play-world; for play, like joking,
involves ‘a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a
disposition all of its own’ (Huizinga 1970: 26). According to Huizinga, ‘all play
moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either
materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course’ (Huizinga 1970: 28).
‘Play-grounds’ are ‘forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within
which special rules obtain’ [sic] (Huizinga 1970: 28–29). Huizinga’s examples of
play-grounds include the temple, the law court and the card table: places where
the rules of etiquette and norms of behaviour deviate from the mainstream. The
stand-up comedy gig is an apt addition to this list, for just as the joke is a theo-
retical safe-space under the terms of comic licence, the performance room is a
physical space in which the marginal rules of joking reign supreme.
Here, then, is the first theory explaining the origin of the comedian’s
licence. When Mark Thomas celebrates the unkind, indecent or illegal act, he
does so in the ideological safe-space of the joke, and in the physically demar-
cated performance venue. Separated from mainstream reality in such a way as
to prevent him from harming it, Thomas experiments with risky ideas.
The second theory is that of special status. Comedians perform an impor-
tant role within our social structure. As Orrin E. Klapp argued, the ‘fool’ con-
tributes to ‘group organization and discipline,’ chiefly functioning as ‘a device
of status reduction and social control’, ‘discrediting leaders, movements, or
individuals which show weaknesses in terms of group norms’ (Klapp 1949:
161–162). Douglas (1970) framed the ‘joker’ in a role of similar significance,
but adopted a different focus. While Klapp’s term ‘fool’ includes a range of
both intentional and unwitting behaviours that are deemed comic or ridicu-
lous, Douglas limits her discussion to those who deliver jokes. Klapp con-
cludes that the ‘fool’ serves largely to reinforce group norms by punishing
deviation; Douglas, crucially, asserts that the ‘joker’ challenges the norm itself.
Their conclusions are complementary; comedians may challenge deviation
from the norm and adherence to it. Thus every comedian serves as a social
critic, even if his causes are not as large as Thomas’ causes.
It has often been suggested that comedians have a mystical origin and
power. Tony Allen links the modern comedian to the shaman in ancient
cultures, identifying parallels between them. Each enjoys a powerful status,


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Who’s in charge?

and serves the tribe as one who ‘investigates the dark side’ and questions the
tribe’s (or audience’s) actions and place in the universe (Allen 2002: 51–53).
For E.T. Kirby (1974: 12–14) this link is direct and practical; he suggests that
the practices of entertaining through comedy, and many of the techniques for
doing so, are directly descended from the curing rituals performed by sha-
mans in ancient cultures.
Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves (2007) further make the case for seeing ‘come-
dian’ as a special status by linking him to the Jungian archetype of the trickster.
According to Jung (1959), all of humanity shares a collective unconscious, in
which we find patterns that all individuals and societies perpetuate. Thus every
society has ‘mothers’ and ‘heroes’, and every society has ‘tricksters’. Trickster
is the seditious force to which we attribute subversion and mischief of all kinds
(Jung 1972). Furthermore, he is an expression of ‘shadow’; the archetype where
lurk the characteristics that the conscious, civilized part of the psyche – both
individual and collective – dislikes and wishes to deny. Trickster is, in part, a
piece of the collective shadow shared by the social group. Thus the trickster is
easily equated with the subversive and challenging functions of a comedian, for
both expose our weaknesses and undermine and question those ‘truths’ which
we take for granted. Yet it is healthy to confront and come to terms with the
natural instincts buried in our shadow: the trickster is equated with the saviour,
just as the comedian liberates through his challenges to convention.
The very existence of the above theories demonstrates that we intuitively
assign a mystical or special status to the comedian. Thus, when we talk about
the comedian’s licence, we are talking about the licence granted to one who
is perceived to operate over and above, or in the margins of, our own plane
of existence. However, attributing a special status to the comedian implies an
immunity which belies the reality. Comedians can trespass the boundaries of
licence and suffer the consequences: both in terms of immediate failure to get
the laugh, and the wider repercussions of public anger. In 1907, Russian clown
Vladimir Durov lost the consensus of the German authorities when he used
ventriloquism to make a pig appear to say, ‘Ich will Helm’. The act involved
the porcine performer fetching a real ‘Helm’ (helmet), and the phrase osten-
sibly translates to the innocent statement ‘I want the helmet’. However, it also
sounded very much like the pig had said ‘I am Wilhelm’, a derogatory refer-
ence to Kaiser Wilhelm II for which Durov was arrested on charges of trea-
son and banished (Schechter 1985: 1–2). Without consensual backing for the
joke, Durov was in significant personal danger. A joke does not have to offend
those with official authority to have ruinous effects. When Johnny Vegas alleg-
edly molested a female audience member onstage, he became the target of a
great deal of personal abuse as both press and Internet commentators viciously
reproached his behaviour (Chortle 2008). Comedians are not marginal figures
who are safe from reproach, but mortals who are vulnerable to attack.
The fundamental problem with the above theories becomes clear when
we apply them to the work of Mark Thomas. To see a comedian or his jokes
as the inhabitants of a safe-space where they need not infect mainstream
interaction implies that the attacks are essentially meaningless. Jokes may be
enjoyed as a release of tension or celebrated as intelligent ideas, but they can
also be written off as the meaningless ranting of an irrelevant figure. By this
measure the joke, whether told onstage or performed in campaign pranks,
need not affect the ‘real’ world. When dealing with a comedian like Mark
Thomas, who strives towards, and achieves, genuine change, these models
fail to reflect reality.


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Sophie Quirk

These problems may be solved if we reverse the above concepts. Instead

of seeing the comedian as the source of comic licence in his own right, we
should remember that it is the activity of joking which gives him his licence.
He commands a special respect, but this springs from the joke itself and
does not grant him personal immunity. To suggest that the joke exists in a
marginal reality implies that its attacks cannot penetrate the mainstream,
so that public opinion cannot be harmed by, or do harm to, the joke. In
reality, jokes deal intimately with the social structure in which they are
told (Douglas 1970). Jokes are made because they are a necessary means
of negotiation. The material from which they are formed is social comment
and their boundaries are set by social perception of ‘decency’ and ‘fair play’.
The marginal reality is a somewhat misleading metaphor; the joke actually
infuses its society.
Ostensibly, this may seem to lessen the comedian’s power. This third model
requires us to see comic licence as a limited protective cover, because without the
immunity conferred by a marginal reality or a special status, the comedian is left
hemmed in by the limits of consensus at every turn. Thus, to succeed as a come-
dian, and avoid rejection as one who oversteps the boundaries, the comedian is
left unable to say what is truly revolutionary, or provoke the will to change; in
Douglas’ terms, ‘he merely expresses consensus’(Douglas 1970: 159).
Mark Thomas is emphatic in his opposition to this interpretation of the
comedian-audience dynamic: ‘It’s about play, it’s about interplay. It’s about
expectation and defying expectation, and if you can’t make that political and
change people’s minds, then you’re in the wrong fucking game. It’s intrinsi-
cally there’ (Thomas 2008c). For Thomas, playing with or within consensus is
not a case of preaching to the converted, but rather of informed debate:

That interaction exists in no other art form in this dynamic […] there’s
actually a kind of democratic feel to it, if you like […] that actually the
voice of the audience affects the outcome. Y’know, your laughter affects
the outcome, the way you react affects the outcome, what you shout
affects the outcome […] actually comedy is more open than any other
art form to put-down and challenge.
(Thomas 2008c)

For Thomas, there is no question of riding roughshod over the audience’s

moral boundaries because, for him, the audience are equals in the discussion:
they are welcome to question and able to damage any idea that he presents.
Stand-up is a medium for debate and discussion, and this is the key to its
unique power as an educational tool. Consensus is not, therefore, a question
of avoiding certain topics or refusing to attack the sacred: within the consen-
sus formed by the forum of comedian and audience, nothing is indisputable,
and everything is subsumed within the peculiar rules of ‘play’:

The whole point about this is it should be fun, but it also should have a
significance. If you can’t play with these big ideas, then […] what you’re
saying is that some things are sacred, and we can never change them.
And as soon as you say that, it’s just like you’ve just become part of the
obstacle […] the whole point is it’s open to change […] change occurs
all the time. It’s about whether you can shape or change or influence its
(Thomas 2008c)


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Who’s in charge?

For Mark Thomas, it is vital for the comedian to be rooted firmly in the
world upon which he comments. Consensus does not limit his licence;
rather it translates that licence into the possibility of real social and political


There are, however, some threats to this idea of stand-up as a democratic
utopia. Mark Thomas is undoubtedly committed to establishing democracy
within his gigs. As he observes, the audience plays a crucial and powerful
role via their responses, in particular their laughter. Thomas (2004) actively
encourages more articulate participation, for example inviting the audi-
ence to correct him if he quotes a fact or statistic incorrectly, or asking
them whether they went on some of the public demonstrations that he
mentions. Thomas views the right of the audience to intervene as a wel-
come component of the democratic process, even when hecklers attack the
comedian rather than cooperate with him. The audience’s right to redress
bolsters their power at the expense of the comedian. As Thomas has fur-
ther stated:

It is often the case that articulate hecklers can express the mood of an
audience and beyond that can challenge the comic on a host of issues
[…] There have been cases where the audience can express outrage at
an idea and reign in comics.
(Thomas 2008d)

However, the means by which the audience may challenge the comedian are,
in practice, limited. To heckle successfully requires great courage and elo-
quence. Even when an audience member is willing and able, the democratic
ethos of the interaction can be difficult to maintain.
During a Mark Thomas gig at the Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury, a
heckler called out ‘Get a radio mic!’, and went on to express dissatisfaction
that Thomas had been ‘fiddling with the [microphone] wire the whole time!’
The heckler’s input seemed to irritate rather than amuse the audience, and
Thomas’ response was firm. He first suggested that the heckler was ‘in the
wrong meeting’, which achieved a laugh, and went on to jibe that he had
often been heckled on the basis of ideology or factual evidence, but never
electrical equipment. The response was effective, isolating the heckler on
the outskirts of the crowd who had come to this show particularly to appre-
ciate the informative, ideologically charged material for which Thomas is
known. The irrelevant heckle was turned into an example of ignorance from
an outsider who did not sympathize with the atmosphere of the gig. Thomas
then turned to the heckler and rammed the point home, saying, ‘in case
this is your first time heckling, you’ve just been put down, ok?’ The heckler
called out ‘I don’t care,’ to which Thomas gently responded ‘that’s fine, but
your carer, who will be sitting very close to you, will.’ Again, the audience
laughed; they were on Thomas’ side (Thomas 2008b).
Thomas admits that responding to heckles like this involves using his
superior status and experience. He knows that the audience have come to
see him and are likely to be on his side. These advantages allow him to
belittle the heckler and maintain his own control over the room (Thomas
2008d). In doing so, Thomas is doing his job; responding to a challenge


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Sophie Quirk

is what is required of any comedian in such a situation. As Tony Allen


There are those occasions when an external event so demands atten-

tion, that a failure to deal with it reveals the deceit and nullifies the
potency of the live performance. For the comedian this amounts to a
dereliction of duty.
(Allen 2002: 30)

The battle is, by Thomas’ own admission, rather uneven. This suggests that
the form is not ‘democratic’ at all; when dealing with an experienced comic
the audience are at a crippling disadvantage if they wish to issue a challenge.
Consequently, audiences in stand-up lack the means to assert the boundaries
of comic licence which would be available to them in ordinary joking between
individuals. More troublesome, however, is the possibility that the comedian
can hide the fact that those boundaries have been trespassed at all.
Douglas implies that our consensus draws a firm line to divide the socially
acceptable from the unacceptable. In actuality, these boundaries are not
rigid, but under constant renegotiation. This is evidenced in Oliver Double’s
detailed account of the altering perception of Billy Connolly’s controversial
joke about Ken Bigley. While Bigley’s imprisonment by terrorists was a high
profile news story, Connolly joked that a callous part of him was hoping to
hear news of Bigley’s murder. The joke eventually created a torrent of media
outrage. Double, however, saw the joke performed and observes that the live
audience were more easily pacified:

The theatre is filled with the sound of the audience going, ‘Ooooo!’, in
a wave of disapproval that rushes towards the stage, but before it can
crash over him, Connolly defiantly shouts, ‘Fuck off!’, transforming it
into a big laugh.
(Double 2005: 154)

For the reporters and members of the public who heard this joke via hear-
say, it was inexcusable. For the audience who were at the live performance,
though, the controversial joke was quickly subsumed under comic licence.
As this example demonstrates, many contextual factors affect the limits of
licence and skilled comedians can utilize context and other mitigating factors
to manipulate the boundaries.
This manipulation is a necessary part of stand-up comedy. As Max
Atkinson demonstrates in relation to political speakers, audiences cooperate
to deliver ‘appropriate responses’ (Atkinson 1984). Held in check by the fear
of failing to do what is required of them, and rewarded by the cosy feeling of
unity that comes with acting in unison, audience members skilfully interpret
and follow subtle signals which tell them not only when to deliver a response,
but also what that response should be (Atkinson 1984). The crucial impor-
tance of this factor in determining the comedian’s manipulative potential is
demonstrated by a show which takes absolute democracy as its premise –
Mark Thomas’ 2009 tour, It’s the Stupid Economy (Thomas 2009).
Before the show, audience members are encouraged to submit policy ideas.
Thomas then brings the most promising onstage, discusses them with the audi-
ence, and allows the audience to vote for their favourite. The chosen policy is


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Who’s in charge?

incorporated into his manifesto, which he pledges to campaign upon. At the

Canterbury performance, the chosen policy was, ‘that all MPs expenses be pub-
lished weekly in the local constituency newspaper and constituents get to vote
as to whether they are passed or not’; and Thomas soon began petitioning local
papers to publish the expenses and run a poll. Following Huddersfield’s request
to ‘make Thatcher pay for her own funeral,’ another petition was quickly raised,
and a postcard could be downloaded from Thomas’ website and sent to the
Queen pledging all kinds of comic and destructive acts designed to undermine
or ruin the state funeral, should it occur (Thomas & YWGAV 2009).
Theoretically, Thomas’ project should be a consultation exercise, allowing
the nation to express its wishes and have them acted out. In practice, there
is some fairly blatant manipulation of the outcome; Thomas, after all, gets to
pick which policies make it on to the stage and reserves the right to discard
any policy that he does not regard a worthy winner. This is accepted within
the contract between Thomas and his audience, and is vital if the show is
to run smoothly and fulfil its dual purpose as entertainment and selection
process. Yet, when we look at this show in closer detail, a more subtle form
of manipulation is revealed; this show puts consensus at the forefront of pro-
ceedings, thereby demonstrating just how malleable that consensus is.
At the Maidstone performance, Thomas (2009) read out the suggestion
‘Treat asylum seekers with humanity and fairness’. The audience responded
with a mixture of applause and groans – most notably a female audience
member somewhere near the front issued a loud ‘nah’. Obviously, there was
little consensus on the issue of asylum seekers among this Maidstone audi-
ence, and many people opposed the suggested policy. Thomas’ response was
firm; in a gesture terrifyingly reminiscent of an angry head teacher, he looked
piercingly over the top of his glasses in the direction that the ‘nah’ came from
and said, ‘The exact words used are “humanity” and “fairness”. What’s so
despicable about that?’ The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
Over the applause, Thomas made the point more controversial; if his initial
scolding was about the abstract idea of ‘humanity and fairness’, the comments
that followed were specifically about welcoming asylum seekers into Britain,
as he added that we should not send them back to persecution and torture.
By building on the easily-accepted premise of humanity and fairness,
Thomas made his own standpoint incontestable. The idea was immediately
subjected to the test of social acceptability, as the audience as peer group were
given the opportunity to demonstrate their support and reinforce that this was
indeed the appropriate response. This manufactured – even artificial – con-
sensus was lasting; when the policy reappeared in subsequent rounds there
was no repeat of the opposition that greeted its first reading. The audience
agreed that one of its shared values was the fair and humane treatment of
asylum seekers.
It is interesting to contemplate whether some of the individuals who con-
tested the policy at its original appearance may have felt themselves chastened
enough to adapt their own thinking in the mid or longer term, upholding the
policy within their own attitudes even after leaving the ‘play-ground’ of the
gig. Given the influence that group attitudes exert upon the opinions of indi-
viduals, perhaps the idea is not far-fetched at all (Lane & Sears 1964).
Stand-up comedy is both fundamentally democratic and deeply dictato-
rial. While the audience certainly has the right and the power to limit comic
licence, rejecting those jokes deemed to ‘go too far’, this right is not easily
exercised. As our moral boundaries are somewhat malleable, they may often


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Sophie Quirk

be shifted to accommodate the comedian’s proposed attitudes. That Mark

Thomas can achieve so comprehensive a shift in responses suggests that the
power of stand-up comedians to influence is greater than audiences gener-
ally acknowledge. In the final analysis, we can perhaps conclude that neither
performer nor audience is in total control. Nor would we want them to be: it
is the sharing of responsibility that prevents it from becoming burdensome.
Comedy is, above all, to be enjoyed. Both audience and performer should,
however, be aware to what extent they are dancing to the other’s tune.

Allen, Tony (2002), Attitude: Wanna make something of it?: The Secret of Stand-up
Comedy, Glastonbury: Gothic Image Publications.
Atkinson, Max (1984), Our Masters’ Voices: The language and body language of
politics, London and New York: Methuen.
Bergson, Henri, ([1900] 2008), Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,
(trans. C. Brereton & F. Rothwell), Rockville, Maryland: Arc Manor.
Carr, Jimmy and Greeves, Lucy (2007), The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden
World of Jokes, London: Penguin.
Chortle: The UK Comedy Guide (2008), Did Johnny Vegas go too far?, 1 May,
too_far%3F,. Accessed 12 August 2009.
Critchley, Simon (2002), On Humour, London and New York: Routledge.
Double, Oliver (2005), Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy,
London: Methuen.
Douglas, Mary (1970), ‘Jokes’, in M. Douglas (ed.), Implicit Meanings: selected
essays in anthropology, London: Routledge, pp. 146–164.
Huizinga, Johan (1970), Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture,
London: Temple Smith.
Jung, Carl G. (1959), ‘Aion’, in H. Read, M. Fordham & G. Adler (eds), The
Collected Works of C.G. Jung, volume 9, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jung, Carl G. (1972), Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster, London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Kaufman, Will (1997), The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue,
Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Kirby, E. T. (1974), ‘The Shamanistic Origins of Popular Entertainments’, The
Drama Review, 18:1, pp. 5–15.
Klapp, Orrin E. (1949), ‘The Fool as a Social Type’, The American Journal of
Sociology, 55:2, pp. 157–162.
Lane, Robert E. & Sears, David O. (1964), Public Opinion, New Jersey: Prentice-
Linstead, Steve (1985), ‘Jokers wild: the importance of humour in the mainte-
nance of organisational culture’, Sociological Review, 33:4, pp. 741–767.
Mintz, Lawrence E. (1985), ‘Stand-up Comedy as Social and Cultural
Mediation’, American Quarterly, 37:1, pp. 71–80.
Morreall, John (2005), ‘Humour and the Conduct of Politics’, in S. Lockyer
& M. Pickering (eds), Beyond a Joke: the Limits of Humour, Basingstoke:
Palgrave, pp. 63–78.
Otto, Beatrice K. (2001), Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the
World, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Schechter, Joel (1985), Durov’s Pig: Clowns, Politics and Theatre, New York:
Theatre Communications Group.


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Who’s in charge?

Thomas, Mark (2002), ‘My own contribution to the war on terrorism is to

promise my “New Statesman” earnings to anyone who’ll kill Bush’, New
Statesman, 4 March, p. 17.
Thomas, Mark (2004), The Night War Broke Out, London: Laughing Stock.
Thomas, Mark (2006), As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground
Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade, Great Britain: Ebury Press.
Thomas, Mark (2007), Serious Organised Criminal, United Kingdom: Phil
McIntyre Television.
Thomas, Mark (2008a), Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-
Cola, Great Britain: Ebury Press.
Thomas, Mark (2008b), Mark Thomas, Canterbury: Gulbenkian Theatre, 4
Thomas, Mark (2008c), personal interview, Canterbury, 4 October.
Thomas, Mark (2008d), email correspondence with author, October.
Thomas, Mark (2009), It’s the Stupid Economy, Maidstone: Hazlitt Theatre,
Hazlitt Arts Centre, 28 April.
Thomas, Mark & YWGAV Limited (2009), Mark Thomas Info, http://
markthomasinfo.com. Accessed 6 August 2009.

Quirk, S. (2010), ‘Who’s in charge? Negotiation, manipulation and comic
licence in the work of Mark Thomas’, Comedy Studies 1: 1, pp. 113–124,
doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.113/1

Sophie Quirk is a postgraduate student at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
Her research explores manipulation and persuasion in stand-up comedy, both
in terms of the methods used to manipulate immediate audience responses and
the durability of influence upon audience attitudes. This article originates from
a paper on the comedian as manipulator, delivered at the ‘Comics in the Frame’
International Comedy Conference at the University of Salford, June 2009.
Contact: Drama and Theatre Studies, Eliot College, University of Kent,
Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NZ.
E-mail: sq24@kent.ac.uk


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Sophie Quirk

Greek Comic Mask. Photograph by Donna Hetherington.


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COST 1 (1) pp. 125–128 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Reviews. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.125/4




Chris Ritchie, Solent University

For a country that is so proud of its sense of humour, one that can modestly
boast of contributing to over 500 years of comedy excellence, England has
remarkably few public monuments to demonstrate the fact. In Germany, a
country so often derided for having no sense of humour and no comedy tra-
dition, there is a museum dedicated to comedian Karl Valentin in Munich.
Where is the English equivalent for Charlie Chaplin or Spike Milligan? Apart
from the odd blue plaque for the likes of George Formby or Sid James, there
are few notable memorials to a very great tradition. May it be suggested
that a small campaign to rectify this glum situation be initiated and that the
first for consideration be outside Ivor Cutler’s flat in Parliament Hill Fields,
Despite this apparent paucity of humorous statuary, Comedy Studies will be
reviewing several installations dedicated to great British comedians: the first being
Max Miller. The life-sized bronze statue is situated in the small park adjacent to
the Pavilion Theatre in the city’s pedestrianized centre. It shows Max in typical
pose and outfit with the words ‘Cheeky Chappie’ beneath his feet and ‘The Pure
Gold of the Music Hall’ inscribed on the pedestal. Dressed in characteristic plus
fours, kipper tie and tiny hat, the statue is part salesman and part clown but all
comedian. It was unveiled on New Road opposite the Theatre Royal in 2005
by Norman Wisdom at a ceremony attended by June Whitfield, Roy Hudd and
George Melly. It was then temporarily removed as work was carried out on the
surrounding area. It is now re-sited after being unveiled by Ken Dodd. The Max
Miller Appreciation Society has also placed blue plaques on two of Max’s former


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Max Miller. Photograph by Donna Hetherington.


COST 1.1_art_Review_125-128.indd 126 1/14/10 10:55:30 AM


abodes whilst Brighton council have named a bus after him (as well as after the
late comedian Pete McCarthy and Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist).
Max pushed the boundaries of what was and was not acceptable on the
comedy stage, radio and screen, and delighted in the innuendo still loved by
British audiences: it was this risqué aspect that saw him censored by the BBC.
Getting sacked and silenced ensured his notoriety, despite the fact that it is so
tame by contemporary standards and it is at odds with today’s career come-
dians toeing an altogether safer line on panel and quiz shows. There truly will
never be another.
For more information visit the Max Miller Appreciation Society website
E-mail: chris.ritchie@solent.ac.uk


WEITZ (2009)
First Edition, Cambridge University Press, 243 pp., ISBN-13:
9780521540261, Paperback, £15.99

Joe Jenness, freelance journalist

Eric Weitz’s The Cambridge Introduction to Comedy is of value for anyone

studying the art of humour. At around 200 pages and with six chapters, it is a
compact read that introduces the individual to a number of aspects that make
up comedy as a discourse, from performance and text through to the history
of comedy.
Each chapter concentrates on a different section of comedy with Weitz dis-
secting each topic in detail. The opening chapters focus heavily on the ancient
Greeks and Romans and the importance of playwrights such as Aristophanes
and Terrence (plus linking them with the great writers of the future). This area
of comedy is often overlooked in modern introductory textbooks, which tend
to focus on the importance of contemporary figures.
His explorations go to great depths whilst managing to keep the reader
interested. Each playwright and their work are carefully detailed so as not
to alienate a novice reader of historical comedy. The later chapters look at
the more recent movements in comedy (commedia dell’arte, Restoration, and
music hall), as well as the various devices comedy uses to construct characters,
the performed elements of a text and the various comic types that reflect soci-
ety at a given point in time.
Though this makes an excellent historical reference guide, a greater bal-
ance of modern comedy would have been of benefit amongst the classic plays
and texts. Hollywood comedy films and the countless television channels
broadcasting comedy exclusively reveal how crucial and in-demand comedy
is today. Weitz’s reiteration of the same points from a number of angles can
sometimes be distracting whilst some examples feel more impassioned than
they should. Even so, these are small qualms in comparison to the wide scope
of reference he presents.


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The Cambridge Introduction to Comedy is a compact and simple guide to the

massive spectrum of comedy – not to mention offering a variety of approaches
on how to read comedy as a text and how a specific discourse affects how
comedy is viewed. Early on, Weitz notes comedy’s key characteristics, such as
how the average person’s subliminal relationship with the world determines
which reference points they will get (and which will be lost). Indeed, it is our
relationship with our own cultures that determines what we laugh at.
Weitz also offers a notably inspired moment with a postmodern reinterpre-
tation of Aristophanes war satire Lysistrata; the reader is invited to re-imagine
a selection of script with the ‘Sex in the City’ cast in mind. This juxtaposition
of old and new not only helps to make the text relevant but shows the strong
similarities between ideas in old comedy and new.
The importance and influence of old comedy is greatly emphasized; the
original satirists and their targets, the censorships of the Romans and the
archetypal comedy types that would endure carry throughout history. As a
graduate studying the genre exclusively during my degree, this book is recom-
mended as a start to exploring comedy academically. It is a short, mostly sharp,
smart read; it never takes the reader for granted and goes to great lengths to
make sure any precise terms, movements or individuals are explained in care-
ful detail.
E-mail: joe_jenness@hotmail.co.uk


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COST 1 (1) pp. 129–130 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Miscellaneous. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.129/7




Sam Friedman, University of Edinburgh

At the Edinburgh Fringe, things are never as they seem. In recent years,
critics have bemoaned the creeping commercialism seeping into the com-
edy programme, creating endless identikit stand-ups all peddling the same
run-of-the-mill material. As the 2009 Fringe programme was announced,
things were no different. Many criticised the dearth of new talent on offer
and the steady flow of established names returning to relaunch ailing
careers or cash-in on guaranteed sell-out shows.
However, from underneath this swell of criticism, Edinburgh’s comedy
fraternity surprised everyone. 2009 was the year of the comedy innovator, the
weirdo, perhaps even the coming of a new comedy avant-garde.
Leading the charge was self-professed ‘poet, performer and savant’ Tim
Key, who picked up the main prize at the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy
Awards. Key’s show, The Slutcracker, was a brilliantly surreal collage of
poetry, music and film, all united by a theme of what can only be described as
‘anti-comedy’. Delighting in the long awkward silences that greeted his brief,
arrhythmic poetry and awkward song lyrics, Key’s set playfully inverted the
normal form of stand-up, creating a tension that lent maximum effect to his
bizarre brand of humour.
The Best Newcomer Prize also went to a comedy oddball in Jonny Sweet.
His show was similarly inventive: a comic elegy about the supposed death
of his brother, famous for writing award-winning ‘blurbs’ for the publishing
industry. Again, the charm of Sweet’s set lay in his experimental approach.
The judges praised his courage in exploring unusual and humorous narrative
ideas, even if ultimately they did not always work.


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This spirit of ‘highbrow’ innovation was also recognized elsewhere at The

Fringe, with the emergence of another self-confessed anti-comedian Edward
Aczel. Despite receiving good reviews across the board, Aczel’s act contained
no jokes, no real observations, in fact nothing that might easily be called a
‘routine’. Instead the humour in Aczel’s act was precisely in the material that
was not there; the pauses, the excruciating silences, the way he deliberately
and persistently frustrated the audience’s expectation of being entertained.
At the other end of the spectrum, it was a bad year for the aforementioned
‘big name’ comics returning to the Fringe. Julian Clary’s comeback show,
Lord of the Mince, fared particularly badly – his brand of innuendo derided
by many critics as obscene and outdated. Similarly Alistair McGowan’s new
show, combining endless celebrity impersonation with bland one-liners, was
widely criticised for its lack of imagination. And Ricky Gervais’s one-off show,
Science, was branded as arrogant and uninspired.
The fact that offbeat and original comedians like Key, Sweet and Aczel
picked up most of the attention at this year’s festival seems to say some-
thing about the enduring function of Edinburgh in the British comedy world.
Yes, this kind of comedy may be high-minded and pretentious to some, but
such debates are precisely what The Fringe is all about. Despite its growing
commercial appeal, the festival remains the pre-eminent training ground for
British comedians: a hallowed space away from the TV cameras where new
work can always be showcased, recognized and contested.
E-mail: sam@festmag.co.uk


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COST 1 (1) pp. 131–134 Intellect Limited 2010

Comedy Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Miscellaneous. English language. doi: 10.1386/cost.1.1.131/7


Marcus Brigstocke: God

Collar Live
Joe Jenness, freelance journalist

‘I’ve got a God-shaped hole and none of the deities seem to fill it.’
(Marcus Brigstocke)

Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre was packed for one of Britain’s most popular
unknown comedians, Marcus Brigstocke. For a number of years, Brigstocke
has built a small but loyal fan base of middle-class bohemian lefties and
know-it-all students, both of which have come out in force to see Radio Four’s
pompous poster boy.
Brigstocke looked like he could easily be one of his own fans. Gone was
his usual stage wear of geography teacher tweed and it was replaced with
jeans and a floral shirt (‘Do television,’ he advises, ‘The amount of free clothes
you get!’). Before the show he discussed the state of comedy with Comedy
Studies: ‘My attempt over the last few years has been to bring lecture and
stand-up shows into sharp relief,’ he explains, with the trademark stare of an
irate teacher, ‘Comedy is instructive.’
God Collar premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe and subsequently toured
the UK. ‘The great thing about the Edinburgh festival is you can write a show
and it’s a statement,’ he says. The show is about God, religion and those who
get caught up in-between. ‘There probably isn’t a God, but I wish there was.
I’ve got some questions I’d like to ask him,’ proclaims the show’s tagline. And


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Marcus Brigstocke. Photograph by Ian Tomey.


COST 1.1_interview_131-134.indd 132 1/14/10 11:07:23 AM


question he certainly does, the show being more of an open letter than a letter
The first act begins with Brigstocke in typically indignant mood, pointing
his finger at everything from spiritual subjects to iPhone users. His introduc-
tion is a video sequence of interlocking religious symbols and sounds, some
purposefully juxtaposed for effect, but it falls short of laugh-out-loud funny.
Brigstocke enters the stage and, to his credit, holds it remarkably well. This
crowd is his crowd and he knows this: ‘The most important things in stand-
up are the audience, your brain and your mouth: stand-up is a conversation
between you and the audience,’ he says before the show. It is this common
ground that is the key to tonight’s show, as Brigstocke is not one to shy away
from a controversial topic.
As Brigstocke begins his act it appears that no faith or so-called expert
on religion is safe from his ire. Anyone who is familiar with his radio shows
will know that his contempt for these people is not the result of an underly-
ing prejudice towards those different to him; he simply stands to point out
their hypocrisies and failings. The problem is that by going on the offensive,
Brigstocke essentially becomes no better than his targets; as he spouts his
opinions on their ideals he sounds quite preachy (but with this audience he is
already preaching to his flock). His assertion that atheists are not as clever as
they think they are is very funny and especially apt for the evening.
The second act is a much more sombre affair. Brigstocke lowers his rifle
and looks at the effect that the ideas of religion and spiritualism have on peo-
ple, especially children. He talks proudly about his own children and their
response to the idea of religion, but the show changes gear when he talks
about his best friend, who had died some years before: a friend who had
booked his first gig and was a major influence on his career. He stepped out-
side of himself for a few minutes to discuss how spiritual thinking affected
his personal response to the whole event. For a comedian to speak so impas-
sionedly about something so life affirming absolves his decision to choose
emotion over laughter at this point. It is on this reflective trail of thought that
the show ends, and Brigstocke leaves the stage to warm, if not rapturous,
Brigstocke is an intelligent and passionate comedian. As he says before
the show, ‘I’ve managed to turn righteous indignation into comedy,’ and for
God Collar he certainly goes some way to support his own self-promotion. He
does have some memorable punchlines (‘Religion and war are like Ant and
Dec: there’s no point of one without the other,’) as well as the ability to make
an audience feel unnerved by his material but still laugh (just ask the guy
who was outed as being circumcised). He is also never one to shy away from
a controversial topic. For a one-man show predominately about religion and
spirituality, he does manage to find humour in other places and people, not
just deities. He can rant with the best of the religious fundamentalists.
The problem is that some of the show was not as funny as perhaps it
should it have been. ‘I am slightly embarrassed, but only slightly, that some
lines have made it into the show, but they’re going in, they need to be said’.
For a comedian to forgo jokes in order to make a point sounds more like a
lecture than a comedy show; indeed, Brigstocke admitted before the show
that ‘Comedically it’s difficult to get people to change their ways, you’re con-
fronting people on their own terms’, and you have to give him credit for being
willing to use his voice to make a point.


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One or two moments in the show caused genuine surprise at how far
he was willing to go in his attacks. ‘Some comedians talk about what they
can’t say,’ says Brigstocke ‘that’s just self-indulgent’; his opinions are well
informed, but they can still shock. The encore (which turned out to be a Q&A)
felt very flat, especially given how tight the rest of the show was, but it did
offer Brigstocke the opportunity to show his spontaneous comic skills.
Brigstocke admitted that the show did not have a point; it was more just
a musing on the bigger ideas. ‘Comedy can in essence change things, it can
continue an idea,’ he said before the show. While this performance may not
have changed the world at least Brigstocke can be happy that his show has
got people thinking; and when it comes to the complexities, contradictions
and complications of religion, there cannot be a better point to make than
E-mail: joe_jenness@hotmail.co.uk


COST 1.1_interview_131-134.indd 134 1/14/10 11:07:25 AM

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The journal follows standard British English. Please use (sparingly) to indicate key concepts.
‘ize’ endings instead of ‘ise’. Any queries concerning the format and presentation
of articles not covered by the above notes should be
LENGTH OF ARTICLES addressed to the editor.
Articles should be 4–5,000 words long and must not
exceed 6,000 words (including notes and references, but QUOTATIONS
excluding the author biography, keywords or abstract). Intellect’s style for quotations embedded into a para-
graph is single quote marks, with double quote marks
METADATA used for a second quotation contained within the first.
Contributors must check that each of the following have All long quotations (over 40 words) should be ‘dis-
been supplied correctly: played’ – i.e. set into a separate indented paragraph
• Article Title with an additional one-line space above and below, and
• Author’s Name without quote marks at the beginning or end. Please
• Author’s postal and email address (the postal address note that for quotations within the text, the punctuation
does not have to be included in the final article, but is should follow the bracketed reference. For a displayed
needed for correspondence purposes) quotation the bracketed reference appears after the full
• Author’s Biography of 50–100 words stop. All omissions in a quotation are indicated thus:
• Abstract of 100–200 words (this will appear on [...] Note that there are no spaces between the suspen-
Intellect’s website) sion points. When italics are used for emphasis within
• Keywords (six to eight, listed one per line, in lower quotations, please ensure that you indicate whether the
case where possible) emphasis is from the original text or whether it is your
Notes may be used for comments and additional infor- REFEREES
mation only. In general, if something is worth saying, it This is a peer-reviewed journal. Strict anonymity is
is worth saying in the text itself. A note will divert the accorded to both authors and referees.


COST_1.1_Notes for contributor_135-136.indd 135 1/15/10 10:06:50 AM

REFERENCES Johnson, C. (1998), ‘The Secret Diary of Catherine
All references in the text should be according to the Johnson’, programme notes to Mamma Mia! [Original
Harvard system, e.g. (Bordwell 1989: 9). Please do not West End Production], dir. Phyllida Lloyd.
group films together under a separate Filmography Richmond, J. (2005), ‘Customer expectations in the
heading. Instead, incorporate all films into the main world of electronic banking: a case study of the Bank
body of references and list them alphabetically by direc- of Britain’, Ph.D. thesis, Chelmsford: Anglia Ruskin
tor. The same rule applies to television programmes/ University.
music/new media: identify the director/composer and Rodgers, Richard and Hammerstein II, Oscar (n.d.),
list alphabetically with books, journals and papers. Carousel: A Musical Play (vocal score ed. Dr Albert
Please note in particular: Sirmay), Williamson Music.
• ‘Anon.’ for items for which you do not have an Roussel, R. ([1914] 1996), Locus Solus, Paris: Gallimard.
author (because all items must be referenced with an Stroöter-Bender, J. (1995), L’Art contemporain dans les pays
author within the text) du ‘Tiers Monde’ (trans. O. Barlet), Paris: L’Harmattan.
• A blank line is entered between references UNDESA (United Nations Department of Economic and
• Year date of publication in brackets Social Affairs) (2005), 6th Global Forum on Reinventing
• Commas, not full stops, between parts of each Government: Towards Participatory and Transparent
reference Governance, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 24–27 May,
• Absence of ‘in’ after the title of a chapter if the refer- United Nations: New York.
ence relates to an article in a journal or newspaper. Woolley, E. and Muncey, T. (in press), ‘Demons or
• Name of translator of a book within brackets after diamonds: a study to ascertain the range of atti-
title and preceded by ‘trans.’, not ‘transl.’ or ‘trans- tudes present in health professionals to children with
lated by’. conduct disorder’, Journal of Adolescent Psychiatric
• Absence of ‘no.’ for the journal number, a colon Nursing. (Accepted for publication December 2002).
between journal volume and number.
• ‘pp.’ before page extents. PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS
The following samples indicate conventions for the most Personal communications are what the informant said
common types of reference: directly to the author, e.g. ‘Pam loved the drums (per-
Anon (1931), Les films de la semaine, Tribune de Genéve, sonal communication)’. This needs no citation in the ref-
28 January. erences list. Equally the use of personal communications
Brown, J. (2005), ‘Evaluating surveys of transpar- need not refer back to a named informant. However, a
ent governance’, in UNDESA (United Nations more formal research interview can be cited in the text
Department of Economic and Social Affairs), 6th (Jamieson 12 August 2004 interview) and in the refer-
Global Forum on Reinventing Government: Towards ences list.
Participatory and Transparent Governance, Seoul,
Republic of Korea, 24–27 May, United Nations: New
Website references are similar to other references. There is
no need to decipher any place of publication or a specific
Denis, Claire (1987), Chocolat, Paris: Les Films du
publisher, but the reference must have an author, and the
author must be referenced Harvard-style within the text.
Flitterman-Lewis, S. (1990), To Desire Differently:
Unlike paper references, however, web pages can change,
Feminism and the French Cinema, Urbana and Chicago:
so there needs to be a date of access as well as the full web
University of Chicago Press.
reference. In the list of references at the end of your article,
Grande, M. (1998), ‘Les Images non-dérivées’, in
the item should read something like this:
O. Fahle, (ed.), Le Cinéma selon Gilles Deleuze, Paris:
Bondebjerg, K. (2005), ‘Web Communication and the
Presse de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, pp. 284–302.
Public Sphere in a European Perspective’, http://www.
Gibson, R., Nixon, P. and Ward, S. (eds) (2003),
media.ku.dk. Accessed 15 February 2005.
Political Parties and the Internet: Net Gain?, London:
Gottfried, M. (1999), ‘Sleeve notes to “Gypsy”’, [Original Articles submitted to this journal should be original
Broadway Cast Album] [CD], Columbia Broadway and not under consideration by any other publication.
Masterworks, SMK 60848. Contributions should be submitted electronically as an
Hottel, R. (1999), ‘Including Ourselves: The Role of Female email attachment. Please contact the editor for further
Spectators in Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur and L’une chante, details.
l’autre pas’, Cinema Journal, 38: 2, pp. 52–72.


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