3.2 The Comic Figure In History
Swortzell dates the first appearance of a ‘clown’ as 2270 BCE in the reign of Pepi II, a pharaoh of the Egyptian 6th dynasty. This was a captured slave, possibly a pygmy, whose dancing was, so said the merchant who purchased him, guaranteed to delight (1978:8-9). However, Welsford places the fool Danga at the court of Dadkeri-Assi, a pharaoh of the previous dynasty (1935:61). She also notes that in classical Greece there were professional buffoons and parasites, men who would receive free meals in return for their skills in repartee and mimicry. ‘Parasites and laughter-makers abounded at the courts of Philip and Alexander and other rich potentates of the Hellenic world’ (p.4). Swortzell provides more details. ‘Parasite’ simply meant ‘guest’, and parasites were wandering entertainers who could sing, dance, joke, juggle, tumble and converse (1978:9). Bremmer relates an episode from Xenophon’s Symposion concerning a social gathering which Socrates attended. A buffoon, Philip, who had entered uninvited, interrupted the feast by mimicking and parodying the dancers. But when he was about to impersonate certain individuals, Socrates politely enjoined him to be reticent on such matters (1997:11-2).
Bremmer makes two points of further interest: this performance by Philip ‘did not take place in public space, as is the case with most modern entertainers [but] during a symposion [banquet] in…the so-called andron, which was the one room in the house to which male non-family members had access’ (pp.12-3). Secondly, such people as Philip may have used joke books. Evidence for this comes from, amongst others, the Roman writer of comedies, Plautus, who mentions them in some of his works (p.16). (The Romans, too, had their fools; Welsford mentions Gabba, the buffoon of Emperor Augustus (p.7)). The oldest surviving Greek joke book was produced not later than the sixth century CE (Bremmer p.17). This second point will arise again in the discussion of stand-up comedians below, but the first point can be dealt with here as it raises the issue of the identity of the buffoon, and fools in general. It is not always easy to distinguish clearly between their characters in performance and their social selves. That is, when they attended social gatherings (in what was usually a private space) they attended as themselves, or when they were kept as fools they were kept as themselves, rather than, say, as an actor who could perform as a variety of characters. This is another point we shall have occasion to return to as it is a further issue involved in the dispute to be analysed in Section 8.
Talk of actors brings us to the comedy plays of the classical world, particularly the characters they created. The Greek Menander (342-292 BCE) provided a host of comic characters, some of which became stock and have lasted well e.g. the braggart soldier carried on through to Falstaff (Swortzell 1978:14); the tricky slave is a comic character that continued right up to (at least) the 1970s in the figure of the slave played by Frankie Howerd in BBC television’s ‘Up Pompeii!’ The foolish servants re-appeared in many places most notably perhaps in the Commedia del’arte’s two zanni (from which the English ‘zany’ (Swortzell p.48)) and, more recently, is recognisable in Manuel of the television sitcom ‘Fawlty Towers’. The Roman comedy writer Plautus (c.254-184 BCE) continued and extended such stock characters and they in turn inspired later playwrights: the miser, borrowed by Ben Jonson, the identical twin brothers in Shakespeare’s ‘Comedy of Errors’ (p.17). Godfrey notes that the successful stage play/film of the 1960s, ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’, which concerns a cunning slave who plots his freedom in ancient Rome, draws names, plots, and situations from many of Plautus’ plays (1998:349).
In the earlier discussion of performance space it was seen how after the collapse of Rome theatrical skills were carried on with wandering entertainers. ‘In the market place or wherever they could gather a crowd, two or three of the mimes would entertain their public with songs, stories, dances, juggling tricks, acrobatics and clowning…’ (Swortzell p.1). These were the same set of skills exhibited by the buffoons and parasites in Greece and Rome, and they were carried on through and beyond the 10th and 11th centuries by jongleurs and troubadours (pp.4-6) and by the Commedia del’Arte from 16th-18th centuries (Richards and Richards (1990:12), right through the music halls to today’s circuses and street performers. Fairs, common throughout Europe, for centuries provided a platform for the exhibition of such skills e.g. Bartholomew Fair in London, which lasted from the 12th to 19th century (McKechnie 1931:29-30).
Perhaps the best-known comic figure of the medieval and early modern period is the court jester or fool. Welsford tells us that during the stability after the Wars of the Roses in England the Tudor courts were plentifully provided with fools (p.158). She gives an example of performer/audience interaction between Henry VIII and his popular fool Will Somers which is worth taking up. A favourite amusement of theirs was improvising verse and capping one another’s rhymes. As Henry, Somers and Cardinal Wolsey were riding past a place where Henry had a lover, Henry challenged Somers thus:
Within yon tower
There is a flower
That hath my heart
Somers’ reply was ‘unprintable’ and Wolsey admonished him:
A rod in the school
And a whip for the fool
Are always in season
Somers instantly retorted:
A halter and rope
For him that would be pope
Against all right and reason
‘at which Wolsey bit his lip’ (p.167). This is of interest not only for the interaction at work here – who is the audience, who the performer? - but also for two other points. The first one has been mentioned earlier – that of licence. Comic figures throughout history have been granted permission by their audiences to transgress and this is a supreme example of such - a fool openly making fun of the two most powerful men in the country to their faces. (When Henry later had Wolsey beheaded he invited Wolsey’s fool, Patch, to come and join his cousin Somers at court (Swortzell 1978:33). That is, a cardinal’s transgression results in death, and his servant, a professional transgressor, is promoted.) The second point concerns comic persona, an issue already raised when buffoons and parasites were discussed. In this example Somers is Somers; in his role as fool he is performing for the king, yet they are out riding as part of their social life together (Somers familiarly addressed the king as ‘Harry’ (Jacobson 1997:169)). It is difficult to be precise about where Somers’ comic identity begins and ends. Welsford put it more succinctly when discussing Tarlton, Elizabeth I’s jester: ‘whereas Burbage [a renowned actor of the day] ceased to be Hamlet when the play was over, Tarlton was Tarlton both on and off the stage’ (p.312). These are both key points and we shall have occasion to return to them.
The discussion is at a point in history from which many pictorial representations of fools have come down to us. Swortzell describes the costume of the medieval fool in Italy as consisting of a hooded cap with ass’s ears attached. He carried a stick (a marotte) which had a fool’s head carved on one end; some fools held conversations with this head, others tied a bean bag to it (1978:32). Gifford (1979) studied fool imagery from the 13th-15th centuries and found that the common traits were that they carried a stick or club in the right hand, a disc in the left, and wore a cap with bells. 15th century images also show an ass-eared head dress. He then makes an interesting conjecture that traces such features back to ancient Egypt. He notes that late Roman curse-tablets (390-420 CE) show drawings of the god Seth-Typhon, who has an ass-eared head, a stick in his right hand and a disc in his left. Seth-Typhon originated in Egypt centuries before this; Gifford wonders if such striking similarities to the fool’s features are merely coincidental. What is not conjectural is that the present-day comedian Ken Dodd has exhibited similar features. (See Illustrations 2a-c.) His stage persona at times involves having his hair shaped into one, sometimes two or three, thick spikes projecting from his head not unlike the spikes of a fool’s cap or ass’s ears. More famously, he often carries in his right hand his ‘tickling stick’ (usually a feather duster), and when asked about this on a television special dedicated to him, he answered directly that it was a jester’s prop (Dodd 2001). In the music hall television show ‘The Good Old Days’, he dons a genuine fool’s cap with three large spikes, telling the audience that is what comedians wore many years before (Davies 2000). As for the common denominator of the stick carried by these figures, Jacobson has little doubt about its significance:
Herakles has his club. Harlequin his batte. Grimaldi his stove-poker. Punch his universal cudgel. The jester his marotte and bladder. Ken Dodd’s tickling stick is clearly in the ithyphallic tradition. Similarly Chaplin’s cane, pursuing an independent life of its own, finding its own way up the dress of a passing ingenue.
This matter of dress and appearance is of some significance in comic traditions and is another point that will be returned to for, as Bogatyrev points out, costume is not simply a material object, it is also a sign (1989:13) – in this case a sign of the licensed transgressor.
Illus. 2c.Ken Dodd
Before moving on to consider the two final manifestations of the comic figure to be dealt with in this study– the modern clown and the stand-up comedian – it should be pointed out that it has not always been only people designated as performers who have been given licence for outrageous behaviour. Fairs and carnivals have already been mentioned and these were social gatherings at which anyone could indulge themselves in food and drink and behave out of character. There were also ‘feasts’. Bucknell names The Feast of the Boy Bishop, The Feast of Fools, and the Feast of the Asses as regular festivals held in England and France. He believes they were based on the old Roman Saturnalia feast in which ‘the masters and servants changed roles’ (1979:70).
On such occasions boys became bishops for a day, arriving on a donkey; clerics were baptised with buckets of water; priests and clerics danced grotesquely in church and behaved obscenely (pp.70-1), and, as we saw above (3.1.), clergymen used excrement instead of incense (Bakhtin 1984). Jacobson notes, ‘In the Feast of Fools it was the clergy who wore masks or blacked their faces or dressed as women…[and] in carnival the masquerade is universal. No distinction is made between watchers and watched; everyone participates’ (1997:197-8). Clearly, though, such events were special calendrical events, like April Fool’s day today, and for the rest of the time it was indeed performers who performed and audiences who watched.
At the beginning of this section Christen distinguished between tribal clowns and the modern conception of the clown. Here the latter will be given attention. The figure of the clown that is most commonly recognised – the painted-faced bumbler in the circus – is most closely associated in origin with Joseph Grimaldi (Illustration 3b). In eighteenth century England Harlequin was a popular comic figure but Welsford dates the change from this to the modern clown figure precisely as Grimaldi’s performance in Mother Goose at Christmas 1805, a performance ‘which diminished the vogue of Harlequin (Illustration 3a and was the beginning of a new development of the art of clownage’ (p.309). She then traces the clown figure through various stages after this: in the circus, music halls (Dan Leno, for example – Illustration 3c), silent movies (Chaplin, Keaton) to the Marx Brothers. McKechnie also gives similar due to Grimaldi, crediting him with the creation of the modern clown’s make-up and costume, noting the latter was a blend of the French Pierrot and the old English jester (1931:108). Grimaldi’s new clown character was named ‘Joey’ and had characteristics comparable to those of the trickster:
Joey was a clown with an insatiable appetite – gobbling down countless strings of sausages, ropes of macaroni, trays of tarts, bowls of pudding, innumerable oysters – and a bit of a drunkard as well… Joey was also an accomplished and indiscriminate thief. Pies and legs of mutton, lighted candles and bottles of water vanished into his bottomless pockets with sleight of hand unmatched since until the advent of Harpo Marx.
It is worth momentarily staying with Harpo simply to note that Esslin makes an even greater link across time with him, connecting him to the mime play of antiquity. (1968:320), and saying of the Marx Brothers as a collective entity that ‘they clearly bridge the gap between the Commedia del’arte and vaudeville on the one hand, and the Theatre of the Absurd on the other’ (p.236). Here we can add that though clowning may not be as popular or appreciated as it once was (the circus declining markedly and the solely visual demands of silent cinema having long since gone), there has still been space over the years for comedians exhibiting clownish traits: in the US, Jerry Lewis and more recently Jim Carrey, in the UK, Norman Wisdom and more recently Lee Evans.
The mention of Lee Evans brings us into the realm of the stand-up comedian, which is perhaps now the best-known manifestation of the comic figure in the English-speaking world. This comic figure is embodied by a diverse collection of performers and performance styles, from the softly-spoken, low-key delivery of Arnold Brown, through the rambling stream-of-consciousness of Eddie Izzard, to the vicious verbal assaults of Gerry Sadowitz. As Cook observes: ‘no two are alike’ (1994:6).
Though a stand-up is, amongst other things, carrying on the tradition of being a licensed fool whose primary function is to elicit amusement, a tradition we have seen that has been manifested in a multiplicity of forms in different times and places, perhaps the primary distinguishing feature of this figure is the dependence on linguistic performance. More than any other of the comic figures surveyed here, the stand-up’s performance is, with few exceptions, overwhelmingly based on the use of words and not physical skills and appearance. The name of the form itself says this: someone who stands up before an audience and speaks. As Rutter observes, the symbol of stand-up is the solitary microphone standing centre stage (1997:74). Double puts it thus:
A stand-up comedy act usually involves a solo performer speaking directly to an audience with the intention of provoking laughter within the context of a formally organised entertainment, but it is an entity in itself, and is not contained within a larger narrative structure.
The role of the audience, something which has been underlined throughout this study, is crucial in stand-up and deserves special attention. Cook notes that ‘the craft consists of telling stories to an audience, rather than interacting with other performers behind an imaginary fourth wall’ (1994:4). The comedian Ken Dodd confirms this when he says of performing that, though he is standing alone on stage, ‘I am part of a double act, because my straight man is the audience’ (Hind 1991:177, original emphasis). We should, however, note that the stand-up’s performance is dialogic in a more direct sense also. In a discussion of dramatic dialogue and the plurality of actors, Veltrusky notes,
in folklore, certain tellers of traditional tales put on a solo theatrical performance, impersonating the characters of the tale, miming their gestures and even complicated actions, constantly moving from spot to spot and changing the pitch, the loudness, and the speed of delivery in the course of the dialogue in accordance with the alternation of the speakers.
This could be a description of many stand-up comedians.
So, given that linguistic performance is so important, as is the interaction with the audience, in the remaining space available we will consider ‘the context of formalised entertainment’ from which stand-up developed and finish with a look at how the figure is introduced to the audience to give their relationship a clear grounding.
Most observers agree that in the UK it was the music halls that gave birth to the modern comedian that was the forerunner of today’s stand-up (Double 1992:53; Wilmut 1980:xvii). The halls themselves grew out of ‘tavern singing, free-and-easies, Pleasure Gardens, fairs, singing rooms, and Catch and Glee clubs’ (Double 1992:49) [recall the gleeman minstrel figure of the medieval period]. McKechnie sees the 1843 Theatres Act as significant. This forbade drinking and smoking by audiences during a theatre performance but not during variety shows. Thus, venues which chose variety could not produce plays but attracted the more interactive audiences who were used to smoking and drinking during pub sing-songs etc. Soon thereafter purpose-built music halls sprang up (1931:140). Charles Morton opened the first, the Canterbury Hall, in 1852, and by 1868 there were 500 across the country ( Double 1997:25).
The comic performers of the halls would not be recognisable as stand-ups as they practised other skills such as singing, tumbling, juggling and so on. They wore exaggerated costumes and make-up (note how all these are traits of the clown) and expressed their humour through sketches and comic ‘patter songs’, and it was not until the 1890s that the term ‘comedian’ was used in programmes (Double 1992:53). A typical act would be a series of songs performed in character, a little dancing and a number of costume changes (Double 1997:23). Though by that time food and drink had been banished from the auditorium and a certain distancing had taken place between audience and performers, ‘[m]usic hall culture in general never lost its sense of bon accord and its performer-audience interplay’(Pickering 1993:413), which, as we have seen, is so important for the live comic figure. By the turn of the century more gags and patter were included and Dan Leno emerged as an innovator. A contemporary commentator describes his act consisting not so much of songs but of
diverting monologues in a style of which he was undoubtedly the originator…With him the character was the first consideration; the amusing wealth of monologue or ‘patter’ was the means whereby he gave his audience an insight into that character, whilst the verses struck one as being in most cases, a somewhat unnecessary interlude.
(in Double 1997:23)
Music hall, which after the First World War became more commonly referred to as ‘variety’, continued until beyond the Second World War and this means that the older performers of recent times and even of today had personal experience of them and with some their influence still shows. Ken Dodd (b.1927), for example, still incorporates some of the above features in his act – his hair and tickling stick were remarked upon earlier; he is also given to wearing outlandish overcoats and hats and punctuating his performances with (non-humorous) songs. Many of the stand-ups of the 1970s also would perform straight songs.
However, by the 1930s, there were changes which began to make comedians more recognisable as ‘stand-ups’: comic style became less theatrical and situation-based and new comedians like Tommy Handley, Tommy Trinder, and Ted Ray started wearing smart contemporary suits and based their acts mainly on a series of unconnected jokes (Double 1992:58). That is, there was a clear shift away from exaggerated costume and character towards a greater reliance on individual linguistic performance. After the war some of the music hall comedians continued in variety shows but these too were effectively dead by the early 1960s. However, there were other places to perform – night clubs, theatres, radio, the new medium of television, and films. Some, like Bob Monkhouse, were able to perform in all of these (Monkhouse 1994). In the North there was also the possibility of performing in the working men’s clubs, where there was a virtual comic sub-culture, invisible on a national level, which was to be an important training ground for the form and content of many of the comedians who were to break through on a national scale in the 1970s television show ‘The Comedians’ (Double 1997, chapter 4).
But before taking this discussion into the 1970s a pause will be made to briefly return to the idea of comic character/persona touched upon earlier in the look at parasites/buffoons and royal fools (‘Tarlton was Tarlton’). Double notes that performers such as George Formby (Snr) and Beryl Reid (this would be around the 1930/40s) would perform in the guise of well-known characters they had developed, ‘John Willie’ and ‘Marlene’ respectively. In the publicity for such shows they would be billed under their real names and so ‘the comedian would be very obviously speaking as a fictional character rather than as him/herself ’ (1992:63). In contrast to this, comic persona, for Double, involves no division between performer and character and he notes that as more comedians developed a persona this was another shift away from the theatricality of music hall. ‘The implication of this change was that whilst comedians like Max Miller, Albert Madely, or Oliver Wakefield use exaggerated stage personae, they were still ostensibly projecting themselves ’ (1992:63-4, emphasis added). However, this view needs to be tempered somewhat. Bob Monkhouse, a comedian of many years’ standing, in an interview with Terry Wogan in 1984 comments, ‘I came into the business…in order to get laughs but that meant inventing a persona, offering something that is not necessarily me, it’s an invention, a construction’ (Tolson 1991:186). Even so, this feature is one that is now commonplace with the majority of stand-up comedians and is a point that will appear again shortly. It can also be added that Littlewood and Pickering make a gender point here. They suggest that it is female comedians who have excelled at character studies such that ‘there can be no doubt that this kind of comedy is one which women have made a speciality’, tracing the tradition back from music hall performers such Jenny Hill and Marie Lloyd, through mid-century performers such as Joyce Grenfell and Hermione Gingold to present-day comedians such as Victoria Wood and French and Saunders. Littlewood and Pickering see stand-up as having ‘a definite masculine stamp on it’ and wonder whether women can further transform its nature ‘though there are few immediate signs of this happening’ (1998:309). This topic will be returned to in a discussion of gender and humour in 7.3.
The comedians who came to dominate the stand-up scene in the 1960s-70s were predominantly white working class males who had spent years touring the circuits of night clubs and working men’s clubs with little or no changes in their material, which consisted largely of strings of unconnected standardised jokes. Some of their material could be ‘borrowed’ from other comedians or the public domain or purchased from gag writers. (In 3.2 we saw how Bremmer (1997:16) noted that in Ancient Greece some buffoons used joke books, but they may have been collections of their own material.) For example, in his teens Bob Monkhouse made money supplying such material to practising comedians (Monkhouse 1994:55-6).) It is revealing to compare the material of one of the better-known of these comedians, Les Dawson, with some of the material that was performed in the music halls more than 50 years earlier. Max Beerbohm, in a 1923 article discussing popular humour, commented that the public liked to hear the same jokes and he lists, in order, the following typical subjects: mothers-in-law, hen-pecked husbands, twins, old maids, Jews, Frenchmen, Italians, Negroes and eight further subjects (1970:215-6). An analysis of the themes of a Les Dawson joke book from 1979 reveals the top three themes to be: wife, mother-in-law, other women (31.7%); Irish, Jewish (11.8%); North/South regionalism (10.9%) (Paton 1988:215). That is, more than half of Dawson’s subject matter was similar to the most common themes of the music halls – gender and ethnicity/regionalism - half a century earlier (as seen by Beerbohm). It could be argued that this is unproblematic; this dissertation has, after all, taken pains to stress the common comic links in different times and places. But given the enormous social and political changes that had taken place in the UK over that time – full suffrage for men and women, the role played by women at home in the war, the significant increase of women in the work force, the end of Empire, the changing ethnic composition of society, the re-emergence of Irish nationalism, the growth of active feminist, ethnic, and gay groups, to name but the most obvious – it is surprising that such similar themes presented in sexist and racist terms continued to prevail. Let us look at a few examples in order to get the flavour. The first comes from Dawson’s joke book.
I’m not saying my wife’s thick…but she was late for work the other day because she got stuck on an escalator during a power cut.
(in Paton p.214)
This next comes from 1970s primetime television.
Hear the one about the Paki who applied for a job as a conductor? They nailed him to a chimney in Oldham.
(in Cook 1994:14)
A critique of the social conservatism of such comedy was made in 1975 in Trevor Griffiths’ play ‘Comedians’. Some see this play as an example of ‘astonishing foresight’ (Cook p.10), others as ‘inept as a parody of racist comedy’ (Jacobson 1997:35), the former commentator a keen advocate of alternative comedy, the latter a keen advocate of aggressive comedy (‘Jettison the offence and you jettison the joke.’). But the greatest criticism of this traditional stand-up and its ‘aggressively masculinist jokes where women, “queers” and ethnic minorities are the staple butts’ (Littlewood and Pickering 1998:297) came in the form of alternative comedy itself, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s revitalised stand-up comedy. Though it soon came to dominate the comedy scene in all media, it did not spell the end of traditional comedy and there are still traditional comedians performing today who have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the change, most famously the explicitly racist Bernard Manning.
Although it has never been clear what precisely constitutes ‘alternative comedy’ it is reasonably safe to point up the following as essential features. Firstly, it took an explicitly political stance in eschewing sexist and racist jokes -‘alternative comedy attacks the strong and not the weak’ (Cook 1992), that is, it ‘kicks up’ not ‘down’ (Littlewood and Pickering p.295). Double puts it succinctly: ‘It was the first time in the history of stand-up that comedians had voluntarily adopted egalitarian moral guide-lines in their work, and the repercussions of this are still with us today’ (1997:174). Secondly, taking inspiration from punk, it was open to any audience member to become a performer, every comedy venue having ‘open mike’ spots, and this broadened the social composition and therefore the subject matter and styles of the performers. (Though Littlewood and Pickering (1998:300) are quick to remind us that, despite changes, alternative comedy ‘has remained elitist in that the majority of alternative comedians have been male, white and heterosexual’, a point that will be taken up again in 7.3). Thirdly, its performers ‘kick-started a renaissance by performing and writing their own jokes which were particular to their own personalities and experiences’ (Cook 1994:15). That is, their individual personae had as much weight as their material, and in some cases their personae were their own material. (Consider, for example, Jo Brand, an overweight feminist, many of whose jokes in her early career were on the theme of overeating and the problems of gender relations.) And a further essential feature is that alternative comedians moved away from performing a string of unconnected packaged jokes (which had been innovative in the 1930s) to longer connected narratives, observational comedy, or streams of consciousness.
Though in the 1990s there was a move away from the political
correctness of alternative comedy and its major exponents themselves became
targets for young new comedians, these three features still (in varying degrees)
dominate today. Another change has been that comedy, having worked hard to
mark a decisive break with the past, has relaxed a little and, in tune with
other post-modern developments in popular culture, has reflexively foregrounded
some of its own older traditions. Three of these will be looked at here -
the use of stage names and characters, comic appearance, and catch-phrases.
It was said earlier that modern-day comedians present themselves as themselves rather then as a comic character. However, this is not the whole picture; some present-day performers have either adopted a stage name different to their own or have, in fact, developed a character. For example, ‘Vic Reeves’ is Jim Moir, ‘John Shuttleworth’ is Graham Fellows, and Boothby Graffoe is named after a market town in Lincolnshire. There is also Stu Who and Charlie Chuck, among others. In the early 1990s John Thomson presented himself as ‘Bernard Righton’, a parody of the traditional stand-up Bernard Manning, and more recently Al Murray has had great success with his character ‘The Pub Landlord’. Steve Coogan has made famous such characters as Alan Partridge (hosting a spoof chat show in that guise), and the brother and sister Paul and Pauline Calf. Harry Enfield is nothing but a host of different characters. And there is also the complex character of Ali G (more about whom in 5.3.1 below) performed by Sacha Baron-Cohen.
It was seen how in the middle of the 20th century some comedians moved away from the theatricality of music hall by wearing smart suits rather than exaggerated costume and make-up. Such latter traits, however, never completely disappeared; Max Miller wore baggy floral suits and a white homburg, Max Wall wore tights, a baggy jacket and ridiculously long shoes, and it is difficult to picture Tommy Cooper without his fez. Some of the more recent comedians have also exhibited exaggerated costume in marked degree. Though Julian Clary’s glitteringly outlandish costumes and heavy make-up might at first glance be seen as continuing the tradition of the male dressed as the female, of which Danny La Rue was perhaps the most famous exponent, Clary dressed openly as himself, a gay man, not as a female character. What is of particular interest here is that such an outfit was not out of place for a comedian. Similarly striking costumes have been worn by the transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard, who is also dressing as himself, not as a character, and, it is worth repeating, whose appearance is not out of keeping with comic traditions. Charlie Chuck has a fuzzy halo of back-combed hair and a bow tie (non-revolving), and Harry Hill wears shirts with huge pointed collars, Eric Morecambe spectacles, tight suits, and shoes with enormously thick soles. At least two comedians – Malcolm Hardee and Phil Kay – have on occasion completely dispensed with any dress and appeared stark naked. In the 21st century it is noteworthy that on the television show ‘Jack Dee’s Happy Hour’ the costume of virtual comedian ‘Jed’ (actually digitally-enhanced images of comedian Hugh Dennis), with his colourful suit and large hat, bears a distinct resemblance to that of 1940s comedian Max Miller. And to round off this survey of costume mention should be made of a comic costume never worn before in the UK – the burka, the enveloping public dress of Muslim women which includes a covering for the hair. Shazia Mirza makes a point of wearing this on stage for her stand-up routine to make it clear to the audience just what her identity is. The only other time she wears it is when she attends the mosque (Mirza 2002).
Another feature of traditional comedians that was deemed ‘corny’ and old-fashioned was the catch-phrase. As far back as the 1890s (and no doubt further back) music hall entertainers would use gestural or vocal signatures (a wink or the cry of ‘Coo-ee!’, for example) as a form of short-hand communication with their audiences (Pickering 1993:413). In the politically-charged atmosphere of the early days of alternative comedy catch-phrases were seen by some of the new comedians as a mark of reaction. This is Alexei Sayle (self-proclaimed Marxist comedian) commenting on the catch-phrases of the traditional comedians Jim Davidson and Larry Grayson. ‘You’ve gotta have a catchphrase as well, you know, like “Nick nick” or “Shut that door” or “Sieg Heil!”’ (in Double 1997:169). Not all traditional comedians used them but those that did became permanently associated with them to such a degree that they became part of their comic identity. Among the better-known are: Tommy Trinder – ‘You lucky people’; Arthur Askey – ‘Hello, playmates!’; Sandy Powell – ‘Can you hear me, mother?’; Tommy Cooper – ‘Just like that!’; Frank Carson – ‘It’s the way I tell ‘em’; and Ken Dodd – ‘How tickled I am’. (Dodd explains that it was the search for a catch-phrase that also led him to his most famous prop – his tickling stick (Billington 1977:28).) The 1990s saw some comedians resurrect the catch-phrase, most notably Harry Hill with his ‘What are the chances of that happening?’ said after one of his unlikely stories. BBC television’s ‘The Fast Show’, which also toured in a live stage version, created many such: ‘Suit you, sir’, ‘Scorchio’, ‘I’ll get my coat’, and the tag phrase ‘…which was nice’ among others. Indeed, ‘The Oxford Dictionary Of Catchphrases’ lists television as the major source of ‘quotable quips’ and it is ‘The Fast Show’ which has the most entries – a total of twenty-six (Radio Times 2002). In fact, one ‘catch-phrase’, that of the character Bob Fleming, was not even an utterance but an uncontrollable cough. Speaking of the show, one of the creators, Charlie Higson, clearly states: ‘The idea was to just cut the fat out so at its simplest it would be a character coming on, doing the catchphrase and getting off’ (Wood 2001). Further, Higson sees the catchphrase not simply as an in-performance sign to reinforce comic identity, but also one which the audience can take away and reproduce in their social lives, an interesting point which again raises questions about the boundaries of theatre space. All of the above traits exhibited in the post-alternative era can be seen as the ironic use of British comic traditions.
In the discussion of performance space and the comic figure the role of the audience has been pointed up throughout and this has been especially important in connection with live comedy performers because of their relationship with the audience which demands an immediate, constant and audible response. We shall close with a look at how all these elements – space, performer, audience - come together when the most common of today’s comic figures, the stand-up, is situated within the performance space in an organised manner which clearly establishes the relationship and roles of both performer and audience. Rutter studied the interaction between audience and stand-up at various venues and among his conclusions was the finding that there is a common introduction sequence given by comperes which consists of six turns. These are:
Contextualisation, in which small details of the comedian’s background are offered.
Framing of response that directs the audience towards greeting the comedians with a certain attitude
Evaluation of the comedian by the compere as he or she passes comment on the performance skills of the comedian
Request for action from the audience by the compere, usually for applause
Introduction of the comedian by the compere
The paced revelation of this information both encourages the audience’s participation and provides a social context into which they can place the comedian.
Given this organisation, jokes performed by stand-up comedians cannot be seen as isolated texts. They cannot be seen as hermetically separated from the ongoing performance, as they are located within, and are part of, the developing interaction of stand-up. Once this is recognised, it becomes crucial in differentiating the telling of jokes from the performance which is stand-up.
This last point is indeed a useful one to make. However, as we shall see, this does not elevate comedic performers to a space outside social life, nor does it relegate the everyday telling of jokes to some distant nether world. We have had occasion to comment on this before in 2.4 and it is a point which will recur in 5.3.1 and 6.1, and is also highly relevant to the dispute analysed in Section 8.
The comedian’s situated entry, documented in such detail by Rutter, is a telling moment for it transforms the theatre space of the venue into theatrical space. As the dynamic interaction between performer and audience is essential for stand-up, the theatrical space, though predominantly on the stage with the performer, is always present in the audience also. At times it can shift in varying degrees between the two but, as noted earlier by Dodd, there does seem to be, even with low-key introverted performers, a double act at work. We need to look at some examples to see this at work.
A Jack Dee concert immediately begins not with him commencing a humorous monologue but with him reflexively making fun of the welcoming applause. Before he can continue with this, presumably planned, avenue of banter he is interrupted by a heckler.
[Loud welcoming applause, cheering and whistling. Dee stands, in keeping with his persona, looking glum and slightly pained.]
Dee: [Gruffly] Thanks. [Pause] Thank you
for the thunderous round of applause. [Pause] Of course, you weren’t
to know that I have a headache. [Laughter. Pause. At this point Dee hears
a comment from the front, which he repeats.] Widget, widget. [This
is a reference to a beer commercial which Dee did. Laughter. Dee now looks
at and addresses heckler directly.] Oh, you could be so sorry you said
that. [Laughter. Dee moves back to the mike stand.] I’ll look
away and he’ll think I’ve finished with him. [Laughter. Heckler
shouts again.] Eh? Where’s my ladybird? It’s in the dressing
room. Why? Where’s your self-respect? [Prolonged laughter, applause
and cheering. Dee again addresses heckler.] I know you took a bow then
but I don’t think they were applauding you, I have to say. [Laughter.]
Sorry to take the wind out of your sail, there. Or is it a shirt? I don’t
There is much to comment on in this exchange but we shall focus on just a few items relevant to the present topic. Firstly, Dee uses the conventional welcoming round of applause as raw material, thus immediately incorporating the audience into his act. Rather than disattend the shouted interruption he again uses this as a resource for his humour. As the exchange develops there is an interesting switch of pronouns by Dee when referring to the heckler, from second (‘you could be so sorry’) to third (‘he’ll think I’ve finished’), and suddenly there are three parties involved, the performer, the majority of the audience, and the heckler, all part of this comedic interaction. The heckler even takes a bow, an action usually reserved for performers, and Dee, who at that moment has the major share of the tripartite distribution of power (he has just had a rousing reception and is in the process of getting eight rounds of laughter in the ninety seconds of this exchange), reminds the heckler that the applause is for him, Dee, not the heckler. The exchange concludes with Dee, clearly in confident control, having the last laugh at the expense of the heckler’s attire.
A couple of final comments are added here. Firstly, we should note although that Dee embarrasses and insults the heckler, his utterances – the utterances of a comic figure in performance space – are sources of amusement for those present. Secondly, it should not be thought that once this matter had been dealt with Dee then ‘got on with his act’. His act started as soon as he walked on the stage and any audience behaviour – applause, heckling – was engaged with in a way that allowed humour to emerge from it, to be part of the act. This approach would seem to be common among stand-ups, as the next extract from a conversation between two, Dee and Mark Lamarr, shows.
Dee: You got heckled on your gala night, didn’t you,
which is almost like a gift anyway.
Lamarr: It was, yeah. I mean, I don’t like heckles when they’re sort of ‘anti’, and I don’t like heckle put-downs when they’re ‘anti’. I like it to be sort of an interaction with the audience, and I always think a good comedy night is like that.
Here a heckle is seen as ‘a gift’ and such interactions are what make ‘a good comedy night’. However, heckles can be ‘anti’ and in the discussion of permission to come (5.2) we will see how in extreme circumstances performers can face legal and physical opposition to their practices. That is, power can also be exercised by the audience, or at least one part of it.
Before moving on to the resources available for the creation of verbal humour, a brief summary of the salient points of the previous two sections is in order.
Though formally separated in theatre space, performers and
audience are locked into an interaction in which meanings are jointly created.
A significant aspect of this is the licence afforded performative utterances;
given the appropriate cues and expectations, it is entirely appropriate for
someone to be seen and heard as, for example, a Scottish nobleman of many
centuries ago. This does not mean that such utterances, though spoken in a
specially-created place, somehow exist outside of social life. This is particularly
clear in the case of comedic performers, an important part of whose licence
is to directly ‘work the audience’, at times in a highly transgressive
manner. This can lead, as was seen, to confrontations, and most of Section
5 is given over to a detailed discussion of this. Of note also in these
roles and relationships is the identity of comic performers. Traditionally
such figures have worn costumes – often garish and exaggerated –
to make them immediately distinguishable from other performers. But at the
same time they also have at times had comic identities not always separable
from their private identities. All of these features will be seen to have
some bearing on the lengthy analysis in Section
Stand-up comedians are just one form of comic figure and this section has made clear across a wide variety of cultures that there have always been comic figures, mythical or actual, who have had a licence for behaviour which normally would be socially censured – tricksters, clowns, buffoons, parasites, fools, jesters, comedians. But such behaviour is not exclusively the domain of such performers as societies have always had events at which everyone has the opportunity to behave out of character - Saturnalia, Feast Days, carnivals, fairs. The happy convergence of all these elements - space, performer, audience – is seen in the performance of the stand-up comedian. People who create verbal humour, whether on the stage or in everyday life, clearly need raw material to provide the substance of their play. It is to a look at this raw material – language – that we now turn.
3.2 The Comic Figure in History