Beyond a Joke? Comedy, Culture and the Public

Like many of us, Dr. Friedman has noticed the variety of audience reactions to similar or identical material, the unpredictability of laughter. Unlike most of us, he has made this phenomenon his peculiar area of research. In particular, he is interested in the ways in which appreciation of comedy is discussed, and what this reveals about relations between individuals and groups in our society. His is a sociological perspective, and rests heavily on the work of twentieth-century sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Specifically, on Bourdieu’s influential notion of ‘cultural capital’, an asset which can be ‘bought’ or ‘traded’ through expenditure of other kinds of capital, e.g. economic, but which can also be ‘activated’ through social performance. His thesis is that a typically middle- or upper-class style of appreciation, characterised by a deliberate detachment, has since the ‘Alternative Comedy Movement’ of the 1980s been increasingly applied to comedy. As a consequence, not only has more ‘high-brow’ comedy been produced, but the consciously sophisticated nature of its appreciation has become a new means by which the cultural elite define themselves.

Let the comedy snobs of Edinburgh quake because when it comes to social performance, they must surely yield the stage to the consumers of the Comedy Lecture Series.

To illustrate this argument, Friedman takes as his jumping-off point the notable controversy between comics Stewart Lee and Michael McIntyre. For those, like me, who missed it, this began when Lee referred to McIntyre ‘spoon-feeding [the audience] his warm diarrhoea’. As the acknowledged ‘comedian’s comedian’, Lee is the ‘acquired taste’ of comedy par excellence, the critically acclaimed object of elite appreciation. McIntyre by contrast may not be fashionable, but he is amusing, and very, very popular. Where, then, is the audience for Lee’s remarks, and in what social discourse is he participating when he sets out to denigrate the pleasures of the majority?

Friedman has employed various methods in his research, but this particular argument is based primarily on surveys and interviews conducted amongst a representative sample of fringe-goers. He is careful to point out that while this group may contain a higher percentage of people considered middle-class than the rest of the country, the imbalance is not nearly as marked as one might expect. When the statistical data from the surveys is mapped, a correlation is apparent between an individual’s high cultural capital, and an expressed appreciation of ‘high-brow’ comedy. His explanation for this, a fundamental part of his thesis, is that such comedy has become a new object of cultural capital, of which some consider it important to show an appreciation. This hypothesis is developed in his analysis of the interviews, which demonstrate a certain exclusivity of language from those who consider their own appreciation of comedy to be more sophisticated, implying that even others who may enjoy the same material do not appreciate it on the same level. This was particularly apparent in the responses to Friedman’s questions about shared objects of comic appreciation, for example Eddie Izzard, who has very broad appeal. While those occupying the ‘high-brow’ position may admit that Izzard is silly, or rather ‘surreal’, they tend to suggest that he operates on a higher level, of which not all are aware.

The most interesting idea, which forms the conclusion of Friedman’s paper, and which he teases out with great subtlety and insight from the subtext of his interviewees’ responses, is that some laughter is simply of a lower quality for being easy; a sense that if one is not challenged, or required to consider the humour obscured by language or negative sentiment, if one is simply made to laugh outright, this is a lesser pleasure. We have all, I am sure, laughed to demonstrate understanding, almost in competition. I had not considered before hearing this paper, however, quite how far-reaching that competition might be.

Inevitably in a lecture of less than an hour, there are issues which would merit further development. As one audience member asked: how far may we assume that the person of low cultural capital who describes a set as ‘silly’, and the person of high capital who calls it ‘surreal’, are in fact describing different cognitive processes? Friedman’s answer, that such questions are a perfect example of the extent to which boundaries are drawn through social performance, strongly suggests that this subject will merit considerable further scrutiny. We may hope that students of comedy can look forward to more in-depth analyses of these and other questions.

Dr Friedman’s audience was relatively small; little more than ten people, and there remained one small irony which none of his questioners addressed. This privileged few had been gifted, for the rest of the Fringe, a little piece of the most exclusive cultural capital available on the open market. Let the comedy snobs of Edinburgh quake because when it comes to social performance, they must surely yield the stage to the consumers of the Comedy Lecture Series.

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Lecture and discussion series by prominent academics exploring comedy's response to contemporary cultural issues. Supported by the Centre for Comedy Studies Research, Brunel University. Confirmed speakers include John Roberts (Laughing about Free Speech: How Humour Helps Free Speech Thrive in Public Spaces), Sam Friedman (Working For Your Laughter: The Rise of the British Comedy Snob), Sharon Lockyer (Finding the Funny in Disability: Comedy and Disability on the British Comedy Circuit), Peter Wilkin (Kicking Against the Pricks: The Satirical Wisdom of Tory Anarchism) and Leon Hunt (The Dark Comedy of Pemberton and Shearsmith).

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