Wednesday, 2 February 2011


Issue: In the dark times, will there be laughing?

Convener(s): Daniel Bye

Participants: Alice Massey, Rose Biggin, Sarah Corbett, Cindy Oswin, Louise Platt, Julia (Jools) Voce, Fionn G., Rod Dixon, Anna Povuscensky (sp.?), Eva Liparova, Alex Swift, Rhiannon

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

No account of what was said can do justice to how thrilling this session felt. A huge thanks to all who took part (Dan).

A brief discussion about why we were at this session:
- some people simply wanted to hear a few jokes. We didn’t tell any.
- some wanted to get under the bonnet of comedy and see how the engine works. Even if we couldn’t drive the car at the same time.
- also some concern about the purposiveness about comedy. It’s too easy for it to be a valve, a safety vent and thus be escapism. But can we use laughter to power the train?
- the disruption we enjoy

Some possible historical examples of this:
- the king’s fool
- the medieval lord of misrule
- the mardi gras/carnivalesque
But all of these are ultimately socially-sanctioned. However much they are or aren’t speaking truth, power allows it and thus can it really disconcert power?

Laughter is a group of people saying “yes” to an observation about the world.
- this can shift our view of that world, or cause us to revise it
- It can make the unthinkable thinkable (so maybe those fools of misrule have an impact after all)
- But it can also be a banal, even false observation. At this point some spleen was vented about Michael McIntyre.

Laughter is a rupture, a challenge to our view. After the laugh, we can become anything. Possibly.
- discussion of a Carol Ann Duffy poem about a giggle in a school that spread and spread and couldn’t be stifled, so the school had to be shut down.

The status of laughter.
- comedy is more popular than it’s ever been
- wit in France for a time occupied an incredibly high social status
- The “clown” comedy characters in soap operas tend to be those of the lowest social status. Are we socially addicted to thinking of the poor as idiots?
- It’s beautiful when we’re laughing at the idiot in ourselves, not at a simpleton who’s the butt of the joke.
- Those at the bottom of the pile have more perspective than anyone else. They only have to look in one direction to see the world.

A couple of examples
- Red Ladder’s winter tours. A kind of adult pantomime, with the enormous liberation of an audience being able to shout “bastard” at characters, and have a sing.
- Jools talked about the “Knees Up”, which uses music hall to similar effect. The next one is the Right Royal Knees Up, to coincide with the royal wedding.
- When clowning at climate camp, the audience becomes the cops. When they laugh, we win. And they do. As I’m typing this I’ve had a text from a friend in Egypt about exactly that happening there.

In the dark times, we must keep laughing:
- To pack in making work because no-one is funding it is to throw our toys out of the pram.
- Nothing would suit the system more than for its challengers to pack up and allow a few more people to sit in isolation before the weapon of mass distraction (Rod)

We love comedy because it breaks the fourth wall:
- NO. There isn’t a wall. We’re all in the same space.
- The extraordinary power of a performer saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. It always provokes laughter because it’s so bizarrely unconventional to acknowledge that we’re all in the same room.
- A show without laughter doesn’t reflect our experience of the world.

Laughing around things that aren’t normal subjects for comedy:
- some talk of death and illness
- talk of broken glasses at the horrible climax of Stoning Mary

The beauty of work that manages to make us laugh and cry at the same time:
- the power of this bivalency to force us to address what’s happening to us.
- Example: the final scene of Mother Courage, which has huge political stakes, deep tragedy – and three soldiers who are pretty much the Three Stooges. Without them the scene would be pretty normal theatre. With them the laughter constantly jolts us and asks us re-assess what we’re watching.

We decided to get together and explore this last thing in particular, this three-way tug between comedy, tragedy, and political agency, in practical terms. This is a project I’ve been toying with for a while. This discussion has enabled me to figure out how.

Thanks all.


  1. Please keep us informed of the practical exploration. With sufficient notice, I'd even to travel to take part.

  2. Thanks Aliki. Will do.

    Anyone else who's interested in taking part in any form, please drop me a line either @danielbye on twitter or: danielbye AT ymail DOT com.

    Those of you who were there and haven't heard from me yet: it will happen.