I am a person of my times. But my times may not be right now. I am brought to this conclusion when I read the social media posts that would nag me away from a steak, a glass of whiskey, or a Catskill comedian.
Fortunately I live in a country that will still allow me my choices in nutrition, drink, and comedy. We have not yet had our life’s spectrum changed to shades of grey, pink, or green. We can still cheer for red, white, and blue.
My table is a private one – the comforting centre of a family’s meals. We see meat, red and white, on it regularly. If I am the cook, it is presented as well as I can manage, and I like to think that it has a great deal of comfort. In any case, the plates come to the washing-up sink pretty clean. I’d be happy if I didn’t have to shepherd hem through after that point, but that’s another story…I need not read how sinful I am for feeding my family…
Drink? I rarely rage through the suburb blind drunk and howling. Not that I don’t want to, mind, but the price of liquor these days means the best I can manage is occasionally standing in the front yard naked and singing. The neighbours have stopped watching.
As far as comedy goes, I am a throwback to the days of Wayne and Schuster, Burns and Allen, and Red Skelton. I want my jokes clean. I can mentally supply all the dirty words and political bias needed to spice them up, so the person delivering the comedy can leave them off.
I have been advised by my solicitor to plead guilty to making jokes and to throw myself on the mercy of the court. He said this as he dumped all the papers into his briefcase and left the court. He could have had the decency to laugh as he went through the doors…
Making jokes is not normally a criminal offence – with the possible exception of Melbourne Comedy Weeks – and most jokesters do not need fear jail time. Of course if they crack the wrong jest in Iran, North Korea, or Saudi Arabia they can expect to be jugged and tortured…but then that could happen for eating cornflakes with the wrong spoon there. They are tough rooms to work.
Poking fun at people here in Australia is fairly safe, if you aim lower than the Magistrate’s Court when you do it – anything there and above is surrounded by enough statutory dignity to make funny business dangerous. I would be interested to see a magistrate laugh, and to see what sort of entertainment would provoke it. I cannot imagine that they laugh at the foibles of the human condition – for so often they are the very people tasked with sorting out peccadillos and punishing people for having them. Perhaps their humour is of a transcendent kind, incomprehensible to the lower orders.
But sometimes you fire off good ones and nothing at all happens. No laughs, no smiles, – not even the alternate satisfaction of an outraged response. Zip. Nada. Pure silence. And after a period of time the horrible truth starts to dawn – the person sitting there in the audience like a lump of suet really has no clue as to what the joke is about.
This can be the result of stupidity – as with the frankly stupid – or of ignorance, when someone has no points of mutual reference for a topic. Sometimes that’s age, though I must say youth more frequently deprives people of understanding than does middle age. Old folks may not know the pop tunes or latest cultural reference, but they know a helluva lot more about the world than ever the young are taught. And they can take as much fun in simple and mannerly jokes as they young do with swearing and shock tactics. The old people reserve their shock tactics for worse situations…you don’t wanna be there when they cut loose.
Whatever the reason for the blank stare and the deadly silence after the punchline, the comedian should never panic and start to explain the joke. It might seem that it will right the situation – that it will result in a peal of laughter – but it never does. Frequently the dullard cannot grasp the joke even after it is dissected and laid out on a pin board – and every minute that they stand there goggling and gulping, the joke teller loses traction.
The best answer is to abandon the thing immediately. Move on to another joke or another topic. Or just move on – but as you go, turn to someone else in the audience and ask them to explain the failure. With a bit of luck they will.
You’ll hear a lot of guff about comedy today – every seedy pub that can afford a microphone and a wooden stool thinks that they can find Dave Allen in their general population of drunks. They can’t, of course, but that doesn’t stop them from chopping off fingers left right and centre in the search…The audiences would be better if they were working on ears…
The guff is generally to do with how vile and obnoxious you need to be to succeed as a joke teller. There’s a fair contest to lower the standard of the art and I must say that some comedians seem to have set their hearts on the Marianas Trench. Dark, cold, and under tremendous pressure – the only creatures to be seen have bulging eyes and enormous teeth. Melbourne comedy festival pub stuff all right.
Mustn’t bag the Victorians too much – I’ve seen local fun merchants roll jokes off the deck here in Perth with the pistols set for 5000 feet and then watched them wait with a silent mic until they detonated. They were so far down by the time that happened you could barely hear the pop.
I’m sorry for the passing of the clean comic. The family comedian who could run a half-hour show on a television network each week and not lose the custom of either the audience or the advertisers. Some of the classics could crack the screen with nothing more than a dead-pan doubletake…a signature silence that you waited all week to see and laugh at.
The humourist – stand-up, sit-down, or whatever – in the days of strict television and print standards had to respect their audience and craft jokes that amused without abusing. They wanted to be laughed with, as well as at, and the very best of them went further than that – they got the love of the audience as well as the applause.
PS: The lust of the audience is also good, but make sure that your clothes can be dry cleaned.
N0te: last week was grim here on HAW. This week is not – this week is fun.
This post and several others will be springboarding on the back of real artists – the Aardman animation studios. I’ve been to see an exhibition devoted to their work and methods and I cannot praise them too much.
The exhibition was going on in the ACMI section of the Federation Square Gallery connected to the NGV in Melbourne. It may venture to your country or your city, and if it does, it is well worth the price of a ticket. I spent a good two hours going back and forth seeing the exhibits.
Aardman are the authors of the Wallace And Gromit series of clay animations as well a numerous advertisements in Great Britain and the Creature Comfort series. As well, they have done Chicken Run, The Pirates, and Shaun The Sheep. All well worth seeing again and again.
The amazing part of this is the scale of the planning, artistry, and props needed to do this sort of animation. It is not tabletop stuff by any means, unless you consider the sets as individual scenes. The scale of most of the models seems to be about 1:6 to 1:4 and the artistic vision and attention to detail is staggering. I don’t think there is a true Little Worlder who would not be delighted to kick over the traces and build Aardman sets for a living.
Bless them, in addition to getting a look at their artistry, the exhibition had a working animation table and lighting setup that showed me clearly how to solve one of my lighting dilemmas in the Little Studio! I could not have been more pleased.
But here is a taster for the week. All Aardman, all the time.
Manangatang in Victoria occupies a fond place in my heart. On a motor trip east from Adelaide in 1996 its arrival on the horizon during a thunderstorm reassured me that the world had not ended. The road takes a jog in Manangatang, and you get to slow down. It is good for the soul.
I was reminded of Manangatang when I saw a recent YouTube clip taken at a comedy festival in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Now Winnipeg is larger than Manangatang and has fewer kangaroos, but apart from being halfway between Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Regina Saskatchewan* I can see no essential difference in the two municipalities. And if Winnipeg can laugh, so can Manangatang. Possibly at each other.
Most comedy festivals are held to allow people to see entertainers who cannot get exposure on television or in the movies. This is not because they are bad comics – indeed many of them are genuinely funny – but the conventions of the entertainment industry make it very difficult to advance yourself via a casting couch if you are wearing a red nose and a bow tie that twirls round. Funny business is harder to sell than funny business – so the journeymen and journeywomen of the trade do their work in the off-time off-city festivals.
There is no place I have seen in Australia that suggests off-time or place better than Managatang. Oh, granted, Caiguna has its roadhouses, and the staff of these can be right comedians – and there is nothing on earth to match the restaurants of Bridgetown…but for downright rural spunkiness, Manangatang takes the biscuit.
There is nothing to stop the place from becoming the Las Vegas of the Swan Hill Shire. Top acts, showgirls, the pokies…nothing is wanting. All they need to do is book the comedians and the world will beat a path to their door. The Victorian Roads Board has pre-empted them to some extent, but not so much that it could not be improved. They might have to wait a little on an 8-lane freeway from Shepparton but it could only be a matter of time.
I wonder if Winnipeg is looking for a twin-town…?
* Which must have the effect of evening up the distress…
If you have never seen a movie with Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont I recommend that you dial up ” A Night At The Opera” and ” A Day At The Races ” and watch Groucho bounce jokes off poor Margaret’s hide all the way through.
You might feel sorry for her or think she gets what she deserves – as she always played the dignified straight lady to Groucho’s scoundrel – but movie histories tell us that she was doing it as a consummate stage actress and skilled professional. Her job – straight feed and timekeeper for the audience’s laughs – is one of the tough ones in comedy. The fact that she did it while enduring the Marx brothers is a tribute to her courage and steadiness.
You’d be surprised how many people in real life have to do the same thing – and many have the even tougher job of maintaining their cool in the face of meanness – not just stage comedy. I saw it many times in my retail shop time and sometimes even had to practice it myself.
I do not mind the high and I do not mind the mighty, but when they combine these two features along with a show of morality my liver starts to curl at the edges…followed, if I am not careful, by my lip. Fortunately most of this behaviour is occasioned by financial consideration – people use it as a ploy to lower prices – and an employee that is subject to it can finally take refuge behind the facts of business – you can’t sell things for nothing.
I’m rather ashamed to say that I occasionally Groucho’d a few people. If I could see that they were doing a Margaret and playing at being pillars of society I would allow the conversation to run a little way past the end of the tram lines – perfectly seriously, of course – and occasionally they would follow me along until they were lost in the weeds. I could always find my way back by excusing myself to go fetch the manager. I’ll bet the manager dreaded my knock on the door.
Sometimes I even did the Groucho walk when I went off to fetch him. Never had the nerve for the greasepaint moustache or the cigar, however.