Thursday, 5 July 2007

Nobody likes a good laugh more than I do. Except perhaps my wife. And some of her friends.

Yesterday was not a good day. From mid-July to mid-September I'll be out of commission working on shows which, thanks to the lack of munificence currently manifest in Grants for the Arts, will not pay me a penny. So this month whatever frugal pittance I scrape together has to last me the next three. And because I'm, like reeeelly good at education and community work, that wasn't looking so far-fetched as it sounds. Those who rail against excessive public expenditure on arts projects in school and community settings forget two things: it's an investment in creating audiences for the future. And more importantly, that money is subsidising artists, who can't really be expected to make work for 365 days solid. And when it's good work, it's good money, and those artists get to take two shows to Edinburgh and live to tell the tale.

So it is desperately frustrating and upsetting when a school decides out of the blue that, no, it doesn't, after all, want an artist to come in to work with its kids for a few days. And they're sure he won't mind if they let him know, via his project manager, in his last week and a bit of potential earning time, on the eve of his attendance on their august institution in the middle of fucking nowhere. And no, he won't be getting the money anyway. So he'll have to sell his car if he wants to survive the summer. That's not the sort of news a chap wants to hear.

I feel like I've been mugged.

So it's in times like these that my thoughts turn to comedy, balm for the soul, or chicken soup, or whatever. I mean, seriously, whoever said comedy could change the world, when it's the first place we all go to get cheered up when the world is getting us down? Whenever I'm a bit gloomful I tend to put on Yes Minister, and the fact that yesterday Sarah somehow persuaded me to watch Panic Room instead probably explains why I didn't manage to get to sleep until I'd followed it up with three episodes of The West Wing. Panic Room's great, by the way. David Fincher is a much undersung director, considerably less well-known than any one of his excellent films, and Panic Room stacks right up alongside Fight Club and Se7en. It's less tricksy than either, and a much smaller story, but it's a brilliant conceit brilliantly executed. And it's got Academy Award Winner Forest Whitaker in it, who's super.

But we were talking about comedy, which doesn't change the world, not IMDB, which has. Just look at the success the Berlin satirical cabarets had in preventing the rise of the Nazi party for illustration of that. Spitting Image only served to egg Thatcher on and what did Beyond the Fringe really achieve aside from revolutionising the haircuts of the young?

But maybe Beyond the Fringe is a bad place to start. It should be fairly obvious that it didn't have a great deal to do with the downfall of the MacMillan government, despite the old sod being at the victim's end of some fairly unkind cuts. But Beyond the Fringe, now that I think about it, actually did achieve something. It achieved the legitimisation of a particular attitude to authority, viz, a disrespectful attitude. Respect for authority wasn't the only sacred cow it took a bite from, but that was the biggie. Consciously or unconsciously, the mainstream arts and particularly comedy had always retained a basic sense of the world as run by decent people for decent people; in its core one could always find affection and optimism. Beyond the Fringe was the beginning of savagery in comedy, the beginning of comedy as a cri de couer about the world, as an outlet for anger.

And as we trust our leaders less and less, we use satire more and more. Blair must be the most satirised Prime Minister in history, more even than Thatcher. Which is cause and which is effect? Or, more likely, is there a feedback loop here?

I should state now that I'm a great lover of satire. Yes Minister is one of my favourite TV shows of all time, Being There is the best film I've seen in ages and my favourite Howard Barker plays are the early ones. I posted about Angels in America the other day; another thing I love about that is the way it imbues satire with magic and sees politically-inspired ire take flight. Yes, I love satire.

I'm even trying to make some. Can of Worms, the clown show I'm making for Edinburgh this year, can very easily be seen as satire: if "engages" is not too strong a word, it engages with the politics of secret interrogations and the official obfuscation of such. It's all performed in the broadest possible clown/physical comedy and is frequently extremely silly, even inane, so those seeking incisive analysis and reasoned engagement should look elsewhere. It is a cri de coeur, in a long tradition of cris de coeur. Is that the right plural?

The show grew from a wish to explore clown's potential for political engagement. I've heard it said that clown cannot possibly engage with political realities because a clown will subvert whatever is put in front of him. Make a clown a socialist and he will fuck it up. The problems with this position are so obvious it seems silly to even bother pointing them out, but people are doctrinaire on issues like this, so point them out I will. A clown is an idiot, so of course he will fuck up whatever is expected of him. If you expect him to hold a political opinion, he will invariably drop it if he sees an opportunity for a laugh. So far, so good. So if you want to make a political clown show, how do you get around this problem? By taking one of two extremely deft yet somehow blindingly obvious steps.

The first and most blindingly obvious possibility is: the clown has no political position, because clowns can't hold political positions. So you put him in a context where his lack of moral engagement is a problem. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. This is the basic strategy of 473, the first scene in Can of Worms: simple, trusting recruit 473 is put through his paces by a maniac torturer, and learns the ropes rather too well... you get the idea. The clown's inability to engage in moral or political thought is the very thing on which the plot turns. It's almost too simple.

The other, slightly more sophisticated possibility, is: you cast your clowns in roles filled by people who, in real life, you're pretty sure are idiots. You think their positions are inconsistent and/or absurd. You think that what they think and do, their very raisons d'etre, are baffling and stupid. And you want to expose this in the most brutally blunt way possible. This is the strategy employed by Civil Servants, the second scene in Can of Worms. Bluff, crass, blustering civil servant Sir Roger is required to present the Government report which attempts to fudge the issues raised by the events of 473. Together with and thanks to his buffoonish deputy, he fucks it all up. Want to suggest the world is run by clowns? What better way to do it than with clowns? It's not subtle, but by God it's effective.

Part of our ongoing quest has been to stay away from the moment where it stops being funny. Pinter said "The Caretaker is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny and it was because of that point that I wrote it". Barker also, before he went off laughter altogether, was interested in the point where laughter sticks in your throat. And if you think of any comic treatment of a serious subject in feature films, novels, plays, you'll almost always find that point in there somewhere, the "and now kids, the message" point. It's often considerably more subtle than that makes it sound, and it's repeated use shows how effective it is. But we chose to stay away from it. Why?

It's the easiest thing in the world to not be funny. Not making people laugh is something we all achieve almost all of the time, especially when we're trying to make people laugh. And if we're trying to make a serious point and make it really count, we'll almost certainly try to make it in seriousness for fear it will sound snippy.

But what we're trying to do is make people laugh despite themselves, make them laugh a laugh that frightens them a little, that they know is complex and that they know they'll have to examine later, but that they can't examine just now - because they're laughing too much. That's much harder than simply turning off the tap.

So yes, I love satire. I really do. But do I believe in it? Not believe in it the way I might believe in God, but the way I might believe in Middlesbrough Football Club. That is, do I really believe it can work? Can transform the way people think? Can win the battle for hearts and minds?

Howard Brenton described an act of political theatre as like "tapping on the pipes". The message starts small, but if people believe in it it gets bigger and before you know it there's an enormous jailbreak. Like that episode of Doctor Who the other day where everyone on the planet said "Doctor" at the same time, and the Doctor miraculously stopped being a dwarfish wrinkle and turned into a sort of Christ-figure in a manner simultaneously super fun and utter, utter hokum. I like to think of political comedy in the same way (tapping on the pipes, not turning into Christ and being nonsense, although the hazard of excessive self-aggrandisement is ever-present). The message may not get far, but it might get somewhere.

Let's unpack that just a little a bit more. The idea of a "message" is a sicky one for me and many others and I don't want to be found dead in that trap. The message (see how bravely I resist packing that word safely in the cotton wool of inverted commas!) is just as likely to be a question as a call-to-arms. I like a piece of theatre, or comedy, or whatever, to leave me with something unresolved, something I have to deal with later. And I like it to make me mad keen to do so. Even Angels in America ( geek that I am, I keep mistyping that Angles in America) doesn't quite achieve that; all the pieces being neatly put back in their boxes at the end. My Child does; almost none of comedy ever does. Did I mention Can of Worms? Why not come along and let us know if we've managed it?


Andrew Haydon said...

You know, I'm not sure that Spitting Image didn't change Britain politically. Not the Thatcher years so much - although their repeated portrayal of her as a red-eyed lunatic has certainly stuck in the public consciousness quite vividly - but I would argue that the '92 election defeat of Kinnock's Labour by Major's Tories hinged just as heavily on years of Spitting Image's Kinnock puppet as it did on The Sun's lightbulb cover. It portrayed Kinnock as an utter buffoon, while picturing Major - with heavy borrowings from Steve Bell - as a dull, grey safe-pair-of-hands. After all the excitement of the Thatcher years, I think the British were probably keen to have a few years of safe, sensible tedium.

Glenn Condell said...

The point about satire not having any useful political fallout is well made. It does seem to have some predictive power though, with Being There in particular rather prescient in it's contention that a halfwit could become President without anyone noticing. The difference being that Chauncey fell into the role, Bush was pushed.

This thought chimes with an amusing piece I saw today on Huffington Post, where the writer opines that John Belushi's Bluto Blutarsky in Animal House (who the closing credits tell us went on to become a US senator) was a satiric forerunner of Bush, both being in charge of Delta frat houses known for their arrogance and boorishness.

Both clowns, both idiots, both experts at fucking things up.

danbye said...

It's funny you should say that, Glenn - the work-in-progress run of Can of Worms featured on its publicity a cartoon of Bush, skull hinged open, examining the worms he's picking out of there. We've decided to move away from links so explicit for the finished version of the piece, but Bush is clearly and without doubt the Number One clown in politics right now.

I've not seen Animal House: I'll look out for it.

danbye said...

Incidentally, the many hundreds of you who've made your way here from Vanity Fair, having been promised "one of my favourite blogpost titles of the year" really ought to know that credit for the line goes to Monty Python. But you knew that already.

Regular readers who didn't see the Vanity Fair link: check it out. If you like this blog, it kind of endorses your tastes. If you don't, then maybe you should just go there instead. It's pretty good.