The Comedians continued

I found Trevor Griffiths The Comedians (1975), an absorbing play about what makes us laugh. The action begins in a Manchester schoolroom where six aspiring stand-up comedians attend an evening class run by professional comedian Eddie Waters. He is intent on teaching them that comedy is much more than just jokes. According to him, when a joke depends on racism and sexism for a cheap laugh, it's not funny. The world weary Waters tells his students that they shouldn't deal in racial stereotypes or tell jokes that hate women. 

 

“A joke that feeds on ignorance starves its audience,” he claims.

 

“It’s not the jokes...it’s what lies behind them. It’s the attitude. A real comedian is daring...dares to see what listeners shy away from, fear to express. A joke releases tension, says the unsayable...a true joke has to do more than release tension, it must liberate the will...it must change the situation...when a joke bases itself upon a distortion - a stereotype perhaps - and gives the lie to the truth so as to win a laugh and stay in favour, we've moved away from a comic art and into the world of cheap entertainment and slick success... You're better than that, damn you. And even if you're not, you should bloody well want to be."

 

The drama develops when the judge for the performances, seedy talent scout, Bert Challenor, arrives. He can get the up and coming comics bookings and dismisses his old rival Eddie's view of comedy. He just wants laughs, no matter how low you have to go to get them.

 

The second act in a working men’s club where the comedians perform for the scout. Some stick to Eddie’s philosophy, and die on stage. Others change their act to impress the scout.

 

When this play was written in the 1970's, racist and sexist jokes were common, something illustrated in the script with it's jokes about large breasted women etc. It could be argued Griffiths is reacting against the casual nature of discrimination at that time.

 

When the angry young man character, Gethin Price, comes onstage he deliberately gives a humourless performance, unlike anything that's gone before. He's a passionate rebel, with Marxist leanings and brings out the disturbing side of humour. Of course, he doesn't get booked.

 

In the final scenes, communicating ideas about artistic integrity, tutor Waters’s humanism is couched in a story that ends in a Nazi concentration camp, which some may feel is the writer spelling it out a bit too much.

 

It could be argued from a 21st century perspective that the play is too earnest at times. The provocative nature of comedy means we laugh sometimes at outrageous things, raising interesting questions about what is and isn't funny. However, I found this play at times humorous, alarming and successful in it's attempt to capture the crumminess of the comedy world.