Understanding the comedy ‘hall of fame’ is a little bit like navigating your way through a Pokémon card collection. Everyone has their own favourite comedian, as they each fit into their own categories dictated by the style of their comedy. Here we hit upon perhaps the most important factor in comedy: subjectivity. The audience is just as much a part of the act as the comedian by the necessity of our reaction. Comedy is the art form that inspires the most immediate and most extreme responses, as it need only take a second for us to be rolling in the isles or reaching for rotten tomatoes. Despite comedy being very much a matter of opinion, there are, however, those who have gained popular approval – the ‘shinies’ of the comedy trading card collection.
Britain has the richest comedy landscape in the world, and over the years there truly has been ‘something for everyone’. Early pioneers of quintessential British comedy included Benny Hill, perhaps most famous for his sped-up slapstick montages where he was hotly pursued by flanks of half-naked nurses or baton-waving bobbies. This all accompanied by that instantly recognisable theme tune to The Benny Hill Show, which in my opinion – and I can hear heavily nationalist music students sharpening their knives as I write this – is the most recognisably British piece of music that exists to date (forget the national anthem, nobody really likes it anyway). In keeping with Britain’s ‘bawdy’ comedy tradition was Sid James, who made his name through ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, but is best known for his trademark ‘dirty laugh’ in the Carry On films. Both comedians belong to a particular generation of ‘how’s-your-father’ and ‘whoopsie-daisy’ comedy that relied on elastic expressions and risqué slapstick for laughs. They ignited the cheeky schoolboy in all their followers.
Today, however, that tone of comedy is somewhat akin to seeing someone graffiti ‘fanny’ on the toilet door. Yet despite how derisive that sounds it is a testament to the dominance that subjectivity has over comedy, as over the years tastes have changed and we continue to ask ourselves what makes us laugh. Hill and James are legends in their own right, and their own time, but today we have comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Millican, and Stuart Lee to not only capture a public consciousness of what we already find funny, but also push boundaries and draw laughter from places we never thought we would find it. Lee is masterful at comedic suspense; undergoing a process of severe character assassination by taking the audience through a long anecdote about his traumatic schooldays with Richard Hammond, only to reveal at the close that it was completely fictitious.
Some may criticise the new directions that comedy takes, as it was not too long ago that Katie Price called for a public apology from Frankie Boyle for his offensive jibe at her disabled son. Whilst I do not agree that a comedian need go to such lengths to carve-out a place for himself in the ‘hall of fame’ I believe it reflects the essential need for comedy to continually adapt and grow in genre and sub-genre.
Just as Japanese business brains have continued to fleece children out of their pocket money by expanding the number of Pokémon cards, so has public demand allowed the comedian collection to grow, and it will continue to do so as more people ask the question, “what is so funny?”
PHOTO/Thomas Atilla Lewis