Well, I suppose it had to happen. The first three events I went to in the LIFI22 were brilliant so it was odds on that the fourth would be a let down, and so it proved.
The first thing I need to take issue with is the title, ‘What Can You Laugh About’. This implies that you have a choice when it comes to laughing, which, with a genuine guffaw, is an involuntary act in the same way as sneezing or hiccups. I have been to lots of theatrical events when there has been plenty of obviously forced laughing where the perpetrator was trying to indicate that they ‘got it’ or, as often happens on press nights when complimentary tickets are issued to friends and family of the performers, it has been an encouragement to their nearest and dearest on stage.
This event wasn’t so much concerned with ideas as opinions, nothing wrong with that, but they were opinions which have been expressed a hundred times before. The problem was that the format was wrong as was the make up of the panel.
Humour takes many forms but here we were concerned mainly with stand-up and the odd television programme. No mention of practical jokes where the sole object is to humiliate people, usually the most vulnerable in the group, in order to get a cheap laugh. Should we just gloss over that?
At first glance the line-up looked to be a great cross-section of the population; the facilitator was Jamali Maddox and the panel, Ayishat Akanbi, Rosie Jones and Geoff Norcott. When I looked them up on-line, however, I found that, although they came from diverse backgrounds, their ages were 31, 33, 35, and 45. This means that they all grew up at about the same time and so would have ben exposed to a similar type of comedy and national psyche in their formative years. This is not conducive to an informed debate as humour is dependent to a large extent on other cultural references at the time. The wartime barrack room banter differs wildly from the stuff put on social media by the teenagers of today. A glaring example of this ageist approach was to turn up towards the end of the show.
The format was that of a slide show where various recent, and not so recent, headlines concerning comedic controversies were displayed and considered. Although the debate was widened somewhat, the same arguments were trotted out as those expressed at the time of the incident. There was the Joe Lycett appearance on the Laura Kuenssberg Sunday Morning Show, the Will Smith Oscars slap, Ricky Gervais’s transphobic remark, Jerry Sadowitz’s cancellation and the trigger warnings for classic comedies on television where the action and language do not conform to the ‘values’ of 2022.
Because of the narrow age range there was an almost universal agreement on each of these topics with no contra point of view or original ideas being propounded. As a 73 year-old I was pleased that they at least agreed to patronise me by saying that television shows from the archives should be judged by the standards of the time, even though they were not really aware of what those were – see below. The programme on the slide for this topic was Little Britain, which was broadcast between 2003 and 2006, how daring of them to delve so far back into the dim and distant past. I would have been interested to hear their views on Till Death Us Do Part, Love Thy Neighbour, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Not Only But Also.
I found that the narrow range of ages manifested itself mostly in the debate about the cancel culture, which is nothing new, although it is now enforced by pressure groups rather than the government in the guise of the Lord Chamberlain, of whom I doubt they had ever heard. Had it been 1968 rather than 2022, this event in LIFI22 could not have taken place as all stage performances needed the aforementioned official to grant a licence to perform and it would most certainly have been refused owing to the nature of the language used. Similarly Mr Sadowitz would not have been able to even dream of bringing his show to the Edinburgh Festival and upset people by his comments and the exposure of his genitals.
The constraints on what could and could not be done on stage were so restrictive that swearing was certainly out, even words such as ‘bloody’ and ‘Hell’ were definite no nos. Nudity was forbidden except in certain circumstances such as the girlie shows at Leeds City Varieties and The Windmill in London, but even there, the women were not allowed to move. Television was a bit more liberal as it wasn’t subject to the same legislation, but not much. Surprisingly it was radio which took the lead, no, I don’t mean that you could appear nude on the Home Service (Radio 4’s previous name) but double entendres abounded on shows such as Round The Horne, which had two gay characters – Julian and Sandy – when homosexuality was an imprisonable offence. Still think that you could empathise with the mood of the times? Even The Goon Show had a character called Hugh Jampton (Huge Hampton – Cockney rhyming slang for big penis).
On the other hand there were words and phrases he would have happily sanctioned but which are totally unacceptable now, so please don’t tell me that millennials can put themselves in the mindset of a viewer watching a 1950s or 1960s comedy programme.
Being someone who is not afraid to practice what they preach, I would like to submit an idea on the topic referred to in the title and suggest the reintroduction of the powers of the Lord Chamberlain. I am not saying that the boundaries be set so narrow but at least everyone would know what they were. I would quite like to apply for the post myself as the pay wasn’t bad and you got invited to formal ceremonial events when the dress code was cool historical threads. I would allow swearing, nudity and political jokes but would outlaw ritual humiliation as well as stand-up acts who think that shouting at the top of their voice to insult a politician or other people’s beliefs is comedy just because they are on stage. Strict rules force people to be much more subtle and inventive when trying to get round them and, therefore, funnier.
Speaking of politicians, the section where this was discussed again came up with no new thoughts but I found it odd how much the panelists sounded like members of that profession, using phrases such as ‘everyone thinks’ or ‘it is most people’s opinion’. The only difference being that politicians have usually done their homework and can provide statistics to back up their theory, some of which might actually have been accurate! Everyone knows it is an indisputable fact that 97.63% of statistics are made up on the spot.
I found it disappointing that, after the presentations I had seen by Kevin McCloud, Yotam Ottolenghi, along with the panel discussion How Do We Talk About Mental Health, all of which were intellectually stimulating and looked at their subjects from a broad perspective, this was the lasting memory I will take away from a brilliant festival.
I will still be at the next one, if I am invited after this piece, when I hope that the organisers will realise that comedy wasn’t created in 1990 and there are people in their teens and twenties who have legitimate, positive and constructive ideas about the subject rather than just opinions on what is displayed on a slide.
All photographs by Tom Martin and provided by Chapter 81.