Is it worth thinking about what makes comedy funny?
The debate started in the UK and was big news in Australia here, here and here. While what’s news is essentially the same, the varying comments – many viciously personal about the researcher – give strong opinions about why it is ridiculous to claim “Little Britain” is anything but funny.
The controversy hit New Zealand here and here, and was debated at Public Address, where as elsewhere, Deborah was accused of being too “politically correct” for analysing how “Little Britain” works as comedy.
I have two admissions to make: I’ve never seen “Little Britain.” And Deborah Finding is one of my closest friends, so I read the controversial and thought-provoking article last summer.
Objectivity riders noted, what interests me most about this is the strength of world-wide reaction.
In the article, Deborah looks at the history of British comedy and how it “works.” She is especially interested in comedy that claims to be ironic or alternative to mainstream values. She suggests that while “Little Britain” is satire, it “works” as comedy because the figures it mocks are recognisable stereotypes that we want to be able to laugh at – because on some level they disgust us.
Vicky Pollard is described as ASBO-enthusiast, a benefit scrounging, uncaring single mother who would swap her baby for a Westlife CD, and who is so stupid that she doesn’t know she is 8 months pregnant when she visits her doctor.
Deborah notes being called “Vicky Pollard” in an English schoolyard these days is an insult – shorthand for white, working-class and female. While adults may be laughing ironically at Vicky in “Little Britain,” the kids just get that being a “chav” isn’t cool.
The second character Deborah looks at in depth is Ting Tong, a Thai mail order bride who apparently tricked the man who bought her into keeping her, despite her ugliness.
The figure of the mail order bride is sexual, exotic and neither damaged nor capable of being damaged. Given that this makes her not quite human, we do not have to worry about her. Links between mail order brides and women trafficked for prostitution are well established, and the available narratives of the lives of those women, including rape, beating and imprisonment are anything but a joke.
Deborah and I worked with women trafficked into prostitution in the UK – some of whom were from Thailand, and some of whom were married to their pimps. Their lives bear no resemblance to her description of the Ting Tong character in “Little Britain,” which allows us, instead of feeling compassion, to write off Ting Tong’s life as firstly, not difficult, and secondly, of her own making as a tricksy Asian woman. Ting Tong must be happy to be selected as a wife by a English man – especially because she is so ugly. In one sense, this breaks stereotypes of Asian women as sexually compliant and beautiful, but mostly it trivialises the horrors of power and sex played out in the lives of trafficked women – and the men who buy them.
The third figure Deborah looks at is Dafydd, a gay man, who apparently runs around the village trying to find homophobia. He never can, because there isn’t any, so his brightly lycra-clad character is both visually and actually ridiculous. Deborah says:
However, this sketch only works if one believes that we are, in fact, living in a pro-gay, homophobia-free utopia. If this were the case, then indeed it would be ridiculous to see prejudice where it no longer exists.
“Pro-gay homophobia-free utopia” isn’t quite how I remember the small villages of Wales – or anywhere else for that matter.
Is it really enough just to say “I like it because it’s funny”?
Well, yeah, it is. We don’t always think about why we laugh at something. Which is perhaps why Deborah has attracted such vitriol. Because sometimes when pushed to think about why we’re laughing, we may realise things which make us uncomfortable – or we may reject the need to think about it at all. One comment from Public Address may just hit on the head why Deborah’s research is bugging people so much that it has gone around the world.
Finding’s concludes through doctrinal reasoning that if I – an audience member – find the mocking in Little Britian funny I am a prejudiced victimiser of marginalised groups.
I know I am not a prejudiced victimiser of marginalised groups and yet I have found Little Britain funny*.
People who laugh at “Little Britain” do not want to think of themselves as treating disempowered groups with disdain. The suggestion that the laughter may be rooted in superiority or discomfort is easier to ignore if we shoot the messenger and call it ivory tower nonsense.
Otherwise we’d have to be prepared to go in for a little self-awareness, which we all know can be kinda painful, particularly when not accompanied by chemical enhancement.
With a local spin – do I know why Bro’ Town makes me cringe while I laugh? Is it the funny pictures – or the fact the show viciously mocks every racial stereotype available in Aotearoa right now – by portraying them in all their techni-colour glory. Who am I – especially since I’m Pakeha – laughing with?
Deborah Finding has touched a nerve, a nerve people don’t want to examine for themselves. She’s also had to shut down her blog to the public because of the hate mail she was getting from disgruntled “Little Britain”ers. Not so funny for her then.
We don’t like her questions, do we? Far more comfortable to keep laughing.
Ironically, of course.