Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Let's Get Critical

I have a problem with stupid things - and, sadly, I'm talking about the fun kind today. You know what I mean, those books, movies, TV shows or random internet sketches that appeal to the absolute basest sources of humour and make your inner five-year-old guffaw so loudly you can't help joining in. 

I have a problem with them. Several problems. Problems I will grumble about to anyone within hearing range, prompting several rolled eyes and quiet insinuations that I'm being too picky / too uptight / too politically correct and should just turn my brain off and enjoy the stupid for stupid's sake.

See, I can't turn off my brain. And, now that I think about it, I don't want to.

Humour is one of the most subjective and slippery responses to stimuli that the human body produces, like that slightly undercooked pancake sat atop the head of the rabbit in that picture your grandmother has sent you four times in the last month because she thinks that's the sort of thing young people these days find hilarious. Everyone's idea of humour depends on innumerable varying factors, personal and cultural and a thousand things in between, and the sheer breadth of the genre defies any real objective statements.

However, that does not mean we cannot think critically about things that move under the banner of humour, and consider the responses it seeks to ellicit, how it seeks to generate them, and what exactly it wants us to be laughing at.

One of the jobs I've taken on alongside my degree involves reviewing drama - either in CD form, or in live performance, as was the case with Dickens Abridged here. My own distaste for Dickens notwitstanding, I was a little leery of my first live review having to hinge on my understanding of something as subjective as whether or not the jokes hit home. After all, I could say what I liked about the staging, lighting and production value, but if I did not laugh then I was missing out on an enormous part of the play's purpose, and my review, to my mind, would fall short.

Luckily for me, Dickens Abridged scored enough hits on the treacherous spinning wheel of my funny-o-meter that the anxiety never came to fruition, and I was left with the much less challenging task of trying to decipher the comments I had written in pitch blackness with one eye still on the stage. 

If I had turned off my brain and tried to enjoy the humour without any critical thought, I could probably still have written that review. Heck, I might even have given it a full five-star rating, without the nasty, spindly voice of criticism sat on my shoulder, clutching a pen in one hand and cutting its teeth on the theatre guide with the other. On that logic, I might also have been able to sit down with my friends and watch the very worst of 90s daytime sitcoms without the urge to spit verbal bile at the screen every time the canned laughter starts up.

But what's the point of a brain if we have to turn it off? And, surely, any humour that you have to go against your instinct to enjoy is not humour you should have to make yourself watch. Life is too short, and comedy too diverse, to have to lower your expectations and waste your time on something that isn't making you laugh. 

Because I had that little voice on my shoulder, I had a much better time. No, I wasn't laughing as often as I might have been, but I was thinking, I was engaging with the material, realising why one joke worked while another did not, and forming a much more informed and comprehensive opinion as a result. After all, just because I didn't think a joke was funny didn't mean I couldn't appreciate why it would be, or why it was there.

Don't reject that nasty little voice, everyone. Don't tell yourself that you're having a worse time just because you're the only one in the theatre squinting at the stage rather than rolling in the aisles. Embrace that critical voice. Offer it some of your popcorn. Invite it to think harder about why that particular joke makes it want to tunnel back through your skull in embarrassment.

Thinking and laughing are not mutually exclusive. Do both. Trust me.

~ Charley R

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