What Makes a Good Comedy?

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> DISCLAIMER: This post doesn’t answer the question from the title. It’s just me, rambling about comedy. Basically…

This is a question I asked myself after finally watching a sitcom I actually enjoyed. (More about the sitcom later on). I rarely watch sitcoms or comedies these days, because I often find them too silly to be actually funny. And I almost never read funny books (the closest to that are Terry Pratchett’s books). And I sometimes watch some funny tv shows, but I mostly just want to rewatch those I’ve seen before.

Why is this? Are the comedies nowadays really not that good, or am I the problem? The thing is, even some comedies which I found funny before are not as funny to me anymore. Did I become too old and bitter? I hope not, I’m only 26. XD

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As I thought about this, I asked myself what comedies and sitcoms I liked and why. What makes me laugh? And I realised that I liked a bitter kind of humour, humour that actually has something to say. And these things can vary. The most obvious one is social commentary. Now, I know what you are thinking (okay, not really, but some of you might be thinking this): Does humour really have to be socially aware to be funny? Shouldn’t the main point of humour be to relax and just not think about the millions of problems our world faces? And you would be right to ask that. But, if you think about the origin of comedy, it was always, at least a little bit, a social comentary.

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If we want to go to the very origin of comedy, it would probably be the Ancient Greek theatre. Humour certainly existed before Ancient Greece, but they were the first who put some rules on how comedy should look like, and are the ones who basically invented drama. Those Greek comedies were often satirical, even political. Even religion was not left out, and sometimes the myths were changed and incorporated in comedies. One of the rules which stayed to this day is that all comedies end happily, and the conflicts are resolved.

In the Middle Ages, comedy as it once was disappeared. Theatre completely changed, and was reduced to religious and biblical stagings, and on the other hand on mistrels and troubadurs who travelled and entertained. But something else took its place as main entertainment and escape from everyday problems – carnivals. Carnivals were the time when everything was allowed. The poorest peasant could pretend to be a king. Carnivals destroyed social rules and constructs, but at the same time they affirmed those same roles. How? Well, canivals made people’s everyday lives more bearable. They were allowed to make fun of the people above them, only to return to their own social role afterwards. Carnivals were a form or regulation at the same time as they were a form of entertainment. They also created typical (or stock) characters, which remained a part of comedy to this day, just in their more modern roles. It’s basically impossible to not have society influence comedy.

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Picture from Pixabay.com

Now we come to the Rennaissance and commedia dell’ arte, which coexisted with erudite comedy which followed the ancient rules. Commedia dell’ arte was based on the stock characters and the actors’ improvisation. The stock characters were easily recognized because they wore the same clothes and some of them had masks. This is something we have today – typical characters. And this is something that, in my opinion, good comedy should use in an intersting way. Good comedy should not accept the typical characters, but play with them. I guess that originality is also something that makes a piece of art (or entertainment) good. And originality doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from every single trope. It means using what we know in a unique way.

 

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Commedia dell’ arte was very popular, which means it wasn’t boring to people even though it always had the same types of charactes. It usually satirized recent events, often some local scandals, and that’s what made it entertaining. At this point I will stop with the history of comedy, and say that this is something that definitely makes comedy a good one – being current. This leads to the sitcom I actually enjoyed recently. (Yes, I’m finally getting there!) Master of None is created by Aziz Ansari (who also plays the main role) and Alan Yang. It deals with recent issues, such as race and multiculturality. It talks about subjects people actually face today. For example, it commented on the treatment of women in a way which I rarely see in TV shows – by using the actual arguments of women that I’d read many times online but never saw being validated like this. The main character Dev and his male friends are completely oblivious to some things women go though almost every day. This was stressed by Dev complaining that he had a horrible night out and mentioning some quite petty things in comparison to what the women he was talking to went through – she was followed by a man to her apartment. (And bonus points for the stalker guy exclaiming: “Oh, come on, let the nice guy win for once!” This “nice guy” thing really has to be talked about.) Master of None uses fresh subjects and fresh jokes, while also making a social commentary. It doesn’t use real-life issues just to make a joke and then validate the status quo. It actually makes you think about those issues and gives validation to them.

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But can a show that is recent be truly good if it’s not funny some ten, twenty, fifty years in the future? Seinfeld is a sitcom I enjoy so much, even today, though it was based on (then) recent events. I guess some topics are always relevant and some things (sadly) never change. So, yes, there’s a risk of becoming dated. And, sometimes, only time can tell if this will happen. Seinfeld points out certain small social pet peeves and problems that happen to everyone, and which in a certain way won’t change that quickly. I also want to add that this is a problem with Shakespeare, too. He’s taken too seriously! But Shakespeare wrote for the people. Even his tragedies have humour and, yes, sex jokes. The thing is, he uses the language of his own time, so those jokes go unnoticed. And no one is really looking for jokes when reading Shakespeare, because that’s not how he’s taught. I think it’s a missed opportunity… Of course, explaining jokes doesn’t make them funny, but making students aware of the context can be quite interesting. Can something be truly timeless, anyway? Especially humour?

Maybe we should consider some older tv shows, the ones that could be described as “timeless”, and one of them is certainly Blackadder. The humour in this show can be a bit dark, so maybe not for everyone, but I think it will never get old. Why? Because it’s mostly based on witty dialogue and wordplay. It’s also set in different periods in history, and it makes fun of certain historical figures. It plays with our expectations when it comes to those people. Another similar example is ‘Allo ‘Allo! which manages to make one of the darkest periods of history funny.

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But, is it necessary for humour to be timeless to be good? I’m actually not sure. I guess, in the end of the day, what’s important is that we have something that makes us laugh. So, what do you find funny? Which books, films, and tv shows made you laugh, and why?



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Let’s Talk About Steampunk!

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Source: Pixabay.com

I’m currently reading Soulless by Gail Carriger. It’s a fun, witty, fluffy read, and, apparently, it’s steampunk. So, instead of doing a Currently Reading post, I decided to talk about steampunk and what the word actually means.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines steampunk as:

science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology

This is the most general definition, and the one that is often used to describe steampunk. However, this genre is much more than that, and it is much more difficult to describe. For example, the top definition from Urban Dictionary says:

Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.

The author of the definition goes on to explain certain sub-genres of Steampunk: medieval steampunk, Victorian steampunk, western steampunk etc. For example, the film Wild Wild West is generally labeled as steampunk, but it is set in the Wild West, which makes it western steampunk. (I actually can’t think of a medieval steampunk example, so I’d apprecite suggestions.) This definiton is actually in opposition to the common perception that steampunk is a sub-genre of neo-Victorianism – apparenty it doesn’t have to take place in a world inspired by Victorian England.

This leads to another definition – steampunk is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. It can be set in any historical period, but it has to involve some kind of “old” technology in a new, interesting way. (Use of non-existent science and technology is why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case od Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also considered steampunk by some.)

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Source: Pixabay.com

Steampunk often features dirigibles and zeppelins, and some other long-forgotten inventions. Steampunk did, however, get its name after the steam power, so steam-powered engines and machinery should be unvolved. Steampunk also shows a lot of love to cogs and clockwork.

Now, on to the books I’ve read that are labeled as steampunk. First of them is the aforementioned Soulless. Soulless is set in Victorian England, with the addition of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. It also features dirigibles, and a lot of talk about the natural science of supernatural creatures. The approach to science is very Victorian, so I think this book represents steampunk quite well.

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Tales of The Ketty Jay series is also labeled as Steampunk, and it definitely falls into that category. This series is all about airships. The world can be seen as Victorian, but it is not a literal representation. It certainly does feel like it’s happening in the past, but it also might not be. The airships do use steam power, but they seem more advanced than digiribles, which is also very characteristic of steampunk. Science in this book is closely related to so-called daemonism, which is an interesting concept since science was often demonised in the past. This is definitely a series I would recommend, because it’s fun, and the characters are amazing.

There are also some classics that fall into the steampunk category, though they were written before the term was even invented. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne features Nautilus, a submarine that is very advanced for its time. However, in Jules Verne’s time, this book would probably be considered SF, since to its first readers it wasn’t a book set in the past. Another steampunk classic is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.

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Of course, steampunk doesn’t exist only in literature. It is a subulture – it exists in fashion and is also a music genre. When it comes to fashion, steampunks are often described as “goths who discovered brown.” You probably all know how this fashion looks like, so I’ll move on to music. Steampunk music is something had to define. Generally, it should be music that uses only old instruments (no electronics) and it can be closely related to dark cabaret. Therefore bands such as Rasputina, and even The Dresden Dolls are often labeled as stempunk.  Aurelio Voltaire and Emilie Autumn are also artists who are sometimes labeled steampunk, though their artistic expression is far more diverse that that. (Emilie Autumn is my favourite! Had to say it. XD) However, some bands go further than that – they are dressed in Steampunk fashion and their lyrics are like from a steampunk novel.

One of those bands is Abney Park. They started as a goth-industrial band, but they are now steampunk to the core. The band even created a fictional backstory: the band’s plane collided with a time-travelling dirigible called the Ophelia in a great storm. The band commandeered the vessel, deciding to become airship pirates. This backstory is used for many of their lyrics.

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Source: Wikipedia

Other similar bands are The Cog is Dead, Ghostfire, Vernian Process, Steam Powered Giraffe, Unextraordinary Gentleman and many others. Ghostfire has a particularly interesting description on Last.fm:

The music of Ghostfire resonates to the debauched decadence and absinthe-fuelled anarchy of life in the eighties…

The 1880’s.

Stalking the cobbled streets; lurking in the shadows of the darkest alleyways… Dare you glance beyond the safety of the guttering gaslights, to where the gin-soaked doxy plies her trade, the dipper watches his mark and the drunken sailor staggers blindly?

It’s this shadowy world of villains, rogues and rascals that Ghostfire calls home.
In the darkest corners of the flash taverns, we raise glasses with vagabonds, footpads, pirates and thieves, all seeking sanctuary in the anonymity only notorious London Town can afford…

Now, I’m definitely not an expert on steampunk, so there’s still a lot for me to learn. I’d definitely like to hear from you. How do you define steampunk? Do you have any book recommendations? If you do, please share! 🙂


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