Archive | Comedy

Springtime For Pug Dogs

One of my favourite movies of all time is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Perhaps it’s because it was 1989 and I was 14. I’ve always loved Harrison Ford’s lone hero persona. Everything is up to him. If he doesn’t get it done, it won’t get done. This is encapsulated at the start of TheLast Crusadewhen the young Indy is separated from his troupe of scouts. He is all alone and concludes “Everybody’s lost but me.”

When Indy grows up, he has enemies: Nazis. When he sees them for them for the first time in The Last Crusade busying themselves pushing counters around maps with long poles, like they do in movies, Indy mutters to himself, “Nazis. I hate these guys.”

Nazis are the action movie’s greatest friend. They have fantastic, distinctive uniforms, some of which even have a skull and crossbones on them. (See the brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch on this) They are fanatically devoted to their cause, and their Fuhrer. And they have really good, well-engineered kit. The most important thing is this: Your hero can kill as many of them as you like and still be a goodie. You would have to go a long way to invent better baddies than Nazis.

That Belongs In A Museum

Of course, at the time, Indiana Jones could not have known what the Nazis would be capable of. The first three films are set before the Second World War and so his actions against German soldiers are not entirely justified. The worst thing about the Nazis to Indy is that they were terrible archaeologists, plundering relics that ‘belong in a museum’ in a vain attempt to co-opt the power of God, in whom Indy scarcely believes in. But we take what we know now and superimpose it on the Nazis of the 1930s and cinematically, all is well.

That is significant. We don’t watch films rationally. We watch them emotionally. This is why common sense, assuming humanity possess such a thing, and cool-headedness are thrown out of the window when we get YouTube videos like the one made by Count Dankula. So what did he do?

A Dog Called Buddha

Count Dankula, the avatar of Mark Meechan from Lanarkshire in Scotland, decided to annoy his girlfriend by making a video about his girlfriend’s sweet little pug dog called Buddha. What’s the most offensive, least cute thing a pug dog called Buddha can do? A Nazi salute whenever someone says ‘Seig Heil’. So that’s what he did. He trained her dog to do that. He made a three-minute video of the fruits of his labour and put it on YouTube in 2016.

Now, we have to be very careful here and use speech precisely lest we merely respond emotionally. That will not suffice in a court of law, since that is where Meechan ended up. He was arrested for the video in 2017, appeared at Airdrie Sheriff Court to defend himself against the charge of perpetrating a hate crime under the Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. We’re not going to discuss here whether that is or is not at a good law. Adam Wagner makes a case here that it is dangerously vague and unnecessary law.

But what had Meechan/Dankula done? One could argue that he had only done what Steven Spielberg and hundreds of other movie directors have done. He co-opted Nazism for its extremity of wickedness in order to make a piece of entertainment. Spielberg grabbed the Nazis to make a movie about an archaeological hero. Dankula grabbed the Nazis to make a sick joke at the expense of the girlfriend and her dog, Buddha.

Indy Meets The Fuhrer

One could argue – and I’m not sure I would – that Spielberg is being a little disingenuous. In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones finds himself a Nazi rally in which books are being burned. He himself is disguised a German soldier and is holding a book which will reveal the key secrets about the Holy Grail. There is a surge from the crowd and Jones is buffeted along until he ends up being face to face with Adolf Hitler himself. They both look at book in Indiana’s hand. Everything stops. Hitler holds out a hand and a flunky hands him a pencil. Hitler signs his autograph in the book and moves on.

If one was being obtuse, one could argue that this is making light of the most evil man of the 20thcentury. It’s not in the same category of the long-forgotten short-lived sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home, commissioned by BSB in 1990 (before it merged with Sky) in which Adolph Hitler and his wife Eva live next door to the Goldensteins, who are obviously a Jewish couple. Again, the joke there was not really about Nazism. There was a caption card at the beginning explaining that Heil Honey I’m Home!was a long-lost US sitcom recently re-discovered in some archives in Burbank, California. The joke is that in the 1950s and 60s, the Americans were used to turning any domestic situation into a sitcom. Again, Hitler was used to create the worst possible domestic sitcom imaginable. The show was cancelled after one episode. Artistically this might have been a mercy since the ideas sounds more like a three minute sketch than six half-hour episodes when the joke might run a little thin.

The Producers

The makers of Heil Honey I’m Homemight have been mystified that they were cut so short given the lengthy career of Mel Brooks, who portrayed Hitler himself many times and wrote numerous sketches about him, such as Hitler on Ice, from the movie History of the World Part 1. His biggest hit, however, must surely be The Producers, originally a film from 1967 starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. It was remade as stage musical in 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, winning 12 Tony Awards. This musical was in turn shot as a new movie in 2005.

But what is the premise of the story? Thanks to a timid accountant, a dishonest, washed-up Broadway producer realises he can make more money with flop than that closes on the first night than he can with a hit. Therefore, he needs a show that will have to close immediately. They trawl though script after script before they find the perfect show called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. The producer says that it’s virtually “a love letter to Hitler”. The play is written by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind. The play is given to the campest and worst director on Broadway, Roger De Bris, and it is rehearsed and presented to an audience who are initially opened mouthed. A few storm out saying it’s in bad taste. This is, of course, true. It is. But the remaining audience see the outlandish portrayal of Hitler and mistake it for a satire, finding it hilariously funny. The show is smash hit – and financial catastrophe for the producers who go to jail for fraud.

In short, the movies and musical of The Producers, Mel Brooks shows a character using Nazism as a convenient shorthand for something offensive that is guaranteed to produce a negative reaction. In his video, Count Dankula did essentially the same thing, except he was arrested, tried and prosecuted for a hate crime. Brooks won 12 Tony Awards. In one awards speech he publicly thanked Hitler. Even Dankula could not expect to get away with that. Why is that?

Who is Who

The joke is only part of the story. There is a wider context here which includes the identity of the joker. One cannot help but notice that Mel Brooks is at least two things that Dankula is not. Firstly, Brooks is a highly respected comedian with a long career and proven track record in comedy. Not only is The Producerson his CV, but also The Young Frankenstein, Space Balls, History of the World Part 1and Blazing Saddles (but let’s not get into that last one right now). Before that he was a writer for numerous hit TV shows.

Mel Brooks is a comedy institution. Dankula is not in that class and does not claim to be. On his Twitter profile, he describes himself as a “Professional Shitposter.” This seems a fair description. He’s some kind of internet contrarian who pushes the limits of free speech and says anti-social things purely because he can.

With Friends Like These

Moreover, some people who rushed to his defence did are not held in high regard in polite company. High profile comedians like Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel were vocal in their criticism of the court’s decision, but it there more visual support from Tommy Robinson, formerly of the controversial English Defence League. He was always going to create certain associations in the minds of those looking at Dankula’s case. Regardless of the law and his credible supporters, Dankula was never going to look good in the media or in court.

The second pertinent different between Dankula and Brooks is that the latter is Jewish. Should that matter? Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. It matters because when Brooks portrays camp goose-stepping Nazis and comic versions of Hitler, it is not credible to say that he is secretly in sympathy with the Jew-murdering fascists. Some may find Brooks’ comedy to be in poor taste, as some friends of mine did when they went to see the Producers, partly on my recommendation. But they did not come away feeling they had been to a covert Nazi rally or recruitment drive.

An Odiuous Criminal Act

The prosecutors of Dankula, who is not Jewish, were able to suggest that perhaps Dankula’s video was “an odious criminal act that was dressed up to look like a joke.” His motives were mixed, they argued, or could credibly be construed as such. Therefore, he must be found guilty. The judge agreed. I do not.

The joke was misjudged, and abhorrent. If you watch the video, you see that Dankula is continually referring to what Nazis did to Jews in death camps. That’s really dark. Technically, it works as a joke, given the incongruity with the pug dog called Buddha. But it’s not a joke I would do. But that doesn’t mean that he should not have done it. I do think less of him for having done so.

I would have no problem with YouTube, as the host of the video, taking it down since they are a private company (although they are often unclear on their rules and apply them inconsistently). I do think the Communication Act of 2003 is a bad law that will already be having a chilling effect on free speech. I can testify to that as I’m wording this article extremely carefully. Many have applauded the prosecution of this nasty contrarian, but may yet live to see this law enacted against people they like and respect. That is a discussion for another time.

But the comedy writer in me would argue that in essence, all Dankula has done is the well-worn comedy trick of grabbing the Nazi trope that many have done before him and will continue to do in the future. Should that be a crime?

 

A longer version of this article will appear in my forthcoming book about how comedy goes wrong, especially in the realm of religion. To be kept informed about that, please sign up for my mailing list below. While we’re thinking about inappropriate comedy, consider buying A Monk’s Tale, an hilarious take on the Martin Luther and his Ninety Five These. You can also listen to me actual voice on my regular podcast with Barry Cooper on Cooper and Cary Have Words.



0

What’s So Funny About Easter? Part 2

This is the second of three posts about the comedy of Easter, with Easter Day being on April Fools Day in 2018. Read the first post here.

Crucifixion is a cruel and painful punishment. It is literally excruciating. That’s where the word comes from. It would therefore seem hard to describe the brutal execution of any man – let alone the God-Man Jesus Christ – as funny. It isn’t funny, despite the age old saying that tragedy + time = comedy. But the Passion of Christ is comic.

What does ‘comic’ mean? What is comedy? I’m not about to posit a grand unified theory of comedy akin to the physicist who wish to explain everything in a one simple equation. Many august philosophers have tried that with comedy. But no matter what your theory, you encounter jokes, routines and formats that just don’t fit. Comedy is like that. It is subversive and anarchic. And yet based on truth – but we don’t really have time to get into that. (You’ll need to read my forthcoming book coming out in January 2019. Sign up for my mailing list on the right).

In A Nutshell

The most compelling explanation for comedy is incongruity. It’s placing two things next to each other that don’t belong together. The artistry of comedy is revealing or creating that juxtaposition in an elegantly surprising way. Man walks down the road. Not funny. Man falls down manhole. Funny. Man sees manhole and walks around it. Not funny. Man sees manhole cover – and manages to fall in anyway. Very funny.

If we look at the Passion narratives for incongruity, we see it everywhere. Because the story unfolds with such a sense of inevitability, and those taking part have no idea how it appears, and how it fulfills prophecies going back centuries, the incongruity is also highly ironic.

There is, of course, a point at which irony stops being funny. There’s a sense of symbolism in the Passion narratives that are more dramatic and didactic, rather than funny. For example, the arrest, sham trial and crucifixion of Jesus takes place at Passover, the memorial of the release of Israelites from Egypt, during which time an innocent lamb was sacrificed. Jesus is that Lamb.

Much Ado About Lazarus

But the idea that Jesus can be killed is comic. That’s one of the more subtle themes in John 11. After Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, some Jews reported back to the Pharisees and a meeting of church elders was called. The reason for their dismay is not disbelief of the miracles, but what the miracles point towards: trouble. They complain that Jesus is performing these signs of his power, but that If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him” (v48). Ha ha! Wouldn’t that be awful? Everyone believing in the GodMan who clearly has power over life and death? You want to nip that in the bud, guys.

They then show that they are still more afraid of the Romans who “will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (v 48) Then the High Priest, Caiaphas pipes up with a statement dripping with irony, “You know nothing at all! (ha ha! Really? THEY know nothing?) You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (v49-50) The gospel writer, John, points out the irony, but the joke is in v53. From that day on, they plotted to take his life.”

Erm, excuse me? So far in John’s Gospel, Jesus has turned water into wine, fed five thousand people, walked on water and healed a man born blind. And now he’s just raised a man from the dead. You’re planning to kill that man. Who raised a man from the dead. Good luck with that.

False Sense of Security

Killing Jesus, however, proved worryingly easy. For a man of such apparent cosmic power, he seemed curiously easy to beat up, whip, mock and torture.

They should have seen the signs. That’s another huge comic irony of the story. God becomes man, and we kill him. But who kills him? Religious people. The people whose job it was to know and teach the scriptures, many of whom will have memorised the prophecies with which the Old Testament is riddled.

The religious people rush a trial through, but the crowd are also implicated. They had been cheering Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and then when he was arrested, they demanded a murderer and a terrorist to be released by Pilate, instead of the Prince of Peace, the one who can raise the dead. Jesus wasn’t the king they were expecting, when he turned up riding a comically pathetic donkey. What a ludicrous sight. It is almost as comic as the young man running away from the scene of arrest in Gethsemane Mark 14:42 who was so desperate to get away that when his coat was caught, he wriggled free and ran away stark naked.

Even though Pontius Pilate knew this man was innocent under the law, and washed his hands of it, he allowed his soldiers to do their worst. Luke also points out that Jesus’s trial united Pilate and Herod (Luke 23:12) which is not the kind of peace or kingdom that Jesus was talking about.

Black Friday

In the blackest and bleakest day in human history, all of the above mocked and jeered as  Jesus was forced to drag his own cross to the top of a hill, where he was nailed to it and hung between two common criminals. One of the criminals, despite being near to death himself, used his dying words to join the mockers, by sneering at him. They mishear Jesus quoting Psalm 22, saying ‘He is calling Elijah’, when he was giving more clues to his identity and the awful mistake the religious leaders had made. But they just taunt Jesus, telling him come down from the cross, which he could do, but chose not to. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” (Matthew 27:42) He is, of course, saving others at the cost of his own life.

The ironies abound. Above Jesus is a sign saying that this is the king of the Jews, which is funny because it’s true. Peter, the sturdy fisherman, Jesus’s rock, is denying Christ to a young girl. Jesus tells a common criminal that he will join him in paradise. (Luke 23:43). A centurion, the despised Roman occupier, could see that this man was the Son of God (Mark 15:39). Jesus, the Prince of Peace, healer of the sick, God’s chosen, prophesied king, has been killed by priests. It doesn’t get more incongruous than that.

James Cary is writing a book about comedy and religion for SPCK. To keep updated on that, do sign up for the mailing list on the right of the page.

He also discussion of this subject with Glen Scrivener.

0

What’s So Funny About Easter?

Let’s be honest. There’s nothing funny about April Fools’ Day. Media organisations and large corporations collude to create stories that seem ludicrous but plausible. Then they have a good chuckle to themselves that some people were tricked. But given we live in a world in which the daily news seems to be a catalogue of the implausible, and some is already fake, how are we supposed to discern what stretches credibility and what is real?

In 2018, April Fools’ Day takes place on Easter Day, another day not known for its humour. Sceptics would be tempted to describe it as another day of implausible stunts. But let’s not get into that. Many books have been written on the subject, like Norman Anderson’s Evidence for the Resurrection or Lee Strobel’s The Case for Easter.

What’s less documented and written about in modern Christianity is the comedy present in the Easter story. On the surface, the death of Jesus doesn’t seem like a comic tale. The church certainly rarely presents it as such. But it used to. The phrase Risus Paschalis can be found in Easter celebrations in previous centuries. It means “the Easter Laugh”.

Easter Laughter

The origin of the phrase is obscure. Some attribute to the phenomenon to early church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa. But these early Christians weren’t known for their sense of humour. In 390, John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) preached “This world is not a theatre in which we can laugh, and we are not assembled in order to burst into peals of laughter, but to weep for our sins.” Clement of Alexandria and Augustine were also suspicious of humour, just as the church is today.

But comedy did become associated with Easter somehow. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) wrote for hymns for Good Friday and Holy Saturday with the stanza,

Grant us, Lord, so to suffer with you

that we may become sharers in your glory,

to spend these three days in grief

that you may allow us the laugh of Easter grace.

Curiously, no reference to bunnies or chocolate.

What’s the Joke?

To those outside the church, and plenty inside, it may not be easy to say what the big joke is about Easter. In bald terms, the gag is that God tricked Satan into letting him kill Jesus. But in so doing, Satan achieves God’s purposes, Jesus saves everyone with his death and Old Nick is humiliated by Jesus’s resurrection on the third day. Jesus 1. Lucifer 0.

This is pretty niche comedy, in today’s secular age, at least. Biblical knowledge and church attendance has declined in the West, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Risus Paschalis is no longer a thing. Ask the man in the street what Easter is, and he might not even know that it’s Jesus related. In order for comedy to work, to ‘get it’, you need shared information. As a society, basic Christian doctrine is no longer known, let alone understood or believed.

The Devil In The Detail

The Risus Paschalis tradition may also have fallen by the wayside because of theological shifts in the last 500 years. The habit of telling jokes in Easter sermons attracted criticism from Luther’s contemporaries, Oecolampadius and Erasmus who were shocked by the bawdiness and tone of the gags. But the Reformation, for Protestants at least, shifted the understanding of what exactly was happening at Easter, which perhaps tracks with the level of fear that the West has for the devil: virtually none. Read the CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters  for how that’s not exactly progress.

The idea that God tricked the devil by allowing him to have Jesus killed arguably inflates the importance of Satan in the overall biblical story. There are some verses in 1 Corinthians 2 in which Paul writes that “we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age (Demons and the Devil) understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor 2:7-8) Demons are not omniscient and therefore were as blind to the consequence of the crucifixion of Christ as anyone.

But as theology grew and developed from the 1500s onwards, the role of the devil in the Easter story is sidelined. The reformers were clear that the Devil is not the piper who needs to be paid, teaching that it is God himself who demands satisfaction for sin. Justice is his realm. Jesus does not save the Christian from everlasting punishment by the Devil. Hell is the place in which the Devil is also punished. He is thrown down. Read Milton’s Paradise Lost. (Oh, and the Bible.) Misery loves company. (That’s not in the Bible). Satan is grabbing as many souls as he can on his way down. But the point is this: Satan is not the one who punishes sin. That would be God who is utterly and ineffably just, unpalatable for some as that doctrine may be.

Getting Tricky

In the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-7), Eve may have been tricked by Satan, but the promise in 3:15 is not that Satan will have the tables turned on him, and that he will be merely tricked when he’s least expecting it. The implication of the promise is that his head will be crushed. God is the one offended by the sin of Adam. It can only be undone by a second Adam. And the only one who can provide that Second Adam, untainted by sin, is God, in his Son Jesus Christ. And he does that because he made us and he loves us. People much prefer hearing that bit.

So, is Easter not funny after all?

It is, actually. It is certainly very comic in ways that we will explore in the next post HERE.

If you can’t wait, have a look at a discussion of this subject with me and Glen Scrivener.

0

A Rare Limerick

It is often said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. This is not true. It is the limerick. It is a form popularised by Edward Lear, and his versions were painfully unfunny, given the lack of punchline. The final line was a close variant of the first line. So there’s not really a joke there. For example:

There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
But she seized on the cat,
and said ‘Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!’

Told you. Dismal.

Even at the time, it’s hard to believe that anyone was falling about over this kind of material. Perhaps Lear’s limericks lack the punch because the were apparently folk poems that were only ever intended to be filthy. That would certainly explain why one of the few funny limericks is the one about the lady from Devizes. (Google it). Presumably Lear was prevented from printing such bawdy verse, or it was considered beneath him. The limerick has thus always been the Pete Best of comedy formats, lagging even behind the almost-as-dismal Knock Knock joke.

I mention all of this because there is a funny limerick which is suitable for work, rather pleasing and curiously theological. I stumbled across is many years ago and has been locked in my mind ever since. And I remembered it this afternoon. It appeared in a book of verse in 1924 and is attributed to Ronald Knox.

The first limerick encapsulated Berkeley’s philosophical principle that “To be is to be perceived”, philosophically related to the hack student conundrum of whether a tree falling over in the forest makes a sound. (I wrote a joke about this in 1999, in which some people set up an experiment to prove this one way or the other. They went back to find the tree had fallen on the recording equipment).

Knox’s limerick however goes thus:

There once was a man who said: “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”

Witty, but not hilarious. But here’s the reply, also attributed to Knox, is as follows:

Dear Sir,
Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the Quad;
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
God.

Lovely, isn’t it?

For future reference, I plan to write a book about how comedy works (and often goes wrong), currently entitled A Good Sense of Humour. Do join my mailing list (on the right) for news on developments of that, and to be kept informed of other blog posts and activities. Or pick up my book Death by Civilisation.

1