Comedy sometimes feels lesser than other art forms because seriousness and importance are often connected in real life. After all, a house fire takes precedence over a birthday party. And a serious discussion of important issues is generally regarded as significant compared to jokes about the same topics. Oscars tend to be awarded to serious movies about real issues with few exceptions. Comedies are very rarely Best Picture winners because amusement feels like a less significant response than anger or sadness.
In fact, comedy is one of the most effective ways of expressing a point of view and explaining something unpalatable in a way that makes it stealthily bypass mental and emotional firewalls people put up to block ideas they find distasteful. Making somebody laugh is proof that they understand the idea being presented whether they agree or not. If the purpose of art is to express an interpretation of thought or feeling and, more importantly, to communicate it to the viewer or listener then comedy is the only one that has a built-in feedback mechanism to prove that it has actually connected. People will applaud a dance or song but they might just be following convention or being polite. Nobody pretends to laugh. It’s almost physically impossible to conjure a laugh unless one is genuinely amused. There is no mistaking the success of a joke. It hits or it misses. Very little art has that kind of pass/fail mechanism. One would think that alone would prove its importance as a means of expression.
As a cultural component, few things reflect the zeitgeist of a society like comedy. It is a reason it tends not to travel well in space or time. Very little comedy stays funny over generations or cultural divides. That is because it is so dependent on the mores of the time and place where it is generated. What is funny in one place is often misunderstood or not understood at all in another. That is proof that comedy is reflective of the culture. As much as the Group of Seven captured Canada’s landscape in an unmistakably recognizable and CANADIAN way, Canada’s stand-ups reflect our culture regionally and nationally. Playing to the people of our nation directly in person guarantees that the acts reflect the attitudes of the people in their places.
Too much of Canada’s cultural landscape is decided by committees. A top-down approach creates projects that fit a focus group oriented cultural identity. What do the powers that be want us to feel, think and be? Archetypes get endless funding and attention. The story of a hockey-playing Mountie who is injured and has to change his sport to curling is the type of concept that savvy producers would pitch to guarantee funding. Real culture develops from the minds of the artists in a place. The role of arts institutions and grants is to encourage legitimate cultural representation. It is not to mold creative output to an agenda. There are enough corporate interests and commercial endeavors to pay for artistic skills that are for sale to whatever marketing campaign they are launching. Real arts funding is meant to encourage the development of true cultural voices that express the feelings and thoughts of real Canadians. Nothing reflects that better than stand-up comedy that has to connect directly with those that experience it.
Written by Simon Rakoff