TOPAZ Issue 8 / 2003
A Musical Tribute
Understanding Competition
The Template of Sacred Architecture
Helping hand for ADHD children
Brief history of humour
More about Humour
How to watch films
Shakespeare’s Private Theatre
A Day in the Theatre of Life

Clowning Around - A brief history of Humour

The art of humour is an enigmatic one. Laughter can arise spontaneously, and once had almost seems to disappear into the ether. The same joke or scene seldom amuses to quite the same intensity second time round. An audience has to be caught at a certain critical time to rouse them to mirth. Jokes that get a belly laugh at the comedy club tonight can fall completely flat if told to a group of annoyed commuters waiting for a late train the next morning. Timing is crucial for humour to work - is this one reason why the ancient Court Jester’s regalia, the tricorn hat and bowtie wand, are shaped like combinations of the letters V W X Y and Z, letters esoterically associated with time?

Medical wisdom has it that a good laugh can be as effective as a course of antibiotics, relieving stress and strengthening the body’s immune systems. Recent experiments using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on people being told jokes or funny stories indicate that a specific part of the brain, the orbital prefrontal cortex located just behind the orbits of the eyes, gets stimulated into a sudden release of energy when the punch line is delivered. Interestingly this part of the brain has also been linked in human evolutionary research to the illumination of ‘new mental birth’, the point where someone perceives an unusual or apparently illogical solution to some problem of living, be it practical or philosophic. Perhaps the deliberate contradiction of a joke or ridiculous story titillates this area of the brain almost as a substitute for genuine new perception, rather like the sparks that fly when two live electrical wires come into accidental contact.

Not all humour of course is designed as a simple ‘fix’ for the brain. world theatre abounds with many types of comedy from ancient Greek satires through Medieval and Elizabethan comedies to the bawdy burlesque of 19th century music halls. The ancient Greek philosophers were also the first recorded researchers into the science of humour, where Plato asserted that it arose from feelings of superiority in the face of the misfortunes of others, while Aristotle saw it as a reaction to incongruity, whether in the form of complete nonsense or hiding a clever second meaning. If nothing else, good humour lifts us out of the monotony of normal life going-on and gives us some extraordinary moments to flavour our day.

Satire itself seems to have been a continuation into the public arena of ancient Court Jester traditions, where the Fool would use his position of not being quite taken seriously to give the king oblique observations on aspects of his rule that needed improvement. Later this would turn up in the amphitheatres as public holding up to ridicule of the less popular political acts or leaders of the time, giving the practitioners of this theatrical art a somewhat uneasy relationship with their rulers which continues right up into modern times. In short then, a talent to amuse often goes hand in hand with a propensity to offend. Every joke has its victim or butt, which many medieval jesters were highly skilled at falling upon when words failed.

Looking at the human complex as an electro-magnetic entity, there are clearly times when excess or static energies build up in the system, particularly in our times. The deliberate release of this by humour in skilled hands can be like a mental healing for the sides of our individual or collective natures that are suppressed or in contradiction, without any of the unwanted side effects inherent in chemical or artificial remedies. Could it even be that one aspect of good Theatre is in being remedial to the needs or imbalances of the audience on that particular night, alongside of whatever education is intended for them? After all, even the old-fashioned American burlesque theatres used to claim some educational edification amongst the rough and tumble of their variety shows.

By Anton Fiortoft

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