March 06, 2018

Context is everything: Comedy and Performance

How does context affect comedy? Anthropologists compare jokes with cultural ‘rites’- both derive meaning from a cluster of ‘socially legitimated symbols’- but a joke often subverts these norms to mock societal rules. These jokes can show both the arbitrariness of social customs and their necessity by what we view as incongruous.

For example: ‘Did you see me at the funeral? I was the one who started the Mexican Wave” – here the joke stems from the incongruity of the action and its setting; while a Mexican Wave is appropriate for a sports game, we perceive that it lacks the dignity our society requires for a funeral. Moreover the performance of the joke itself would affect the audience’s reaction. Tell that joke at a stand-up comedy night and you should get a laugh. Tell that joke at a funeral wake and expect a frostier reception.

So how can a specialised performance context affect comedic potential?

Allow me to elaborate on what I mean by specialised context. It is well known that ghost stories are best told in the dark, huddled around a fire- the flickering shadows enhance the uncanny horror of the tales. Night, after all, is when the dead return and fear can invade even the most cynical of listeners. One example of how this evolved over the years is Gothic theatre performances- at the Grand Guignol in Paris; performances of horror-comedy were enacted in the late evening in the Quartier Pigalle, famed for its sex shops. Audiences, therefore, were encouraged to feel afraid and perhaps transgressive from the moment they stepped off the metro- a kind of spooky/sexy thrill which no doubt carried over into the evening’s performances.

How does this translate into Roman comic performances? Terence’s Eunuch, for example, was first put on at a public religious festival for the goddess Cybele. Is there a greater potential for humour found in a play about a male citizen disguising himself as a eunuch if the audience contains a number of priests who are famously castrated males? Does Chaerea’s disguise seem even more absurd (or more insidious) if the audience has someone to compare it to? Or is Chaerea’s performance a reflection of a common cultural belief about eunuchs?

While comedy has the power to be subversive, it can also denigrate certain sects of society when the joke lands upon the stranger, the outsider. Chaerea’s effeminate performance as a eunuch would make the audience laugh at the expense of the ridiculous societal ‘other’. This would serve to reinforce the cultural ideals of masculinity- bodily integrity, decisive action- yet for all that Chaerea is only faking his castrated status; he is far more convincing than he intends to be and notably fails to impregnate his victim. The presence of real eunuchs at this specialised event of Cybele’s festival would have brought into sharper relief the jokes about masculine identity, not to mention the social anxiety surrounding the ambiguity of a eunuch’s sexual abilities. The majority of the audience would be left uncertain in their superiority if even the hyper-masculine, virile Chaerea were affected by the enigmatic eunuch performance.

In the case of Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, the contextual implications are far wilder. Written for the Saturnalia festival shortly after the death of the Emperor Claudius and early into Nero’s reign, Seneca’s satire recounts the events surrounding the emperor’s failed apotheosis. So how does this specialised political climate, both the regime change and the transgressive elements of Saturnalia, affect the comedic potential of the Apocolocyntosis? The brands of comedy range from cathartic political satire to mocking Claudius’ grotesque body.

After the death of a tyrant, a comedy that demonises the dead emperor would be a valuable tool to exorcise public anger however the instability of tyranny makes such demonization very dangerous because there remains the potential of offending the current leader. I would argue that this danger increases the comic potential of the performance given that it is offensive and transgressive- perfect for Saturnalia!

It is also contextually relevant that the original myth of Saturn was that of violent political succession- Ouranos to Saturn to Jupiter- and we see that performed in the satire- the succession of Claudius to Nero. Ouranos is castrated; Claudius is forced to shit himself to death by poison and carnival lowers everything to the level of the grotesque.

Moreover this Saturnalia was more culturally significant than before. Claudius was known as the Saturnalian Emperor because he transformed the winter festival into an on-going carnival. The corruption of Saturnalia under Claudius’ tyranny now leaves uncertain what the festival can mean after his death- the celebration has been tainted by trauma. This adds tension to the prospect of mocking and debasing Claudius, his regime and his grotesque body, at the very festival he ruined. Perhaps the satiric bitterness and humour of the Apocolocyntosis served as a way of reclaiming the festival from Claudius’ perversion.

To conclude, humour relies on a certain level of social attention, an awareness of cultural cues and knowledge and the recognition of when something is different to what it should be. A specialised context like that of a festival adds a new dimension to the performance of the jokes- an untranslatability to performances of the Eunuch and Apocolocyntosis which rely on knowledge of that specific cultural circumstance.

I’ll finish with this classically relevant joke:

“writing-prompt-s: You’re teleported to 44 BCE Rome in your everyday street clothes. You’re brought before Caesar and he believes you might be from the future, hoping to bring him fortune. One day he questions you, asking “How Do I Die?”

Answer given by ‘calamitouserebus’: “Surrounded by Friends” ”.

Context is everything.

Further interest:

Simon Critchley, Talks at Google

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