The Dark Comedy of Forbidden Words
Comedy goes where theatre fears to tread
By Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I entered into an email correspondance this week with a highly talented young theatre artist who refered to my editorial, from last week, and how much he had liked the quote from Patton Oswalt. He added that in his life he finds himself quoting standups more often than he quotes theatre.
By what they dare to say comics are suggesting: You get this, you understand, you're with me and we can go farther.
The thought stayed in my head. On Facebook, Twitter and in email, I, too, find myself quoting standups an awful lot. Here's why, I think: comics tend to take bigger chances, especially with language, because it's an art of inclusion. By what they dare to say they are suggesting: You get this, you understand, you're with me and we can go farther.
I find, in theatre - for all its sagacity, wit and lyricism - there is a certain standoffishness, a sense (not always but often) of pontification and, yes, piety. We, the audience, have come to the service and we are meant to listen and (with a certain kind of play) say "Amen!" (or give a standing ovation which is almost the same thing).
But here's another thing which separates most comics and a lot of playwrights: the willingness to explore the dark comedy of words. Dark comedy is liberating. It is challenging. With plotting theatre is getting there. (If you've seen The Beauty Queen of Leenane with its horrific, hilarious ending which asks us to be accomplices to elder abuse, you know what I'm talking about.) But with our use of specific words we are still cautious and politically correct (the bane of all art).
By using the words beyond their hideous original meanings, Louis CK destroys their power.
The three obvious words are dealt with by Louis CK in a classic bit: Faggot, Nigger and Cunt. (I find the bit hilarious despite the fact I am one of these and often accused of being another.) CK strips the words of sting by exploring their use outside of their original meanings. He assumes we "get" him and his use of the words and we do. It's a brilliant piece. (Look for it on YouTube.) By using the words beyond their hideous original meanings, he destroys their power.
This works in real life if we, the susceptible, are open enough. I'll recount two anecdotes to illustrate:
I have someone in my entourage who is mildly mentally challenged. I was around her one day and used the word "retards" to describe some people I was working with. The person burst into hysterical laughter. Why? Because she had been dealing with that word all her life and never heard it used that way, and, better still, with humour and no ill-will directed at her or people like her. The darkness of the word had evaporated for her - then and since.
No one around me talks much about my condition and no one makes jokes about it.
Besides being an out and proud faggot, for the last four years I have also been an ostomate. (Google it.) Ostomates, besides the tedious quotidian travails, have tendencies toward depression (I take pills) and suicide (I've thought of it). No one around me talks much about my condition and no one makes jokes about it. Ostomates will tell you this is quite common but this also reinforces the isolation we feel.
But the darkness lifted a good deal for me recently.
I was emailing a dear, dear friend who asked me if I had taken up swimming again. I said that I couldn't yet, but was eager to return to the pool except for one thing: being a gay man and revealing my appliance in the men's locker room. She came back in seconds with, "Well, it depends on the size of your appliance!"
I burst into laughter and this dark joke made my whole situation feel a lot less bleak and, indeed, lent it a silliness I never thought possible.
Fate deals us tests - a skin colour, a gender, a sexuality, an illness...
Simply, shit happens. Fate deals us tests - a skin colour, a gender, a sexuality, an illness - and it is only by exploring the depths of the darkness (how we deal with the tests and how others do) that we can let some light in and, ultimately, banish it. Humour does that. Standups know that.
Because piety is not funny, we must reimagine theatre so that we can also explore that darkness. We must, like the standups, make certain (dangerous) assumptions: that the audience "gets" us; that, even if we trouble them, they will stick with us; that they will not leave the theatre feeling they've been preached to.
Simply, I want our audiences to be like any good comic's - to follow into the dark and into a world of light; one where words are used for profound and upsetting and hilarious ideas beyond their original hideous meanings.