Evening. A classroom. Six adult students... there to learn about comedy. The teacher is an experienced comedian... determined to promote comedy as a progressive art form in which real feelings and ideas about life are shared and explored... and equally determined to condemn the abuse of comedy as cheap entertainment based on slick technique, stereotyped characters, contrived wordplay, and prejudice.
That teacher is Eddie Waters, in the Manchester of 1975. It is the play "Comedians", written for the stage by Trevor Griffiths, but also produced in a version by Richard Eyre for BBC television in 1979. I have seen the play on stage, and have read the script, and would recommend others to do the same, as the cuts made for TV - probably for time - includes dialogue which I think is crucial to a full understanding of the piece.
It is a serious play, not completely authentic, but truthful about what it says about the choices that comedians are faced with, and illuminating for anyone interested in comedy. I've probably watched it more than a dozen times, and I still finding it absolutely compelling. I can do no better than leave my own words here, and devote the rest of this comment to Eddie Waters' address to his students, imploring them to take the right choice for their future as comedians. I only wish all comedians were listening.
"...If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times. We work through laughter, not for it. If all you're about is raising a laugh, OK, get on with it, good luck to you, but don't waste my time. There's plenty of others as'll tek your money and do the necessary. Not Eddie Waters..."
"...It's not the jokes. It's not the jokes. It's what lies behind them. It's the attitude... A real comedian - that's a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what's hard, above all about what they want."
"A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian's joke, has to do more than release tension. It has to liberate the will and the desire. It has to change the situation..."
"There's very little won't take a joke. But when a joke bases itself upon a distortion - a stereotype perhaps - and gives the lie to the truth so as to win a laugh and stay in favour, we've moved away from a comic art and into the world of cheap entertainment and slick success... You're better than that, damn you. And even if you're not, you should bloody well want to be..."
"...A joke that that feeds on ignorance starves it's audience. We have the choice. We can say something or we can say nothing. Most comics feed prejudice and fear and blinkered vision, but the best ones, the best ones... illuminate them, make them clearer to see, easier to deal with. We've got to make people laugh till they cry. Cry. Till they find their pain and their beauty."
"Comedy is medicine. Not coloured sweeties to rot their teeth with."
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