Is pure comedy worth less than high art?

I finally saw One Man, Two Guvnors on the weekend, and laughed every bit as I'd been warned I would. The relentless slapstick, bawdy humour and asides to the audience - at once old-fashioned in form but sharp and unexpected in delivery - make the production, as Michael Billington wrote in his latest review, impossible to argue with. But only that's if you see comedy as an intent worthy of five stars, as he gave it.

Saturday's performance sparked a debate among my friends as to whether a theatre production that makes no attempt to explore the human condition, to change its audience's view of the world, to hold a mirror up to society or to dazzle us with inventive staging ever deserves the full five-star rating.

Four stars, one friend argued, is as much as an out-and-out laugh-fest, no matter how successfully it tickles its audience, should ever be awarded.

I'd argue that it's harder than it looks to achieve that level of comic brilliance - if it were that easy, there would be far more purely comic productions, with audiences only too happy to see them to be cheered up.

(I'd also argue, and I know I'm not alone in saying that the star rating is itself problematic, and leaves little room for distinction).

Do you agree? Is comedy a lesser theatrical form than any other? Or is five stars a perfectly valid score to give a show that really goes for belly laughs?

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Comment by Rick Allden on December 13, 2011 at 14:00

Definitely - that's an art.  But if the audience is expecting a deep, moving theatrical experience and instead get a tickling stick on the noggin perhaps they won't see it as such.  And, of course,  there's a lot to be said for the artistry in a correctly timed banana slip too.

Comment by Catrin Rogers on December 13, 2011 at 13:33

Thanks all!

Brent - I agree with what you say about star ratings, I guess there is an understanding that 5 stars is a way of saying you'll enjoy this more than a 4 star show.

Jen - you're totally right that the two things needn't be mutually exclusive. I hadn't considered what you suggested, which is that maybe pure comedy does change your view somehow. I'm going to ponder that one.

Rick - I think it is art if we're just chuckling. There was a wonderful documentary on BBCFour last night on Ken Dodd, and his methods. He doesn't just slip up on banana skins for hours, he crafts jokes, tailors them, re-examines what makes who laugh and in what part of the country - that's an art, isn't it? 

Comment by Rick Allden on December 13, 2011 at 13:09

Comedy in theatre is an odd one - it not only brings the snobs dribbling from the woodwork, sneezing 'blasphemy' and the like, but also brings out the pre-emptive anti-snobbery brigade.  'They didn't laugh, but were they ever going to?'

I've certainly met with snobbery and eye-rolling in the past when mentioning the C word, but such eye-rolling is often, sadly, based upon experience of 'comedy'.  I've produced, and written some shallow nonsense in the past; nonsense with no substance whatsoever.  However, that was deliberately the case and was written to provided belly laughs and entertainment for like-minded folk, rather than to entice theatre-goers.  It was a moral crusade at first, there's nowt wrong with chuckling in theatre and all that, but it's gradually caused me to ask a few questions.

  A phallic joke will get a laugh (and I will continue to build my career on this principle) and numerous laughs will mean a good time to some of the audience.  But if we're laughing at jokes, rather than at the recognition of our own existence, is it art?

I'm categorically no artist, but I've seen a lot of it in the same places I have my stuff shown.  Comedy weaved within 'proper' theatre can be clever and dazzling and brilliantly hold up a big mirror to the audience.  In honesty though, I rarely find it particularly funny.  Give me The 39 Steps though and beggar me if I'm not wetting myself.  I wouldn't expect 5 stars from The Telegraph, but Chortle had better be shoving it's thumbs up.

Comment by Jen Thornton on December 13, 2011 at 12:47

whether a theatre production that makes no attempt to explore the human condition, to change its audience's view of the world, to hold a mirror up to society or to dazzle us with inventive staging ever deserves the full five-star rating

I wouldn't say that comedy can't do these things. I have seen comedy that most definitely explores the human condition and changes the audience's view of the world, albeit using a different device to serious drama. I might argue that your view of the world was changed by seeing this production: it has left you laughing, and pondering meaning enough to write a blog post.

Having said that, there are many reasons for going to the theatre. It's great when critics like something and review it in a certain way but the enduring popularity of West End musicals and comedy on both stage and screen demonstrates that 'real' people (whoever they are) like to be entertained and like to laugh and there probably isn't anything wrong with that. 

As someone who communicates about art to people for a living, I find the concept of high and low, serious and lesser art very challenging. Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate the value of what might be termed 'high art' and extraordinary creativity; I just wonder if 'average Joe' who goes to the theatre once a year cares. He'd probably rather laugh for two hours than cry deep into his soul for two weeks afterwards. He'd also probably give it 5 stars based purely on the fact that he enjoyed his evening so, as Brent says, it should be about a recommendation of the piece rather than a view based on certain criteria that work for one type of audience member. 

Comment by Brent Morgan on December 12, 2011 at 22:47

This is a real bone of contention for me. I think the star system should be about enjoyment, the review it self can fill you in on the content and theme of the piece. Sometimes all we want to do is laugh we don't want to have our minds changed or world views challenged we just want to enjoy our selves. If a piece of theatre is enjoyable then it deserves to be credited for it. There is enough bad theatre out there or should I say theatre not to my taste out there and I don't think it is fair to throw enjoyable pieces of theatre in with them just because we feel it should of done something that in all likely hood it never intended to do. If you enjoyed a piece of work and would recommend that others go and see it then surely it deserves a high star rating regardless of it's subject matter and content.

Now this is not to take away from amazing piece of theatre that do challenge audiences and leaves them amazed by the whole production with out even a hint of a smile, they to should definitely be praised. I suppose overall I'm trying to say that maybe the star rating system should be used as how highly you would recommend a piece and the review it self can clue us in on the reasons behind this.

Surely this is the best way of avoiding theatre snobbery.

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