The Engaged Intellect

In voicing the suspicion that stand-up is an anti-intellectual artform, Brian Logan seems to have overlooked some larger and more interesting themes. In particular, he is working with a severely constrained notion of how intellectual themes might feature in comedy. The ‘intellectual’ aspects of comedy which he considers are confined to highbrow references, e.g., lines adapted from Philip Larkin or musings on Walt Whitman. Witness Liam Williams, musing “I do enjoy having a magpie approach to high literature, [to splicing] high culture into standup. I like the effect that creates, having something very poetic next to a joke about wanking.”

Logan has a point in criticising the cultural cringe whereby some comedians feel the need to apologise, even half in jest, for dropping erudite names or using even vaguely highfalutin’ terms. But there is a reverse side to this, one with which any observer of recent comedy will be familiar: comedians using unexpected (often highbrow) references to get a laugh. Sometimes such a reference can be deployed in a genuinely amusing manner,[i] but often it is used as flattery: the audience understand the reference and by laughing are, in effect, applauding their own knowledge. Indeed, the fact that references sometimes get a reaction of this sort itself indicates a different kind of cultural cringe: stand-up audiences by and large don’t expect to hear Sophocles or Degas or de Beauvoir mentioned at a stand-up gig, and are pathetically grateful when it occurs. There is a difference between clever comedy and comedy which merely sounds clever, and highbrow references frequently blur this distinction, either wittingly on the part of the comedian or not.[ii]

The other point is that the intellectual element in comedy should not be confined to, or even particularly concerned with, erudite references. In any other kind of art or entertainment, the intellectual aspect of a work concerns either the form itself (e.g., challenging conventions and expectations concerning works of that kind) or the content of the work (expressing or engaging with complex ideas). For instance, in the theatre intellectual concerns might find expression in a political or social themes, or in experiments with theatrical form. A playwright who drops impressive-sounding names or ideas into the dialogue if anything risks reducing the nuance and complexity of genuine intellectual engagement to something little more than dinner-party badinage. And what goes for the playwright goes double for the benighted stand-up. This challenge – to give ideas and theories their due while also being funny – is the real issue facing the comedian who would be an intellectual.

[i] The godfather of this comic trope is probably Woody Allen, and when his references work they are either witty in addition to the reference (as in the famous joke about cheating in a philosophy exam), or they work as a kind of shorthand to illustrate a cultural outlook at which Allen is poking fun.
[ii] To illustrate this difference, think of a comedian such as Demetri Martin whose jokes are as cleverly constructed as anyone’s, but who rarely hangs a joke on a recherch√© reference.

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