In Britain, my experience of comedy is that it is looked down upon. Comedians are rarely, if ever, included in arts festivals, or receive funding, despite all the creative skills they may exhibit, for example, storytelling, poetic prose, and wordplay, as well as their amazing wit. A really great comedian peppers their performance with accents and ‘act outs’, so that their stories are brought vividly to life. They may use accents, action, and facial expression to render their characters as realistically as they can. And their obervation must be keen, clear, and cuttingly true – they see just as keenly as poets, artists, novelists, and so on, again in my own personal experience.
I had the great privilege of supporting Phill Jupitus at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival over a couple of summers. I heard him refer to himself as ‘a clown’. Clowns, jesters, and fools are a great and goodly tradition of our culture. I feel it is arrogant, and disrespectful to our arts and heritage, to dismiss it. The people who do this seem to create a hierarchical system stemming from ‘high brow’ to its lowly, lesser cousin. We seem to forget that Shakespeare’s competition, at the time, was prostitution and bear-baiting. His plays are full-to-bursting with wit and wordplay. I remember seeing an RSC production of The Tempest in Stratford and the fool in it was just phenomenal. Shakespeare did not deride comedy. He enjoyed it; employed it.
The idea that artists who garner laughs are not also able say something important – to make serious points in their work – is itself laughable. It disallows fellow human beings working in certain art forms the right to a multi-faceted character, and the ability to produce work which is also multi-layered/has many strands. It is crude and reductive, and I see it a lot in writers and artists who think themselves the most subtle and intelligent beings in all existence. Usually what they produce is pretentious wank. Not always, but usually. Comedy, for these people, is something to be sneered and snooted at.
This simply isn’t the case in Japan. Rakugo is a form of comic storytelling which utilises puns, wordplay, jokes, jeering, satire, silliness, action, expression, crudeness, cleverness, naughty humour, and so on, and it is considered a high brow, well-respected form of art. The performer wears traditional dress e.g. kimono and sits on a zabuton (flat square cushion) in front of a screen. The words which fall from his or mouth are usually a scream, too – even ghost stories, such as the one I am currently learning, and will perform in Tokyo on Sunday, are peppered with wit and humour. Using sensu (fan) and tenugui (towel), the rakugo performer mimes writing a letter, reading a book, sucking syrup from a stick of mochi (sticky rice gelatin sweets), and so on. I have heard some amazing stories in my time here – about sexy ghosts, wilful children, magical and impish tanuki (raccoon dogs), and more. Fast-paced and popular, this is a form of prop comedy which, unlike that in the UK, is seen as an enlightened and elevated form of art.
Humour and popularity are not viewed as being anathema to high art, in other words. Which is a great, great joy, and something we could certainly learn from. The current snootiness regarding anything remotely comic in our culture either pushes people to move away from whatever genre they are working in (as with myself, now re-branded as a ‘daring wordsmith’ rather than a ‘comic poet’), or to immerse into it, becoming a stand-up comedian, and forever being denied any other type of artistic expression. You can’t be a comic poet AND a serious poet at the same time… can you? Successful ‘comic poets’, such as Kate Fox, find that their less humourous – but just as good – works are often overlooked. And that, as an artist, is absolutely frustrating.
I find that Japanese performers – and, indeed, people – are encouraged to become ‘renaissance men’, studying music, art, poetry, calligraphy, and so on. But our culture wants us to be one-trick ponies. I find this reductive, as well as un-productive. In any case, I’ll be talking more about rakugo, and my wonderful teacher in Tokyo, in my next post. You can read an interview with Sensei Eiraku, in the meantime, here: http://jbpress.ismedia.jp/articles/-/40368