18 Jun 2014
basac's picture

"He's fallen in the water... Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam!...What's on the end of the stick, Vic?"

Up until about twenty years ago you rarely saw the word 'surrealism' used to define anything other than a certain type of painting, more recently it has become a form of shorthand to describe a great deal of modern comedy. Do you have a flair for surrealist comedy? Would you like to be able to write and perform more of it? More to the point, have you any idea what 'surrealism' means?

Surrealism was an early 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. Like the closely aligned Dada movement, it grew out of the horrors of World War One, and was revolutionary, in that it sought to turn upside down all our preconceptions about art, life, and the entire political system. 

The famous and defining images from surrealism include Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain' (a urinal, the only one you're not allowed to pee in at the Tate Gallery), Salvador Dali's melting clocks, and Rene Magritte's striking pictures of bowler hatted men, falling like raindrops from the sky, or with apples in front of their heads.

It's not difficult to see how, in the context of much art that had gone before, works like these were shocking to the art establishment. In modern comedy, surrealism has at certain times had a similar revolutionary effect.

And yet... isn't all comedy about surprising people? Setting up a recognisable premise, then juxtaposing it with something that you're not expecting? Isn't every joke a shock, a tiny revolution, a turning of the world upside down - from the groaniest 'my dog's got no nose' play on words to the most elaborate realisations of silent movie physical comedy gags?  What could be more surreal than Buster Keaton standing in front of a house, the whole of the front falling down on him, and him just walking away as though nothing had happened, because he'd just managed to be standing where the open window fell?

When we look a bit closer at comedy, we can find surrealism in the unlikeliest of places. I'd never thought of 'Steptoe And Son' as surreal before writing this piece. It's a sitcom about a father and son stuck in a room together, in dire poverty, always trying to leave each other and always failing - but their home is massive, and furnished with bizarre nick-nacks and artefacts that would have been considered luxuries in previous times.

Then there's topical comedy, which most of the time lives on a separate planet from Magritte's giant toothbrushes and Di Chirico's melancholic shadows. However, if you stick the words of the news into the mouths of a bunch of grotesque puppets, or watch Paul Merton in his prime use a story from the papers to take us into a new and magical world, and you have the kind of bizarre juxtaposition that defines surrealism.

What is it about surrealist comedy that sets it apart from other forms? I would say that beyond the idea that every joke is surreal, the world created by the writer and performer is unlike any world we've seen before.

The Godfather of modern surrealist comedy was without a doubt Spike Milligan. 'The Goons' was a revolutionary show that used the medium of radio to invent a bizarre world that was whatever each of us saw in our imaginations. Spike was a brilliant writer, probably one of the most influential people on every aspect of British comedy of the last 60 years. He was born in India and spent most of his life in England, but his father was Irish and there’s a great Irish strain running through his comedy.

A huge amount of modern comedy owes a debt to the great Irish comic writers Flann O'Brien and Samuel Beckett. It’s wonderful that audiences nowadays associate Irish humour with surrealism without a moment's thought. But even as recently as 20 years ago there were some English people (including many who made TV comedy shows) who mistook the absurdity and surrealism of Irish humour for stupidity, and came to the conclusion that the Irish were thick. Turned out it was us who were thick for failing to understand the layers of absurdity that are the foundations of that surreal comedy.

Spike occasionally played up to the thick Irish stereotype, and a few other funny foreigners too, but he is remembered for so many other reasons - 'The Goons', his delightful childrens' poems and those incredible memoirs of World War 2. There is a grand line of absurdity running through all of Spike's work, but in every case the absurdity is there for a reason 

And this is the main point about surreal comedy - if you look at those moments when surrealism revolutionised our comedy world, you'll notice it was never surrealism for its own sake. There was always a point to it. Almost every sketch in 'Monty Python' was about the British class system, Alexei Sayle's early stand-up comedy routines painted beautifully absurd pictures of left-wing earnestness ('Save the Morris Minor!'), while 'Vic Reeves' Big Night Out' clinically dismantled every TV variety show we had ever seen and showed us how truly awful they had always been.

The problem with surrealism is that it's very easy to do, but it's very difficult to do it well. I've lost count of the number of non-audience radio and TV comedies that have failed to make me laugh, or have craved my indulgence because 'Dave, you're trying too hard to look for something, but there's nothing there, it's just funny because it is.'

A show like 'Father Ted' manages to be innocently absurd, and seemingly about nothing, but you don't have to look too far below the surface to find a deep ambivalence towards the tyrannical power in Ireland of the Catholic church.

Animation is where some of the finest comic surrealism originated. The great  Warner Brothers cartoonist Chuck Jones created several memorable characters including Bugs Bunny, Sylvester the cat and Wile E. Coyote. Things happen to these characters, two or three times per five minute episode, that in real life would kill them, but they keep coming back for more. The Roadrunner cartoons are full of surreal comic book violence, but every episode is based on the harsh reality of nature, and how humans can be like animals when we never learn from our mistakes.

'Roadrunner' was one of a number of inspirations for The Dangerous Brothers and the cartoon comedy of Rik and Ade, plus of course the 'Young Ones' sitcom, which influenced a generation of performers, none more so than Vic and Bob.

I love so much of the work of Vic Reeves and especially Bob Mortimer, but I struggled with ‘House Of Fools’ – which was what led to me writing this piece, to try and find out why. And I think it was because there was no logical reason for any of it.

You can point out that surrealism is not about logic, and since when has logic ever been part of any Vic’n’Bob show? I would say that logic is there to be overturned. What shines through ‘Big Night Out’ and ‘Shooting Stars’ is the brotherly relationship between Vic and Bob. They can go anywhere and do anything, because this is their world and they are in charge. And we give them permission to do that because, like Noel Fielding and Julian Barrett, however absurd and bizarre their behaviour, we know they'll always forgive each other because that's what families tend to do.

As soon as you put Vic and Bob in a narrative situation, there needs to be a reason for them to be together. I wondered if they had planned originally to play themselves as brothers, and changed their minds at the last minute? The set of ‘House Of Fools’ seemed to be modelled closely on that of a sitcom I remember from my childhood starring Eric Sykes and Hattie Jaques, as a brother and sister who lived together.

I find it almost impossible to watch Bob Mortimer in anything without laughing, and there were enough of those moments to keep me returning  to 'House Of Fools'. But for those of you starting out, hoping that the madness of the worlds you create is enough to sustain your comedy, you need to answer the two questions I keep coming back to: what is your show about? And, what is it really about? If it's not about anything, you may struggle to keep your audience engaged.