Humour and Comedy in Modern British Studies

Speakers: Gavin Schaffer, Peter Bailey, Lucy Delap

Chair: Julie-Marie Strange

This session will offer three perspectives on the ways in which historians approach comedy and humour as sources for the research of modern British history.  Looking at case studies of suffrage and anti-suffrage movements of the early twentieth century, music hall, and 1980s alternative and mainstream comedy, it will question what historians can learn from cultures of humour and laughter and explore the role played by jokes in social, political and cultural life.  The three case studies within the panel between them probe issues of class, race, sexuality and gender, exploring the function of comedy as an agent of challenge and change.  They utilise different sources, including live comedy performance, print, and television, to tease out the role of comedy and its impacts.  At the core of the session will be a discussion about why historians have hitherto underused comedy as a source and why cultures of humour have so often been dismissed as ephemeral or unimportant.  All three papers in this session will argue that humour and laughter offers insight into past cultures, while focusing on the theoretical and practical parameters of the historical study of humour.

Paper 1 Abstract: “Turned Out Nice Again”: Music Hall Humour As Social Text

Peter Bailey (University of Manitoba/Indiana University)

Music hall in Britain denotes both the prototype modern entertainment industry that did business from the mid-Victorian era to the 1950s and a persistent style of humour and comic performance now lodged in the national psyche as an agreeably vulgar and traditional working class mode. This paper surveys the shifting content and function of music hall stage humour in text, persona and performance, as a register of material and social values, an issue in the history of cultural politics, and an emergent second language for all.

Paper 2 Abstract: ‘A wave of angry laughter’: feminism, suffrage and laughter in modern British history

Lucy Delap (St Catharine’s College, Cambridge)

This paper examines the role that the study of humour, comedy and laughter can play in elucidating key themes in modern British history. It will discuss the ambiguities of traces of laughter in the historical archive, as well as the reluctance amongst modern historians to take laughter seriously as a revealing dimension of political, emotional and cultural life.  Attention to who laughs, when, and at what is valuable for its capacity to show multiple facets of social and political change – laughter, for example, signals reception and incorporation of culture into everyday life; its study elucidates the emotional content of political and social movements; laughter indicates the cues for social anxiety and the tools deployed to diminish it. Study of laughter must always be alert to failed jokes, the moments where laughter is sought but not forthcoming.  Laughter can be manipulated, but remains an unpredictable emotional performance; the emotional states it signals are many, and cannot be assumed. This paper will offer a case study of humour and laughter within the women’s suffrage and anti-suffrage movements of the early twentieth century, to better understand the reception and ‘throw’ of suffrage arguments, the performances mandated, and the unpredictable meanings that suffrage or anti-suffrage interventions might take on. The paper will conclude with reflections on what the study of humour and laughter can offer to wider field of modern British studies, and to methodological debates concerning the study of emotions, and the incorporation of theory into historical practice.

Paper 3 Abstract: The Alternative to the Alternative:  Mainstream Comedy in 1980s Britain

Gavin Schaffer (University of Birmingham)

Comedy in the 1980s is mainly remembered in terms of the rise of a new brand of alternative humour, epitomised by The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents, and the success of comedy clubs such as The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip.  This focus on iconic alternative output makes sense in terms of charting the development of British humour, but silences the broader reality that most Britons were uninspired by alternative comedy in the 1980s.  While in popular memory the 1980s is remembered in terms of the decline of traditional comics such as Benny Hill, in reality this was an era where these kinds of acts prospered.  Hill, for example, continued with his successful television show until 1989.  The most popular sitcoms of the 1980s were ‘Allo ‘Allo and Only Fools and Horses, programmes which owed far more to the traditional structures and conventions of British comedy than they did to the alternative movement.  This paper will offer analysis of the continuing success of mainstream comedy set against the background of the rise of the alternative.  It will consider why mainstream comedy maintained its popularity in the 1980s and what this might tell historians about culture and society in Thatcher’s Britain, at the same time questioning why so many Britons continued to dismiss new wave humour as the alternative to comedy.




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