Tag Archives: comedy

Art, Alcohol and Depression


WE ALL KNOW about the somber, yet weirdly attractive, myth associated with art, and artists. The scene is all set. Behind a simple desk, deep into the night, is an open collared, boozy, melancholic painter or novelist, driven slightly out of his mind, in order to produce a luminous piece of art. It’s very tempting to be teleological about it. The idea is ancient. Early Greeks called it entheos when a slight insobriety was sought to provoke inspiration. Though there is some truth in the concept of entheos, the romanticization of the lifestyles of Hemingway or Van Gogh, seems to either avoid or answer cheaply, the question of depression.

Why are some surprised, and even disappointed, when told that Mozart’s mental condition was probably genetic and not induced by musical virtuoso? Well, when applied universally and not only to Mozart, the disappointment arises from two corollary realizations. First, that there is no maddening truth hidden in art. Secondly, it means the abolition of the pornographic wish that someone ought to find that trueness and, preferably, to be maddened by it. By the way, don’t be astonished to find out that this type of cynicism is present wherever there is a mystical or esoteric fantasy. Its not quite the human sacrifice of our ancestors, but the same old wish to see it happen is still there, especially if one could have a disclosure of the occult in return.

In the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, a sense of confusion gripped those who knew the flamboyant, energetic, almost uncontrollable persona of the comedian. That he had such an appreciation of humour and playfulness, yet so tormented with bottomless depression. Sometimes, the hardest thing to spot is that which is staring you right in the face. I realized this half wondering about the contradiction myself and came to remember Richard Pryor and Chris Farley (who became so lonely in his last days that he paid a prostitute to hang out with him. When they began arguing about money, the lady left, with Farley right behind her, begging her to stay. That’s when he collapsed. His final words were “don’t leave me”) and many other troubled comedians. Jason Pargin wrote a brilliant article about the tragedy of humour. In a lethargic, almost aggressive manner, he reflected on how the comical often served as a masquerade for a much darker core: a ruined childhood, a mental disorder. Remember also how much of humour is self-irony. So the trauma starts living off you. Your skin colour if you’re black, your obesity if you’re fat, your foreignness, your mental instability. Pargin put it bluntly, even hauntingly, when he wrote that this was the clown feeding on the human being, and not only that, it was feeding on all the traumas and insecurities of that very being.

I saw the distinction here as well. Sylvia Plath and Mozart could all be very depressive. They articulated this in their craft. Of course, in comedy that would be a complete non-sequitur. When Mozart had an occasional go at humour in his signed letters, it was scatological. And even so, what about the lazy suggestion that humour keeps us sane? The suggestion is lazy, becomes it means nothing, though it sounds like something. Humour is the confirmation of our insanity. Try to picture the vastness of the universe, its chaos, its meaninglessness, its random disposition, its self destruction, and imagine somewhere in all this, certain ingredients of the universe has met to produce conscious mammals, who now sit round a bonfire on a hostile planet, all looking at each other bewildered, finding no other reaction to this absurdity than mere laughter. It seems disarming, though it’s perfectly insane.

The brilliant Ned Vizzini, who committed suicide, wrote about how life was being like a “reverse nightmare” and that it sometimes felt as if he was, not waking up from, but waking into a nightmare. This is painfully revealing. The utter graveness of those words hinted at a chronic twist to his suffering. Nothing is quite like the sight of an expressive mind also being incurably desolate. The most useful literature on depression or bipolar is not in psychiatry or psychology, but happens to be of Sylvia Plath, or Virginia Woolf, or Stephen Fry. Even then, such a compliment can only be pitiful at best. And so, when you need catharsis, art is apathetic. It doesn’t heal you, and even, throuh self-exploration, deepens your wounds. Its a mirror of the self. Perhaps only vaguely, or partly, but always there is a small hint of exposure. Being still magnetized to such fate might at first seem masochistic, but it is true that the manic sometimes can only think through colour, or movement, or note or prose. The true tragedy presents itself when this arousal turns into depression and one can no more see anything but through the lenses of self-pity.

And so people are right to point out that there is a triumvirate here between creativity, intoxication and mental illness, though the circle of cause and effect is much less romantic and more practical than imagined. Those who do have a mental disorder, or a proneness in that direction, are proportionally more allured by art. The implication here is of course more than disturbing. Just as much as the silly clown or the open-collared drunkard feeds of its victim, so does our culture, the viewers, the readers, the onlookers. You and me.

Written by Hanad Ali
Picture Credit: Symphony of Love

Comedy as an instrument of dissent

4.Mana-Neyestani-5

ITALIAN WRITER Umberto Eco deployed an ingenious plot device when he wrote his most famous novel, In the Name of the Rose. Several deaths become connected to the contents of Aristotle’s book on comedy, of which no real copy survives but which became the centre of controversy in the medieval context of the novel.

It became a source of criticism to the dogmas of different theologies and a topic of heated discussion, which in a way sets some people of influence in danger. To protect themselves, they seek to censor the proverbial book and its defenders. Without revealing the plot of the novel any further, it suffices to say that humour is as subversive now as this work of fiction underscores. Here are some real life examples.

The Danish cartoons of Muhammad
In 2005, the Danish newspaper published a series of comic strips about the prophet of Islam, Muhammad. Regardless of their content, which some critics have described as stereotypical and out of context, the reaction proves that a cultural representation like a cartoon is very powerful. The reaction was diverse and wide reaching. It started in the small acts of people who refused to sell and buy the newspaper on that day but also including protests locally and internationally, and lots of public discussion about the open criticism of Islam (as well as of the comics themselves).

1.Jyllands-Posten

 

The power of imagination: from prison to the world

Mana Neyestani is an Iranian artist who also pinpoints the political inclinations of the comic as a medium of communication. He has been in prison and is now an exile, where he started broadening his original topic –the Azeri minority in Iran – toward a broader commentary on oppression. This is some of his work.

2.Mana-Neyestani-1

This cartoon is about the effects of other countries’ sanctions about the Iranian nuclear program.

 

3.Mana-Neyestani-3

About the gay couples situation in the author’s country’s social scale.

 

4.Mana-Neyestani-5

Quite eloquently, the author titled this strip: “Come out, the world is beautiful”.

 

Humour also softens the criticism that, necessary as it is, it can seem to be below the belt. In any case, the repercussions of drawing a comic go beyond a simple laugh or filling a space in the paper. They propose a vision that more often than not needs to be confronted with prevailing ideas in a society. They eventually clash, as illustrated above, but they don’t need to be reduced to countries that we particularly know for being authoritarian. We found more good examples of artists using pencil and pen (or stencil and tablet) to send critical messages. Here two Americans samples of humour as instrument of dissent.

5.Lalo-Alcaraz

By Lalo Alcaraz, Hispanic American comic artist.

 

6.Lloyd-Dangle

Lloyd Dangle’s creation, politically very engaged.

 

This article was originally published in Spanish on the website Wondrus. 

 

Written and translated by Luis Eduardo Barrueto
, a Guatemalan journalist and founder of Wondrus, an Internet depository for cultural and scientific curiosities and fun facts for Spanish speakers.

Photo credits:
(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jyllands-Posten-pg3-article-in-Sept-30-2005-edition-of-KulturWeekend-entitled-Muhammeds-ansigt.png#mediaviewer/File:Jyllands-Posten-pg3-article-in-Sept-30-2005-edition-of-KulturWeekend-entitled-Muhammeds-ansigt.png
(2,3,4) http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2014/07/18-brilliant-cartoons-will-make-think-oppression-like-never/
(5,6) Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists
http://www.amazon.com/Attitude-The-Subversive-Political-Cartoonists/dp/B00DPOPDYQ

A ‘native to native’ guide to surviving Edinburgh Festival

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AUGUST IN EDINBURGH means one thing: The Festival. For most of Edinburgh’s permanent or recently adopted residents, this month long gathering of Britain’s finest humanities graduates (either in the show or, more probably, behind the bar) is a bit of a double edged rubber sword.

On the one hand, we can drink for about 20 hours of the day like Scottish people were bred to do (all the good hours too, leaving just enough respite for a nap and a fry-up between 5am and 10am). Edinburgh is full of life and sunshine and light entertainment and festivities. Almost everyone can get some sort of part time job, as long as they know how to pour things or juggle fire or cycle short distances with fat tourists strapped to their bikes.

But therein lies the problem. The fat tourists. The busy streets of pushy promoters and dawdling holidaymakers who cause your commute to anywhere to triple in length and hassle. The assumption by everyone that your home city is theirs to enjoy and abuse, like some sort of cultural Centre-Parcs. One minute, your quiet local comprises only of the friends, staff and fellow alcoholics you have chosen to spend your days with – the next, it’s some sort of makeshift jazz venue with a wine list and unexplained 50p surcharges on beer mats and toilet visits.

To help fellow natives struggling to keep emotionally afloat during this exciting but difficult month, we have very kindly come up with some hints and tips on how to not only survive, but thrive, in Edinburgh Festival.  We were going to give a comprehensive list of shortcuts, untouched drinking holes and indications of where you can find cheap ticket sales, but I feel like that might be too obvious. Lets make like a mime artist and think outside the invisible box here.

1) FEEL FREE TO BE A BIT OF A KNOB

martin robertson

Edinburgh Festival is famed for its cultural diversity. The majority of Edinburgh’s August residents are strangers to these parts so will be unsure of our usual social norms. They are also usually self-described liberals who will be far too embarrassed or principled to mention any funny traits you decide to adopt. Take this opportunity to recreate yourself for the month. Try out a new look, practice a hilarious walk or test out your impression of any accent you like for the festival’s entirety. There are enough w*nkers pretending to be something that they’re not that you’ll fit right in.  If you are Scottish,  my personal recommendation would be for you to try faking your own accent in an exaggerated, stereotyped “och-aye-the-noo” way to confuse Edinburgh locals and tourists alike. Textbook Festival Double Bluff.

#2: Get Political…

Campaigning and comedy collide for Scottish Independence

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POLITICAL APATHY CAN be attributed to many things. A lack of trust in politicians; a disillusioned, disenfranchised electorate; a breakdown between government and citizen.

That, and politics can be really fucking boring.

Regardless of the side you’re on, you have to hand it to the impending independence referendum in Scotland: the subject does spice up a normally bland dish of abstract policy, nonsensical political jargon and stressed, peaky looking politicians who (particularly in Scotland) are about as well known and relevant to the general public as the minor members of Blazin’ Squad.

That said, even the most patriotic or politicized  within the debate can’t help but stifle a wee yawn when it comes to the inane semantics of the subject at hand. As massive a decision as this is, those taking it most seriously can admit (even just to themselves) that they don’t exactly relish the thought of flicking through a 670 page ‘mission statement’ that still only covers half of the debate. They’ll do it, of course, but lets not pretend to enjoy it.

(“Oh yeah, the Referendum White Paper? I’d love to read it. Just send it to my fax” But you don’t have a fax machine Rachel, it’s 2014. “…Send it to my fax.”)

It is with this in mind that the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) organized some light comedic relief for its canvassers, for Yes voters and for those still undecided, in the fundraiser with The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh: “Stand Up for Independence”.

Attending the show last night, the question for me was: can comedy and campaigning go well together? If so, is it actually funny?

 

Chatting before the show begins, event organizer Stuart Rodger is more focused on the well being of the canvassers than the quality of the acts, or even the funds raised. He described how he hoped the show will be a bit of a ‘morale boost’ for RIC campaigners this far along on the road to September 18th. Working fiercely in spreading the message of the group through the wider population can be exhausting and often a little disheartening, and so the show was organized predominantly as a way to blow off some steam and laugh “at both sides of the debate”. Whatever the motive, he’s clearly succeeded in attracting a crowd: the room is packed out, with many squashed together at the back – standing for the night.

The lights dim and the show begins. All the acts, I’ve been informed, are pro-independence and are doing the gig for free in support of RIC. Jay Lafferty warms the already slightly rowdy audience up with light banter in preparation for the first act, Andrew Learmonth. His act doesn’t focus too heavily on the topic of independence, bar some choice gags thrown in to the delight of the very clearly politicized crowd. Eleanor Morton follows with some musical comedy, but again seems to get louder laughs when she makes political points. A pattern begins to emerge. By the time Vladimir McTavish & Keir McAllister begin their double act, which really has a primary focus on the independence referendum, and headliner  David Kay takes the stage, the theory’s cemented. The atmosphere is good, the room is responsive, but the crowd of RIC campaigners don’t take much of a night off from politics. The most political (and, lets be honest, pro-independence, naturally) gags get the loudest laughs. The evening seems to be half stand up performance, half rally.

And that’s exactly the intention of pairing comedy and campaigning, I’m told. RIC – this internationalist, left wing  team of volunteers – aims to utilise independence not as an end in and of itself, but as a means to a more progressive end. At the heart of their campaign lay ideas of equality and social justice and this is what makes comedy such an important vehicle for discussion. Central to their campaign lies the belief that existing power structures need to be challenged. That, Rodger passionately claims, is what’s so brilliant about comedy as a medium: it’s subversive. It has the ability to undermine uneven political power; something which is at the heart of what RIC aims to challenge.

More than that, comedy and creativity are something which lie at the heart of Scottish culture in a more general sense. Exploring politics this way, Rodger explains, helps engage huge segments of society (young people in particular) in a way which traditional methods of campaigning cannot. This is something that can be seen not only in the acts featured that night, but in their work as artists and activists outwith the confines of the comedy club (see the video, below): mirroring other similar movements in Scotland today, such as creative campaigners “National Collective”.

Comedy and RIC political campaigning are part and parcel of the same thing: influencing and engaging an increasingly apathetic electorate. Last night may have been about lightening the mood, but at the heart of all of this is something all involved take extremely seriously: the future of their country.

Written by Rachel Barr