Recently in my capacity as a Comedy Person I was in a meeting discussing The Arts. It became clear as the meeting wore on that one person present whose expertise lay elsewhere in The Arts, did not count comedy among them.
They are not alone, in spite of having its own Muse (Thalia, who divides her time between comedy and idyllic poetry), plenty of people don’t include comedy in The Arts.
Having questioned comedians on Twitter and Facebook (sing to me, oh Muse of Research via Social Media) it appears there are some who believe comedy is an art, while others consider it a craft and some who don’t know but like to make their voice heard all the same. I am not on a mission to have comedy defined as one or the other, in fact it seems there are as many advantages as there are pitfalls for having such a muddy definition.
If you’re wavering on quality control and wondering how [insert favourite comedian here]’s performance in a concert hall can possibly compare to an open mic comic at a pub gig when it comes to defining comedy as an Art, then consider comedian James O’Donoghue’s take: “[comedy] is an art form, but there can be as big a difference as a Rembrandt and someone’s watercolours, but both are valid and can be beautiful.”
Beauty aside, performing comedy is expensive. There’s travel and possibly accommodation costs, if you have props then those have to be paid for if they can’t be sourced from home Blue Peter style, publicity photos, poster design and then the big one… festivals.
Ah festivals, to do them or not do them. They could be the key to getting into an agency’s books or 1000s of pounds worth of debt. I don’t even want to talk about what’s behind door number three. Curiously, although comedy forms a huge part of many Festival Fringes, it’s hard to find any bursaries specifically for comedy.
The result being that Fringes are seen as the stomping ground of more affluent comedians or requiring creative crowd-funding if not a second job. Were comedy classed among The Arts then there might be more bursaries that concerned themselves with jokes rather than requiring acts under 26 discuss their PTSD in front of a panel.
Perhaps this contributes to comedian Maddie Campion’s impression that: “there’s a LOT of class snobbery in stand up and its working-class roots – equally people have a varied regard for fringe shows v club level and there seems to be a bizarre thing in the British circuit where acts use ‘club comedian’ as a derogatory remark.”
So would comedy being seen as an Art fuel or hinder this snobbery? Writer and comedian James Harris has concerns: “Somehow I feel that might reduce one of its great strengths, the low barriers to entry.” Contrasting with comedian Mark Grimshaw’s thoughts: “Comedy is definitely recognised as and treated like an art, by which I mean the way the industry functions makes it almost completely inaccessible to working-class people.”
Does comedy even want to be seen as one of The Arts, a huge aspect of comedy is irreverence, an irreverence which is afforded precisely because of its outsider status. Were comedy to officially be embraced as part of The Arts would the drawbridges be, well, drawn up for some entry-level ‘artists’? Or maybe if we in comedy are asking people to recognise our work as an Art we should review how we see The Arts too? As a comedian, writer and performance artist 2017 Funny Women Awards finalist, Amy Mason is able to see both sides: “During Edinburgh Fringe I see loads of my comic friends NOT going to see more arty performance stuff that’s exciting and hilarious and inspiring and loads of theatre people not seeing comedy when they’d have a fucking hoot.”
Is art about risk-taking, community building or honing a talent? Does comedy tick the Art boxes? And if it’s not art, what is it? Whether you place comedy in The Arts, craft or don’t know box, I think we can all agree it is a skill that deserves recognition and ought to be valued wherever it is found.