Something that appears to separate humans from other species is our unquenchable thirst for pleasure and laughter. Stephen Hawking said that, “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”. It would be fascinating to know when on the evolutionary timeline animals first started to find things funny, and why.
Unlike the comparatively niche audiences of text, exhibitions and art, the curator of research is interested in exploring tools and outputs which have universal appeal and borderless reach – and comedy ticks both those boxes. We all like to laugh.
“Pain is knowledge rushing in to fill a gap” – Jerry Seinfeld
Comedy has a lot in common with art. It reacts to an observation, experience or emotional resonance, expressing it through a chosen medium to an audience. When a painter sees something profound they make a painting of it, a sculptor makes a sculpture, a photographer takes a photograph, a comedian builds a joke around it. The effect a well-written and well-delivered joke can have on someone can be compared to that of good art or knowledge transfer. It is such a good delivery system for information because it can cover hard topics and give pleasure at the same time. It is almost literally the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Delightful.
A pleasure-seeking people are also a forgetful people. Comedy’s other form of genius is to make us remember things long after we hear them. In this respect comedians are a bit like blacksmiths – shaping something, then burning it in to place on our brains like a brand.
We might say comedy has undergone an educational (or even journalistic) turn in the past two decades driven by American TV shows (The Daily Show, 1996-, Last Week Tonight, 2014- and Patriot Act, 2018-) satirising the news with some journalistic rigor of their own. The most watched TED talk of all time is Sir Ken Robinson (TED, 2006) talking about education systems with no visual aids. It feels like a series of anecdotes in a stand-up comedy routine. John Leguizamo (Netflix, 2018) takes the idea of the comedy lecture one step further with elements of theatre and performance beamed straight in to our living rooms.
Last Week Tonight (2014-) HBO [TV series] USA: CBS
Patriot Act (2018) Netflix [TV series] USA: Netflix
TED (2006) Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity? Available at: ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity
The Daily Show (1996-) Comedy Central [TV series] USA: Comedy Central