Sunday, January 30, 2011

Disgusting Bliss: Iannucci's Comedy Insight

I've been reading Disgusting Bliss, a biography of Chris Morris. Morris (subject of previous blog posts here and here) began his collaboration with Armando Iannucci on the surreal current affairs news-parody On The Hour, a radio show which ran from '91-'92. While Morris was the team's most significant and unpredictable creative spark, it was Iannucci who understood and was able to convey the shape of the show and its cutting edge humor:
'[Iannucci] said, "Look, there's a way of performing comedy where the jokes are very much told and [instead] I want you to bury the humour. I want you to do funny voices but I don't want them to be too funny. I want you to improvise funny things but don't be looking for the humour, just trust that it will come."
On The Hour won the British Comedy Award for best radio comedy. Iannucci would go on to produce & write for the multi-award winning TV programs The Day Today and The Thick of It, and the Oscar-nominated film In The Loop.

Iannucci's angle on comedy resonates with the idea of not putting out extra, unnecessary effort for humor's sake- Do less, as Johnstone might say. I believe this angle also sparked the loyalty and passion that fans of these programs have. By not advertising the fact that they were "DOING HUMOR", the programs trusted that those watching would make the necessary cognitive leap to understand that the off-kilter world created was an intentional one.

It also seems - to me - that when something humorous asks more of the person who is processing it (for example, a punchline with two twists in it instead of one), -assuming it is not asking too much of the individual- the additional processing done makes the moment that things 'click' even more enjoyable. They've internalized and taken some ownership over the bit, by way of having to mentally chew it over, rather than being spoon-fed something predictable. Not that the 'predictable' = 'bad,' but that earned complexity can heighten a moment.


  1. You hit the nail on the head. Letting the audience earn the punchline heightens their experience. But not all people get the joke at the same time if all. What then?

    Sometimes I don't even get the joke but it seems funny or absurd, like On the Hour, and I laugh. Is this part of the plan too?

  2. Thanks, Lucas. Part of On the Hour's (and The Day Today's) humor is its absurdity delivered with a straight face - nothing underlying.

    As far as some not getting the joke - I guess this depends on how many different types of humor the creator of the material wants to put in. Something like The Simpsons engages at several different levels, so that a young viewer will enjoy it at his own level while an older one has the chance for it to resonate on even more levels (pop culture references, subtle wordplay, double entendres etc.)