Sunday, 28 April 2013

Self-Deprecation and the Surrealist Ideas of Claudia O'Doherty

Last week on Woman’s Hour, Hadley Freeman discussed what she refers to as ‘deprecating tourettes’: a tendency to point out one’s own shortcomings over and over again, as if some kind of compulsion. According to Freeman, this is a quality particular to women and is indicative of an apologetic stance in the world.

While the radio show debated women more generally, we may ask: in the sphere of comedy, what is the role of self-deprecation?

For this is of course a well-rehearsed comedic device used by both male and female stand-ups. Yet, when trying to list comedians who commonly feature self-deprecation, women by far outweigh the men. A self-deprecating Ricky Gervais? Or Stewart Lee? Or Louis CK? Doesn’t seem likely. Whereas to think of a supremely confident female comedian is considerably more difficult.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen a female stand-up belittle their own success by pointing out their (supposed) failures as an unhappy singleton who still lives at home. In a sense, it’s a clever, or at least a natural, thing to do – endearing yourself to the audience by showing your human, flawed side. Indeed, self-deprecation is often celebrated as a form of wry wit, a particularly British quality one should be proud of.

Yet, the problem lies when a female comedian feels that they must behave in this way. Self-deprecation becomes a compulsory act that stifles and limits comedy performances. This is why Claudia O’Doherty is so refreshing. An Australian stand-up with a somewhat oddball, left-of-field persona, O’Doherty has recently appeared at London Kings Cross’ Invisible Dot with her variety show featuring various performers.  She is, however, most well-known in the UK for ‘The Telescope’. The posters for this surrealist performance came with the warning, ‘this show will not be funny’. Indeed, the premise was that O’Doherty had been commissioned to do a piece, yet a loophole in her contract meant that no jokes must be made.

Described as ‘difficult theatre’, this act took the notion of an unlikely and ill-equipped performer and turned this into an absurdist parody. The play blended a range of surrealist characters, all coming from different historical times, and formed some kind of bizarre murder-mystery. Rather than appeasing the audience with self-deprecation, O’Doherty sought to unsettle the stand-up genre. Part of the way in, she feigns the performance going off-the-rails, leaving her left stood looking startled in front of a bemused audience.

In turn, O’Doherty plays with the idea of the performer as a flawed and precarious creator of comedy, expanding the limits of what might be termed ‘self-deprecation’. As ever, diversity and imagination is what keeps comedy exciting and I believe O’Doherty has this in spades.     

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Challenges of the Trans Award

The Trans Award has recently joined up with the BBC Writers Room to launch a script writing competition - calling for positive and affirming portrayals of transgender characters in mainstream comedy. While the desire to change the ways the media represents transgender issues is cause for celebration, the competition’s premise does pose a certain kind of challenge for a comedy writer. 

What does it mean to portray someone in a positive light? That they are happy and accepted by their society? Or, that they avoid tired stereotypes and, instead, come across as a fresh, original character who people can relate to?

The latter seems like a favourable option. Whereas the former notion of trying to prescribe specific kinds of characters sets off alarms bells for a few different reasons:

Happy characters:
A comedy writer will often be hesitant to make any character too happy or well adjusted. Generally, comedy comes out of placing characters in difficult or even desperate situations, humiliating them, confirming their worst fears and generally putting them through the mill. This is how the audience gets to know them, and learns where their boundaries lie. Likewise, the idea that this character should be accepted by the people around them flouts key comedy rules – storylines and tension is created through conflict and a perpetual lack of harmony.

The debate over transgender issues tends to provoke comments on taste and offensiveness, functioning as parameters of what is deemed worthy discussion. But, as Picasso once famously said, taste is the enemy of creativity. Taste has no place in comedy; rather, comedy is perhaps best and most fruitfully used when exploring ideas that are subversive or unpopular. Writers should, therefore, not shy away from representations on the grounds that the majority may not be pleased by these. In the world of comedy, each person should be presented through the comedic gaze – subject to scrutiny and laughter.

What can often be pleasurable in comedy or any form of art is its ability to reflect the nature and details of everyday life. We should portray not only the positive aspects of the transgender experience but also the inevitable challenges faced. To ignore this would be frustrating for an audience, and ultimately an unsatisfying representation of the complexities of this subject. 

To this end, I hope the winning script is one which tackles transgender issues with courage and conviction. I hope it is one that does not avoid difficult subjects but confronts them head-on to create fresh and original comedy.