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“Most of my jokes about myself are at the genuine expense of myself”, says comedian Mark Watson in a podcast. It shocked me a bit. As a great advocate of self-mockery, I was confused for a moment. Self-mockery is a good thing, right? Or not?
When I meet new people, there is nothing that relieves me more than when this person turns out to be self-deprecating. Kindness and empathy and genuine interest and other classics are important, but self-mockery makes all the difference. It suggests a sense of humour – crucial – and indicates that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Above all, it makes up for a lot of flaws. Self-mockery is my favourite characteristic in other people.
I also like it in comedy. It opens topics up for discussion, enables recognition and consolation, and even more so than for people off stage, it is nice to know that someone is not only attacking others. Punching down works as a turn-off quite quickly anyway (for the people in the back: that is making jokes at the expense of people with a ‘lower’ standing than yourself). Punching up is more interesting, but can also become boring or (god forbid) too politically correct. Punching your own face is the ultimate solution.
It’s great to look at people laughing at themselves. Think of the Delirium and Delirium II shows by the Dutch comedian Javier Guzman, in which he talks about his alcohol and cocaine addiction and is not trying to save face. Or if you look at people that play with stereotypes and prejudice, such as Najib Amhali: ‘As a Maroccan, I like to visit people at home’. And of course, the underdog. The pathetic schmo, the shoo-in loser, but then heartedly laughing about that. I immediately have to think of Nish Kumar in Taskmaster, who is miserably failing all over the place, but is laughing loudest of all.
The problem with self-mockery
So far so good. Hurray for self-mockery. Usually, I stop thinking here and watch that Taskmaster clip yet another time. But what if self mockery is actually at the expense of yourself? In the above mentioned podcast, Watson explains that he sometimes makes a joke that confirms the things he hates about himself. That actually hurts him. Those kinds of jokes work well, he says, and it is a safe way to be ahead of other people’s critique. But is that still self-mockery? Or is it more self-hatred?
That is also the question that Hannah Gadsby is posing in her legendary show Nanette. In a confronting monologue, she talks about how for a long time she thought that she had to be self-deprecating, but that she’s grown sick of always making jokes that are at the expense of herself. That she doesn’t want to joke about (among other things) her being gay, as that self-mockery is essentially nothing else than self-hatred. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation.” Self-mockery is often pleasant because it relativizes stuff, but some things shouldn’t be relativized.
That self-mockery isn’t as innocent for the creator, made me think about my role as an audience. Why do I laugh at such jokes? Is it recognizable, so that it makes me feel connected or perhaps even consoled? Or is it like slapstick, laughing about someone else’s misery? Apparently, it can be both at the same time. It depends on how an audience is interpreting it and what’s behind the joke for the creator. It’s a complex balance between laughing at and laughing with, laughing about and laughing despite.
Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999
James Acaster is beautifully playing with that complex balance in his last show, Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999. Other than in his previous Netflix special Repertoire, he is not playing an undercover police officer or a lollipop man. He is himself and is talking openly about his actual life and mental health. It is a comedy show – I might have laughed harder than at Repertoire – but due to the personal layer, the jokes have another meaning, making the balance more precise.
Sometimes, Acaster is explicitly focussing on that. There is a moment when the audience laughs hard (too hard) about something that is indeed very funny, but considering the context isn’t too funny after all. “I told you all the context, all the details, and you applauded […]. What the fuck is the matter with you?”
At the same time, Acaster is reassuring the audience that, although serious matters would be treated, they shouldn’t worry. “The fact that I’m telling you, lets you know it’s fine now. Because – and don’t take this badly -, you lot are never gonna be the first people I come to.” In other words, you can assume it’s ok to laugh as an audience. You’d be ruining your own evening if you are constantly judging whether you are allowed to laugh or not.
So, it is not the audience’s responsibility, but the creator’s. In a podcast, Acaster tells how he’s aware that his self-mockery on weighty subjects is not only concerning him, but also people that find themselves in similar situations. Also when it is ok for him, he doesn’t want to merely laugh at misery, but wants to offer perspective as well. People watching the show (and I’m urging you – almost coercively – to do so) will see that the story and jokes are incredibly meticulously crafted.
I still find self-mockery important and irresistible. Yet I believe that caution is in order. It’s a good thing to consider that self-mockery can work differently and isn’t automatically good. It can be harmful, both for the creator, such as Hannah Gadsby and Mark Watson showed me, and possibly for the audience too, as James Acaster touched upon. It is never something you can impose on others. On the other hand, if self-mockery is carried out well, no harm is done.
Look at the example of Nish Kumar in Taskmaster. When he repeatedly fails to kick a ball through a basketball hoop, he angrily calls the ball a ‘racist’, clearly hinting at his very outspoken political comedy, in which racism is often a theme. To me, it doesn’t seem he’s undermining his anti-racist standpoints with this joke. Perhaps it’s even the opposite. Also, you can feel bad for Acaster getting dumped by his girlfriend, but that she left him for Mr. Bean is, no matter how you look at it, incredibly funny.
Translation by my belovedest brother Wouter, who would have known that ‘belovedest’ is not a word.