Friday, 22 March 2013

Pyror Still Burns Bright: Comedy and Transgression

The link between comedy and politics is a celebrated one, the entertainment form being strongly associated with troublemakers and transgressive art. It is not difficult to see why this might be the case. Comedy can depend on a few things to generate laughs, most notably a sense of incongruity or a of transgressing boundaries of taste or delving into taboos. In addition to this, comedians take advantage of the fact that society has a considerably increased tolerance for transgression of social norms that occur in the form of a joke, much exploration of unacceptable taboos like sexism, racism, etc. are acceptable because of this. Comedians also tend to be observers, the basis of much comedy after all is based on astute observation, leading to a set of conditions which allow transgressive comedy to genuinely explore social issues as well as shock, amuse and offend audiences.

However I'm convinced that many comedians take advantage of this to pump out material that is either lazy and uninspired, leaning on our assumption that bold transgression and taboo-breaking must have artistic value, as a cheap trick to stir up controversy and free publicity or as a chance to air thinly veiled racist/sexist/etc views that have very little in the way of subversive or artistic merit.

There is one, shining, example of this type of transgressive comedy done right who has undoubtedly done much to subvert views, challenge society and make it damn funny at the same time, Richard Pyror. While I'm not going to dare suggest that Pyror did not enjoy success, he had both commercial acclaim, critical appreciation and even a string of lucrative if very uneven Hollywood movies, it is always worth reiterating just what made him so beloved as well as commercially successful. Plenty of Pyror's early contemporaries enjoyed mainstream success but none are held in such esteem today and only Pyror's voice can be heard echoed so strongly today in the routines of so many comedians still.

If you've never had the pleasure of watching Pyror properly before, then there are a few clips of his most famous routines below. I decided against including any of his routines or jokes in text form at all because the essence of Pyror, his voice, mannerisms, facial expressions, etc. don't just elevate his material, they are essential to it.

Why was Pyror so successful in melding comedy, politics, race and society in such a potent fashion? There have been rivers of ink spent in analysing his craft, his racial and political environment, his drug-usage and it's effect, his legacy and so much more. I have no intention of trying to add to that, except for highlighting one observation which I feel is fundamental to understanding his lasting appeal and of real value to those comedians today who are emulating his work in pushing boundaries.

Bill Cosby reportedly said that Richard Pyror "...drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as one could possibly paint it." I would go further and argue that he obliterated it. The famous quote by Horace Walpole that states that the world is a comedy to the one who thinks and a tragedy to the one who feels, could not be possibly more apt as when applied to Pyror's art and craft. The overriding impression one gets is of a man who both thinks and feels in the terms of the Walpole quotation. The cliched phrase that all comedy comes from a place of sadness is not a hidden aspect of Pyror's act, rather is front and centre.

In some cases, this conflation between thinking and sadness was the entire routine, as the famous yet sadly unrecorded set where Pyror repeated the word 'nigger' in a series of different inflections and tones, with no other commentary or routines performed, an extremely potent exploration of the word with only his own verbal and emotional expressiveness at hand. In other routines it was ever-present in his wonderful voice and facial expressions, capable of expressing both comical confusion and profound sadness simultaneously. Although Pyror possessed and frequently demonstrated a quick wit, it was his trademark thin, reedy confusion at a hostile world and the barely sublimated anger that drove his racial material that was the basis of his appeal as opposed to slick self-confidence and clever word-play.

This combination of sadness, confusion at the world and raw anger pushes his transgressive material far beyond any impression of a comic engaging in cheap tricks to benefit from controversy, helped by the fact that Pyror was well on the way to success as a racially-neutered middlebrow comedian before his famous breakdown and reinvention of his act.

While there is, by definition, a separation between a comedian's stage persona and his private self, Pyror rooted his routines so firmly in his experiences and then was able to bring such self-awareness and honestly that it genuinely transcended the social mileiu of its construction. His emotional rawness did not soften or tone down the transgressive of his material but elevated it beyond mere shock-value and brought forth the emotional truth of his experiences. This is a point which has been missing from a great many popular comedians who seem to present their 'shock' material as if it has value in its sheer extremism and novelty rather than a means to get a deeper truth.

For all these reasons Pyror should serve as a model of how to do transgressive comedy right, regardless of whether the material is social, political or personal. For better or worse, modern comedy has progressed far beyond the non-offensive 'middlebrow' of Pyror's early years and, Michael MacIntyre notwithstanding, mainstream culture has embraced transgressive and 'shock-jock' comedians. When the fringe becomes accepted into popular culture, the urge naturally is to push further and further to stand out. The lesson that we should take away from Richard Pyror is not his the relative 'edginess' of his material compared to his contemporaries, but the way he used that edge and transgression to illuminate his emotional truths and, as Bill Cosby said, blur the thin line between comedy and tragedy.


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