Why is humour so rarely treated as high art?

Alexi Duggins
·3-min read

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all

Firstly, what counts as high culture? The snowglobe-based tragedy of Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” moment? The George Orwell book that gave Big Brother its title? The lovely ceiling that Michelangelo knocked up for the Sistine Chapel?

Related: The Guide: Staying In – sign up for our home entertainment tips

The answer: yes. They are all masterpieces that allow their artform to soar to previously unimagined heights. Much like Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Or Arrested Development. Or the works of Terry Pratchett. Yet, like many similarly brilliant comic creations, those latter works fail to be breathlessly discussed as the apotheosis of high culture. Awards ceremonies are not kind to comedy: of the past 40 years of best picture winners at the Oscars, only six arguably comic films have triumphed. Tragedy-filled Booker prize shortlists have turned it into a curious literary form of rubbernecking. In July, panicky comedians had to form a Live Comedy Association ahead of a national arts bailout, seemingly worried the Arts Council might forget that comedy is an artform.

But why? Writing good comedy is just as valid an artistic achievement as penning more “serious” fare. Even more so, in fact: crafting laughs is the most high-stakes form of creation. It is intrinsically difficult, as “funny” varies from person to person in a way that “sad” or “romantic” just doesn’t. Plus, it is a medium that demands success, because a failed gag is excruciating, like OK-ish results in other artforms never will be. Comic writing is the hardest form of writing, which is a strange thing to consider, given how often the laser-guided wordplay of PG Wodehouse fails to appear on “best novels” lists.

Is it because there is something frivolous about an artform that exists to make people smile? Shouldn’t be. Comedy is a necessity; part of the human experience. Even in the soul-chilling battlefields of the first world war, soldiers told jokes. Gallows victims went to their deaths with quips for final words. So ever-present is the desire to generate laughs that it is tempting to say the truly lightweight cultural works are those that lack funnies. If a film, novel or TV series features a world where no one makes jokes, it is ludicrous. It is as believable as Arthur Fonzarelli on waterskis; as credible as Indiana Jones nipping into a fridge to weather a nuclear blast.

And surely it can’t be due to comedy’s lack of impact on wider society? It is hard to think of anything that has broken down social attitudes around disability in recent years as The Last Leg or the work of Rosie Jones. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette uses comedy in a radically innovative way to address sexual abuse. And comedy’s ability to affect politics is so longstanding that the original Spitting Image was credited with destroying the political career of the leader of the Liberals David Steel. Remember him? Exactly.

Essentially, there is no good reason for comedy’s inexplicable historic lack of recognition as high culture. Fortunately, there may be a solution. If ever there was a time that finding something to chuckle about was a truly Herculean task, it’s right now. No matter how comedy has been considered in the past, surely we can all agree that, in 2020, the absolute pinnacle of cultural achievement would be making the world laugh? Thought so. Problem solved.