London’s West End, lamented a newspaper report earlier this week, was these days “stuffed with musicals or comedies”. It was not a compliment. The article painted a bleak picture of the capital’s cultural life. The financial cuts suffered by theatres was forcing them to play for laughs. There was a reluctance to champion challenging and avant-garde work. Why take risks when you know that safe feel-good work – Alan Ayckbourn, Noël Coward, frolicsome Restoration drama – will pack the house?
Here was proof that there is, still, a snobbery that distinguishes the noble purpose of serious art from the cash-milking romps of light entertainment. It infuriates those who spend lifetimes wanting little more – little! – than to make people feel shiny and happy for a snatched hour or two in the evening. The condescension runs deep.
When I once suggested to Cameron Mackintosh, the most successful theatrical impresario of all time, that people still didn’t take musicals all that seriously, I thought he was going to take off through the restaurant’s roof. Instead, he told me tersely that there was only good theatre and bad theatre, and whether we laughed, cried or sang along with it made no difference whatsoever to its merits.
I think he is right. There are a number of objections to being patronising about comedy. The first is that, however serious our predicament, the ability to laugh, in most cases, helps to lighten the load and reveal broader truths. Nowhere was this more engagingly explored than in Preston Sturges’s whip-smart 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels. Its hero is a film-maker desperate to make a socially relevant drama for which he has even devised a portentous title: O Brother Where Art Thou? In the course of his research, he ends up in prison and sits in on a screening of a Walt Disney cartoon. The audience is in hysterics. And he learns to appreciate the power of laughter. It can do more good than his stolid drama.
Trite and dated? Perhaps. But the narrative device was repeated nearly half a century later – almost certainly an act of homage – in Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters, when Allen’s character is only jolted from existential despair by a chance viewing of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, and more hysterics. Life is too absurdly capricious to confront with high seriousness, was the message here. Appealing to humour is an honourable way of assessing the human condition. We don’t need leaden dramas to get the bleakness of life. We can take it as read, and then make the most of a bad job.
But humour does not just consist of LOL escapism. It is a tool with which to make sense of the world, and one that has more relevance than ever today. The contemporary world is one of fragmented values, jolting dislocation and head-spinning velocity. Surreal juxtapositions and playful paradox are its common currency. Layer upon layer of pastiche, irony and deferred meaning nestle atop one another. The moral and religious homilies of the past struggle to keep up.
But humour enables us to stay engaged. In David Shrigley’s new show at the Hayward Gallery, Brain Activity , a contemporary artist makes explicit his debt to the comic mode. A stuffed Jack Russell terrier holds up a sign proclaiming “I’m Dead”. A couple of crude stick figures have sex on a car hood. A granite gravestone is inscribed with a shopping list. Shrigley’s themes are the big ones: death, loss, relationships. But it is the wry chuckle that he is interested in eliciting from the spectator, not the stirring of the soul.
It is hard to imagine today’s contemporary art without this reliance on humour. Walk around any art fair and at least half of the works are conceived with the knowing smile of the visitor in mind. Apart from some large-scale installations, art has given up on its potential for transcendence. Its aims are more modest, its effects less life-changing. It is fleeting, lacking in depth, and designed to please. Indeed there is no conceivable reason not to label it light entertainment. The cutting-edge show in Shoreditch has more in common with the West End than it cares to imagine. The Turner Prize is the poor person’s Bafta for situation comedy.
My most memorable moment in the theatre involved comedy. Some 20 years ago, I watched a play by Aristophanes in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus on the Greek Peloponnese. The knock-about antics went down well, as did the jokes satirising the pomposity of philosophers. But then came a broadside from one of the characters on politics – on how corrupt it had become, and how ordinary citizens ended up paying for the moral turpitude of their governing classes.
Even before the speech had ended, there was a loud “Yes!” from the back of the theatre. And then a couple of cries of “Bravo!” And then the whole theatre started applauding. It had been softened up. And that moment of searing truth, travelling 2,500 years, hit home with a clarity that it would never have achieved in the earnest context of serious drama.
Poor Greece needs Aristophanes more urgently than ever now. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
‘David Shrigley: Brain Activity’, Hayward Gallery, until May 13,www.southbankcentre.co.uk
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden