Explorations in Radio Documentary and Humour
Quotes from a presentation delivered at MARKET PLACE OF IDEAS / PRIX EUROPE BERLIN / 1997
…There isn’t much more to say about the tyranny of infantility we are facing today in the media; about the „vulgarity, stupidity of private programmes“, plainly playing for laughs; treating grown ups like children — worse: like childish grown ups.
Radio documentaries are different. They are dry, dull and deadly serious, desperately lacking of humour. Programme slots, reserved for blood, sweat and tears. In our repertory humour is a rare species, shy, hidden. You must be a good and patient hunter to catch it. If we talk about private and public programmes it’s the choice between the ridiculous and the grim.
Human beings feel an urgent need, a desire for „laughing out“ once in a while. If they would prefer a novemberish, freezy , grumpy … a really bad mood, you can be sure: MTV would offer to us a programme of extreme dullness. Those who take the needs and desires of media-customers seriously (or who are able to create those desires — what in our world of mass-media is about the same) — those are the winners in the popularity rating game. And the public will listen to them more likely than to those who don’t care.
Famous authors have shown us over and over again, that dealing with a „big“, world-shattering topic doesn’t mean to forget about the amusing side of it. To say it with a laugh… And you can laugh almost about everything. I’m just thinking of George Tabori, the great contemporary writer and theatre man, who often looks upon the Jewish tragedy with harsh sarcasm or warm melancholic humour. I’m also thinking of funeral meals I attended. I remember the wake for a neighbour, whose first name had been John. Not even an hour had gone by, since they had lowered him down into his grave. In came the landlord, calling out: „John ‘s on the phone — he says: the first round is on him !“
What is laughter good for in a radio documentary ? You may say: leave it to the comedians, the sit-coms. Our task is to inform, to document. A common misunderstanding !
Documentarists are no book-keepers of current affairs. We are authors, publicists, journalists — our job is a very personal one, it deserves as much passion as accuracy. We talk to people — we are dealing with an audience. book-keepers may stay isolated in their offices, their archives. Who is full of stage fright should not work in the documentary sector !
The author, shaping and polishing his programme in the silence of his study (or studio) must be aware, that he’s working for listeners — not just for himself. As a radio-worker he rarely has the chance to see his audience and tends to talk to his own reflection in the mirror. And there is seldom much to laugh about.
If people burst out with laughter listening to a documentary, the radio-documentarist may take it as evidence that he reached their ears „Er fand ein offenes Ohr“. In military terms: he hit the target — „die Pointe hat gesessen !“ I like to play back my own programmes in front of an audience, watching carefully, if people „laugh out“ — where, how often and so on. Does it work ?
Comic-effects, punch-lines, points (Pointen) are intellectual tools. Compressed ideas with a detonator, a fuse at one end. Sharpened, to pierce the lethargy of listeners; to penetrate their hearts and minds; stimulate intellectual and emotional G-spots. Alternatively you may call it a type of acupuncture. A good author doesn’t use them for their own sake. He’s not interested in just being brilliant, entertaining, the funny guy. Needless to say: If your needles are blunt, they will not penetrate the skin of your patients …
Comic effects — as every clown and comedian will confirm — are the result of 10 % talent and 90 % craftsmanship, intelligence, hard work.
As we know from psychoanalysis, laughter causes a sort of catharsis; it „shakes“ the listener physically. We say: We are shaken by emotions. That means: Something is happening with us. Something helps us to overcome the status of just passive listening. Laughter is an echo of our instincts, our physical urges, of our animal past. In our daily lives, body and mind exist in separate domains. And: „everything at it’s time !“ Like our parents used to organize it: personal hygiene (the bath tub) on Friday, Sex on Saturday, Football on Sundays. The darker parts of ourselves are kept away from the bright spheres of intellect.
To laugh is a motor(ic) experience. Thinking becomes physical. Mind turns into body. Laughter aims to the outer world, it happens from inside to outside. We cannot keep it, it slips out of control; breaks out, erupts, explodes. It’s pure anarchy.
A smile always asks for balance, settling a conflict, reconciliation. Laughter is rebellion, revolt. Laughter unveils a situations. A smile tends to cover it up. To smile means to sublimate; laughter works like a laxative or — if you like it more decent — it works like a valve, an outlet for a lot of things: shock, frustration, malicious joy, hatred. During the outburst of laughter we are relieved for a couple of seconds; without responsibility. In a way it’s like an orgasm but also: it’s a very short, punctual state of innocence, childhood. The overflowing working store of our personal computer is erased straight away. We are emptied. We are prepared to listen again, to receive. And a great, a just wonderful lucidity comes upon us — if the joke was good.
In parentheses: If funny effects are not calculated well, if they are overdone or misplaced, you may endanger your documentary as such. You will spoil the whole construction; break the chain of arguments. The listener, who permanently roars of laughter will be deaf for the thoughtful side of the show. Laughter should reduce an emotional and intellectual overload, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for emotions and ideas. The ability to stirr up emotions and cool down them as well belongs to the dramaturgical techniques we can learn from all skilled dramatists since Shakespeare.
Let’s summarize: amongst all the bits and bites of modern communication laughter is an everlasting human element — so complex, that it can’t be digitalized — except for it’s sound. Laughter always is a live-performance. Unplugged. Being documentarists, we never go for laughter for it’s own sake. Humour — like feature-making on a whole, as Peter Leonhard Braun used to say to his Berlin colleagues — is not a catalogue of tricks, it’s an attitude — towards life, towards our job, towards our subject. It’s a sign of sovereignty, of critical distance — which is one oft the virtues of the documentarist, too. Otherwise we would work in another part of town — in the quarter between Fools Lane and Idiots Square.
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