Laugh out!

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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