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. 

© Alle Rech­te beim Verfasser