15 Dec, 10 | by Iain Brassington
Guy Francis has a website and a YouTube channel. Some of the stuff on his YouTube channel is him singing along to pop songs. What’s noteworthy is that Francis also has quite severe Tourette’s syndrome. This makes his karaoke somewhat unique. (For a sample, take a look at this. It’s almost certainly Not Safe for Work.)
Now, Francis’ attitude to his Tourette’s is pretty plain: you don’t name your website touretteskaraoke.com if you think that there’s no levity to be had from it. From the short communication I’ve had with him, he seems to see his situation as simply being at one point in a big picture of general human oddness – which I think is absolutely right. (“My point is no one escapes, everyone is ‘comedy gold’ within their group. It’s not cruelty, it’s life.” Damn straight.)
But there’s something slightly disconcerting about watching the vids.While it isn’t posted for comedic purposes,the karaoke does elicit laughter; but it’s slightly nervous laughter, and I’m not sure whether I ought to feel guilty about it.
The worry is something like this: that it’s one thing to laugh with someone, and quite another to laugh at them; but it’s sometimes hard to keep the two apart. This is for three reasons. One is that there may not be a sustainable distinction to be drawn between a person and the features of the life they live – this is the kind of point that gets made sometimes in the disability debate, when people argue that a “cure” for something doesn’t get rid of the condition in question, so much as it gets rid of the person with it. This leads to the second reason: we may think that we’re laughing with and about a given situation, but actually end up laughing at the person in that situation. So, even if there is a sustainable distinction to be drawn between an agent and their characteristics, the boundary between the two may be permeable, and we may stray over it, albeit unwittingly. And the third is that, even if we’re convinced we’re laughing with someone, we might have made a mistake about our own attitudes and actually be laughing at them. So there is a risk that my reaction – and maybe yours – is the sort of thing that a virtuous person ought to try to reign in, alongside all the other vicious impulses that we reign in as a matter of course every day. Laughing at people is probably wrong; if there’s a chance that that’s what we’re doing, we probably ought to try not to.
Now, Francis says that he’s not putting his vids out there for the purposes of raising a laugh – but the nervousness remains, perhaps just because he’s not inviting any particular reaction. I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond: laughing at him is obviously right out; at the other extreme, so is pity; but nothing is obviously right in. Maybe the laughter stems not from the vid as from my own discomfort.
But let’s modify things a little bit. There has been quite a history of people being willing to have some characteristic of theirs sent up – of inviting others to laugh at that characteristic. Sometimes it’s quite cosy stuff (think Ronnie Corbett and height jokes) but sometimes it’s more spiky – think, for example, about Francesca Martinez‘ jokes about her cerebral palsy/ “wobbliness”. (For reference, she was the disabled person mistaken for a drunk in the Kate Winslet episode of Extras.)
OK – so here’s the problem: it’s possible that someone, by telling jokes about a given condition, or by publicising some of its absurdities, is in some way inviting us to laugh at that condition. Does that make it OK for us to do so? I’m not sure that it does – which doesn’t mean that it’s not OK: just that the permissibility doesn’t follow as a matter of logic from the invitation.
For example – suppose I went to see Martinez’ standup show and the mood took me to heckle. That’s par for the course in standup; but there’re some kinds of heckle that are “allowed”, and others that aren’t. It might well be that a wobbliness-based heckle would fall on the wrong side of the line, even if it came in the context of a routine about that wobbliness. Why? Just because the audience member and the performer don’t have the right kind of relationship. Having said that, if I knew Martinez personally, I might be able to say essentially the same thing in a social situation without crossing the line, because the context and the social rules that apply are different.
So that establishes that, even if a person puts their characteristic C into the public domain, it doesn’t follow that it’s OK for the public to make whatever use of that characteristic C it will. Or, put another way, the invitation to laugh has to be interpreted in quite a narrow way.
All of which brings me back to Guy Francis and what is perhaps the biggest success of his website and videos. What’s interesting, and perhaps valuable about them, is not that they’re immensely sophisticated comic statements, but that they force me, as a watcher (a watcher with THIS much able-bodied-middle-class guilt, too), really to think about my reaction. My id says, “ROFL”; my superego says, “Don’t even think about it,” and I’m left in the middle unsure of how to respond. I don’t think that there’s anything necessarily wrong about laughing; but there could be something wrong about this laughter. It’s a worry; it’s something that demands at least some thought: why does C (spontaneous swearing, say) elicit laughter? In Martinez’ case, why do jokes about C – wobbliness – elicit laughter if C itself doesn’t? Is it OK for there to be laughter at all? Is publicity an invitation? Is it OK to accept the invitation? And thinking about the discomfort that all this generates throws light on the ways we can think “professionally” about certain things.
I might never have thought about these things had I not seen something like Francis’ videos; and yet the questions are interesting and – especially if we take laughter to stand for social reactions more generally – potentially quite important. Imagine you’re riding a bike, and suddenly someone asks you to describe what you’re doing right now. It’d knock you off balance; you probably couldn’t say. The same applies here, I reckon.
It’s good to be caught off balance sometimes.