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Mise Au Point n°9
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"Humour(s): Cinema, Television and New Screens"

(Dir.) Marie-France Chambat-Houillon & Isabelle Le Corff
  • 1 L’arc-en-ciel des humours, Dominic Noguez, Livre de Poche: Paris, 2000.

Unlike the comic, which characterises ‘comedy’, humour is found equally in all cinematographic and televisual genres, blurring the generic, artistic and media borders. This means we are faced with the question of how to define humour in film, television and on the internet. Should it be regarded as a single entity, or rather as a range of different sorts of humour? Humour can appear as a once off (joke, gag, etc.) or infuse an entire film, programme or clip, creating tone or atmosphere. Dominic Noguez seems to recognise the diversity of humour when he speaks of « l’arc-en-ciel des humours »1 [the rainbow/ spectrum of humours] as a means of showing the heterogeneity of the objects it may affect: from black humour to wry humour, not to mention sentimental humour… It remains to be seen how cinema, television and Internet deal with such disparity in form and content. Considering our research domain, one question springs instantly to mind: can we speak of a specifically visual – or indeed audio-visual - humour? If so, how may it be defined?

We will therefore be examining the respective perimeters and points of contact between humorous and comic incongruity in past and contemporary productions, with reference to the ironic and the ludic. As well as this, we will investigate the various reconfigurations of humour - particularly when dealing with new screens - promoting some innovative approaches and disregarding others, which have already proved their worth in other cultural fields.

In fact, it is clear that humour is a common thread in cinema and television. It is also present in the proliferation of online audiovisual productions. The Internet acts as a sort of hothouse, and gives rise to many careers in cinema or television. The example of ‘Norman’ demonstrates that humour can be a form of media currency. Norman, a film student built up a reputation as a comedian by posting shorts on You Tube. After this, he took part in the television programme Palmashow, which propelled him to the lead role in the film Pas très normales activités (2013). Has he consolidated his comedic identity by these varied experiences or has he spread himself too thin? The diversity of his roles interrogates the universal nature of humour and, by default, its specificity to the art, which hosts it. Are we to consider Internet productions as a continuation of cinematographic and/ or televisual heritages, or rather as something different, which acts as midwife to novel forms of humour? Is it possible to speak of a Humour 2.0?


Humour, style and creation

Humour is often strongly associated with its author. Humoristic atmosphere or tone is inextricably linked to the universe invented by the artist. It gives each individual creation a stylistic dimension. The work of Woody Allen springs immediately to mind, as well as the films of Jacques Tati and Monty Python. The same may be said of Averty’s corrosively humorous television work.

How do comedic processes contribute to the creation of a cinematic, television or Internet work?


Humour, culture and interculturality

  • 2 De l’humour, Simon Critchley, Kimé: Paris, 2004.

Humour is an excellent laboratory in which to test the issues of any given society. As Simon Critchley2 has it, humour is a sort of « sens commun » [common sense] augmented by its social impact. As a means by which different groups affirm their identity against hegemony in all its forms, humour is also relevant to questions of identity and belonging. By setting up a culture of complicity and shared references, humour is a vital tool for various groups to define and recognise themselves (Guignols de l’info, The Late Show... What may we learn from the comedic productions of society at a particular time or place? How do comedic productions manage to create a distancing effect from the story they tell? How do they defamiliarise viewers from their cultural context? Stereotypes are one important tool in the kit. We might also investigate comedic representations of other societies and alterity (stereotypes, sexism, racism, etc). In what way does humour make peace with the globalised circulation common to cinematographic, televisual and audiovisual productions? Indeed, how are such comedic audiovisual forms received and understood on a global scale – considering that their meanings are so strongly dependent on their cultural context?

Interesting examples of these tensions are evident in the practices of adaptation or the ‘remake’, as well as techniques of subtitling or dubbing. All of these may be regarded as processes of recovery or even as a reconfiguration of comedic elements.


Humour and audiences

By its transgressive nature, humour often challenges social norms… and sometimes enables the ‘return of the repressed’. This can be divisive, posing the thorny question of the proper target and limits of humour.

Is it possible to laugh about everything? Can humour be allowed total licence? How may issues of the representable (cruelty, violence, vulgarity, etc.) be expressed in a humorous way as, for example, in the film C’est arrivé près de chez vous? Is humour a means or an end?

Is it possible to laugh about everything… or with everyone? In the case of black humour or violent humour, certain audiences resist. What some do find acceptable is downright offensive for others, and this panoply of reactions sometimes leads to controversy as with the film Borat, which was banned in a number of countries.

The divisive nature of humour splits audience reception. A common line of demarcation is the difference between popular and critical reception, which suggests a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ or ‘trivial’ humour.

On the other hand, we may see humour as something, which brings people together, despite their not having been ostensibly targeted by the genre. Such is the effect of animated films like those of Walt Disney or DreamWorks, initially intended for children, but which nonetheless also appeal to adults thanks to their comedic dimension. This points to a double, or even triple reading based on adult knowingness. The power of humour brings very different audiences together around one work without homogenising their distinct spectatorial stances.

Going along with certain types of humour characterises a certain type of audience by producing effects of differentiation and recognition (both of which can be both positive and negative) and this merits exploration.

  • 3 Remarques mêlées, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Flammarion, Paris, 2002.

Whilst certain forms of humour may appear at first glance to be completely innocuous, or pure entertainment, it is important to interrogate these too. What is their political impact, in the philosophical sense of the term? For humour is a sort of ‘worldview’, in the Wittgensteinian3 definition. To what extent, in cinema or on television or the Internet can humour be considered as a form of social or political engagement?

It is clear that humour is no easy thing to define because of its excess and its ubiquity across every field of cultural endeavour. At the crossroads of forms and contents, practices and processes, disciplines and approaches, humour is really a particularly interesting object of study to help us understand the creative issues at play in the cinema and television of the past and present, and of course now also taking place on a multitude of new screens. More than ever before, the study of humour is a necessary entry point for a better understanding of the role and place of media and the arts in society.

Proposals (in French or in English), should be submitted by 20 June 2015 to Marie-France Chambat-Houillon (marie-france.chambat-houillon@univ-paris3.fr) and Isabelle Le Corff (cils@wanadoo.fr). The editorial committee of Mise au Point will examine these proposals. Those authors whose papers have been accepted must submit their final article by 1 September 2015. The submitted article must not be the subject of publication in another journal.

Notes

1 L’arc-en-ciel des humours, Dominic Noguez, Livre de Poche: Paris, 2000.

2 De l’humour, Simon Critchley, Kimé: Paris, 2004.

3 Remarques mêlées, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Flammarion, Paris, 2002.

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