The Monthly speaks to Tim Miles about his analytical research on Northern Irish comedy – Part 1

Could you explain how you became interested in analysing comedy and comedic writing?

About 15 years ago I was teaching at a University in Bristol, the University of the West of England, and I was asked to teach a drama department course on solo performance, part of which was on stand-up comedy. I thought I could do that and started to look for material to work from and I found that there really wasn’t much in the way of information, books or resources available to me.

I was asking myself a question, “Why is there so few books on the questions I am looking to address?” and that started me looking at comedy more widely.

I felt, or at least I got the impression, that the academic world looked down on comedy, that it wasn’t considered a serious subject. The academic world felt it was a bit frivolous and they explained humour by saying people are just funny because they just were funny and the role of comedy wasn’t worth investigating.

I thought comedy was an important element of our common humanity. Humour and by extension comedy has all manner of purposes. it allows us to relate to each other, it has elements which are coping mechanisms some of which are essential to dealing the difficulties which emerge through life.

We use humour for all sorts of purposes, so I thought it was worthy of examination. I thought, there is a gap here and I decided that I should investigate this. At the time I was in the process of developing my PHD thesis and that was the route that I decided to go down.

Eventually I applied to the British Institute for Humour Research to do my PHD and they accepted my application. That allowed me to start research into comedy and comedic writing in a much more substantial way.

Could you explain how you then became interested in analysing comedic writing from Northern Ireland?

I was interested in comedy, but I was still looking for an orientation regarding my career as an academic and I thought I needed to pursue a “serious” topic.

I was asked, at that time I was a Theatre scholar, to write about a playwright, Gary Mitchell, from Northern Ireland.

I was providing material for a couple of books; “Irish Theatre in England” and “Performing Violence in Ireland”, and his work was rather serious. He wrote about the implications regarding the peace process.

I came to Belfast and began spending time at the Lyric Theatre and the Linen Hall library trying to develop an understanding of place and culture. I was trying to understand Northern Ireland and I was taking it very seriously and earnestly.
I found myself being very surprised that there was comedy here.

I went to the Opera House in Belfast to see “The History of the Troubles according to my Da”, and I was part of a packed house and everyone was laughing uproariously.

And that led me to think through the ideas of what role comedy plays generally, and then more specifically in places where there has been conflict like Northern Ireland. From there I start to think about the therapeutic effect or the distancing effect of using a comedic approach to investigating difficult issues.

I found that I was questioning the role of comedy in our society and I was asking myself questions about context….

Is it possible to say that it is more difficult to be fearful of something if you are laughing at it?

Does comedy perform a hugely important function with regards offering an opportunity to deal with or investigate conflict?

Did that influence your academic writing on this subject?

I was in the process of writing a pretty standard drama studies approach to stand-up comedy; I was trying to understand what sort of performance stand-up comedy is and I was interviewing comedians and comedy audiences.
I would get feedback about how comedy and comedic writing made people feel, how it impacted them personally. The terminology people used really was more akin to the question of people’s well-being or perhaps even raising the question of people’s health.

Again, that started me on an investigative journey where I was developing my thinking in a different way; that comedy has a hugely important social role and needs to be looked at in that context. That led me eventually to write the “Pack up your Troubles” article which I believe you have posted in The Monthly online magazine.

So you ended up analysing comedy generally and from there Northern Irish comedy?

Yes. I think that context matters and I think it would be fair to say that audiences, English audiences for example, could benefit from knowing some history about the Northern Irish situation.

I remember working at a Theatre in London where “The history of the Troubles according to my Da” was playing and it really didn’t do very well at all and struggled to find an audience or to get good reviews from the critics, yet as I said earlier it was a huge success here in Belfast.

I really do think if you have some understanding of Northern Irish history then that particular play, and other works, will be appreciated more than if you have no knowledge. However, I need to qualify that by saying that an audience’s appreciation will depend a lot on the comedic writing on offer.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh is an interesting example.It is, I think, commercially one of the most successful works which has a link to the Troubles. It has had many productions in England and North America, however, it has, to my knowledge, had very few productions in Ireland or Northern Ireland.

While it is a very accomplished piece of comic writing, and it is genuinely funny, it completely de-contextualises the question of the violence which exists in the script. The writing offers very little in the way of explanation of how the characters have developed the way they have.

To some audiences that just doesn’t matter and so they can enjoy the comic set up. However if you are from Northern Ireland I think it would be difficult I think to enjoy the work because there is no acknowledgment of the situation which created the characters, particularly the lead character, a psychopathic killer connected to a paramilitary organisation.

That to me is extremely problematic, so, yes I do think that history, context; these things matter and are often overlooked.

You seem to suggest in the “Pack up your Troubles” essay that Northern Irish comedy and comedic writing is under-appreciated?

I do think that.

A friend of mine Caroline Upton who was a Professor at University of Ulster said that in the history of drama, Northern Irish Drama was a footnote to a footnote.

I think, across the board, Northern Irish art, literature, theatre, is under appreciated in the area where I live, in England. Partly this is to do with ignorance; mostly people would know about Northern Ireland through the news or through cultural representations, films like ”In The Name of The Father” or “Cal”, the Troubles dramas, which admirable as they are don’t offer a nuanced view of what is happening in Northern Ireland.

I teach in Liverpool and there are several students from Northern Ireland in my classes and there are probably a few people in any given class who would either be from Northern Ireland or have some knowledge of Northern Ireland. They would be well-informed generally. But anywhere else I have taught, there would be very little if any knowledge of the situation here.

Some students would barely know where Northern Ireland is. And that brings with it difficulties regarding understanding the comic elements of some of the material I am presenting to them.

Have you analysed Northern Irish comedy and comedic writing in the post Troubles period?

Sadly no. That isn’t because I don’t want to and I think it is a piece of research that would be sorely needed.

I do want to work on a book about the situation regarding comedy in Northern Ireland because my guess is that the new breed of comedians will be writing about an entirely different situation and looking at things with a different perspective.

I think there will have been a transitional phase as writers and performers move away from the conflict and embrace a whole new range of styles and subject matters and I would hope that would lead to a flourishing of new work.

Dr Tim Miles has lectured at four British Universities: Royal Holloway, Manchester Metropolitan, the University of the West of England and Roehampton, teaching at all undergraduate levels, and at postgraduate level. He has taught in English Literature, Creative Writing and Drama/Theatre Studies degree programmes. He lectures in the Faculty of  Arts Professional and Social Studies at Liverpool John Moores University. Tim is a former comedy writer for the BBC.

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