People instead of puppets

Last time we were behaving like children at college. Since then we’ve moved on to “the grotesque”. I’d love to offer a succinct explanation of what “the grotesque” is but after a couple of weeks I’m still not too clear, and I don’t think I’m alone.

In practical terms it’s meant that we either:

  • Dress up in very smart clothes, stuffing cushions inside to pad out our bodies — often stomachs or humps for men, huge breasts, bums or hips for women — and behave as over the top caricatures of upper or middle class idiots.

  • Dress up as famous people, again with the padding, and behave as over the top caricatures of said famous people.

The famous people classes can best be imagined as Spitting Image sketches as if performed by people instead of puppets. People who aren’t very good at impressions and who pick the most blindingly obvious foibles to lampoon. Maybe, at the more subtle end, it could be a little more like Stella Street.

My biggest problem was that I couldn’t think of anyone to be. I couldn’t think of any famous people I was (a) interested in, (b) disliked enough to take the piss out of, and (c) could feasibly look like. My first half-attempt was Snoop Dogg, just because I thought it would be funny to impersonate a black rapper, somewhat in the style of Ben Folds’ Bitches Ain’t Shit, Nina Gordon’s Straight Outta Compton (scroll to bottom of the page for the MP3) and similar covers. Then I realised how much practice it would take to do any kind of half-passable impression of someone from such a different world. So next lesson I was Jesus, whose personality and behaviour is hazy enough to forgive any old impression (although I quite liked my patience-wearing-thin, gently disapproving Jesus, hard as it was to steer clear of Lee and Herring’s version, aaahhhhhh!).

We spent more time on the smartly-dressed posh people than the celebrities. This didn’t do much for me either. It all seemed so exagerrated and laboured, disconnected from any sense of reality. Steven Berkoff is perhaps one of the few people using this kind of world in his plays, and we even used a bit of Kvetch for one class, the first time we’ve used a script.

When the style is toned down it becomes a bit more interesting to me — think Abigail’s Party — and I began to enjoy it when we focused on embarrassment and awkwardness, the fears hidden behind social pleasantries and customs. Despite the setting being different — we were still dressed in suits and posh frocks — this happily reminded me more of the excruciating moments in shows like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Now, I think, we’re moving on toward tragedy for the next part of the term, which I hope I’ll find a bit more inpsiring.


  • Per your first paragraph:

    you're right, you're not alone.

  • Hi Phil,
    Jonathan Swift is usually regarded as the inventor of the modern idea of the comedy of the grotesque. (It could be argued that it's as old as the hills, or Greek tragedy, certainly Chaucer; think of the Miller's Tale which is just one long dirty joke, the end of which is grotesque if you think kissing arses is grotesque; or even Shakespeare.) "A Modest Proposal" whereby Swift argued, deadpan, that the solution to poverty and famine in Ireland is that the poor sell their babies to the rich as food; caused an outcry at the time. His more famous "Gulliver's Travels" was filled with grotesque images, although the one which really upset people was the story of the Huhynhyms. Think "Planet of the Apes" replaced by horses. The idea that a horse could have more education, be more civilised and have more breeding than an English nobleman really hit a nerve in the eighteenth century.
    I would hazard a guess that 'the grotesque' is where black comedy gets so dark that it becomes something else altogether more uncomfortable, and of course that changes from generation to generation. (The Office may be great, and dark and uncomfortable but, I would argue, it's not grotesque.) I think you should be looking at something like Chris Morris' "Jam" rather than people putting pillows up their jumpers. Unless pantomime is genuinely grotesque.....?

  • Interesting stuff David, thanks. Most of the dramatic territories we tackle seem to cover a huge amount of ground. At one end a slightly more caricatured version of The Office would probably fit quite well, at another it's all barely human creatures doing barely human things. And you're right about the comedy getting so dark it makes us uncomfortable -- we tried this in one or two lessons and I neglected to mention it. I'd forgotten about 'Jam' but, as you say, that's a great example of this.

  • Hey Phil,
    Thanks. I'd be interested to know how the lessons in which you tried the really dark stuff went. How was it difficult? Actually, was it difficult? You obviously scrapped it so why? "It's all barely human creatures doing barely human things" could stand as a fantastic definition of 'the grotesque' in my opinion (I wish I'd put it so well) so why do you think (or do you?) that this is at some extreme point?
    By the way the comment about pantomimes wasn't meant to be facetious. There are many times throughout history where the pantomime was regarded as going too far or against public decency. Of course the question of 'the grotesque' depends on the particular society's mores at the time. Japanese society had some interesting convulsions during the Edo era in regards to public entertainment for example.

  • We didn't scrap the dark stuff, but as with so many things we touch on in classes, we've no sooner got the vague idea of it than the teachers whisk us off to a different idea the next day. They keep us on our toes!

    Having said that, none of the groups working on their own pieces were very dark, so maybe we did collectively shy away from it. There's a tendency to go toward obscene sexual stuff, which is too knowingly "dark" for my liking -- it's as if the actors are saying "ooh, this is naughty and very, very rude, we shouldn't be doing this, isn't it dark!" expecting the audience to pretend to be shocked while actually laughing. We never go as far as 'Jam' does, to the point where the audience stops laughing and questions why they were laughing a moment ago.

  • Thanks Phil,
    I see what you mean.

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Sunday 3 February 2008, 12:37pm

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3 Feb 2008 at Twitter

  • 8:19pm: Still alive, just really bored of reading and writing Twitters. Paying more attention to the real world for a bit.