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MDR: All comedy is someone in trouble | Francis E Parker & Edward Colless

Mocking Cream

I have always been perplexed by the cream pie. It seems to be the one dish made expressly not to be eaten. I have never seen one on a menu nor ever found its recipe in a book. It isn’t surplus and neglected produce like the rotten tomato – that other notorious alimentary projectile – but made deliberately to be thrown.

For all appearances, cream pies are no more than short crust and Chantilly at best, possibly shaving cream at worst. They are not especially appetising or, I suspect, flavoursome; unlike a lemon meringue pie, say, with its tart, gently yielding custard and sweet, satin-textured crust. Perhaps meringue might be too hazardous to throw. It seems the Bakewell tart will not do either, nor the tarte Tatin, nor even, suspecting that the preference is for an American dish, the pumpkin pie.

Flavour is evidently not a consideration; the cream pie, like the live blackbird-filled creations set before Tudor kings, is a purely visual pastry. Moreover, it is the pie’s visual properties in action that are crucial; its filling is light enough to splatter and tacky enough to hold the shell to the victim’s face for just a few moments. Like the acting style of silent cinema – the medium that first popularised the pie in the face – its performance has to be exaggerated.

As a comic gesture, the pie in the face entertains firstly because it has a victim. The space between his or her dignity and the unanticipated impact of the pie is filled with the viewer’s laughter. The greater the fall from pride, the bigger the joke; indeed, the more carefully groomed the victim, the funnier it is to see it all undone. The violence of this formula, the underlying dependence of jokes to be ‘on’ someone, receives ample expression in the assault on the victim’s face and explosion of cream filling but the knowledge that ultimately no physical harm has been caused eases any guilt the viewer may feel for laughing. It takes a particular set of circumstances, and a particular sensibility, to find an assassination funny, for example.

So what is it about the cream pie in particular that has made it a staple, not just of slapstick comedy but of political or social dissent? Desserts, as many restaurant reviewers lament, are not often taken seriously. They are frivolous, inessential to the business of nourishment and hardly menacing. A cream pie does not – save for those with intolerance for lactose or gluten – pose any inherent threat, so its sudden launch into the face of a victim is doubly unexpected.

Additionally, and despite the cream pie often merely standing in for a genuine dessert, it remains notionally edible and someone – another victim – is thwarted when the pie explodes in the principal victim’s face. As one who struggles to perfect short crust pastry, I know I always feel a pang of dismay on behalf of the baker.

Then, remembering the origins of the pie in the face as necessarily a sight gag, there is the spectacle of the victim after the attack. With the face blanked out for a moment by the circular dish or pastry shell, individuality vanishes. The victim immediately transitions from three-dimensionality into two, both physically and as a character. A mask, like those of Greek theatre, descends over the face and its emotional range narrows into a caricature of shock. The pastry falls away and here are the cavities of eyes and mouth open wide in astonishment. An archetypal figure of humiliation.

It is this anthropomorphic aspect of pie throwing that makes it so effective. For a moment, the victim becomes something other than him or herself, is reduced to something simpler and excluded from the company of whole beings. Put simply, he or she becomes an object of ridicule. Perhaps it is not so perplexing that the cream pie is a recipe made just for throwing but that there is such an appetite for seeing it served up.

by Francis E Parker


Or, why is pulling an implausible amount of scarves from your mouth funny?

A gag is a joke. And usually this kind of joke is a trick: its comedy is in the stealth with which the punch-line takes you by surprise. The invocation of trickery fits this old piece of theatrical slang, because a gag operates like the “prestige” or prestidigitation of an old style of magic act: a dazzlingly manipulative flourish—and the glamorous, alluring effect—of a conjuring act. Pulling a rabbit out of a top hat; a coin out of an ear; pulling scarfs out of a mouth. An illusion or sleight of hand; but gags work by being sneaky in preparation and groundwork, then transparently simple in outcome. How could you not have seen it coming? Ha! You shout this exclamation both in celebration but also in contempt of yourself for having been so easily misled and duped. Easier to get than complex, sophisticated forms of humour such as wit, parody or irony, a gag is a wisecrack that will always have a touch of slapstick rough-house larking about within it, and always be on the look out for getting the better of its victim. The gag is always at someone’s expense. It’s a clever con-job, where the con relies on a certain sly or supercilious confidence; and yet is also the result of conning—that’s to say, of tactical reconnaissance and reconnoitering (of recognising the place and moment for the strike). Think of conning as steering (from the conning tower), and we see it involves the influence of a conductor in the manner of a theatre magician, directing the energetic affections of the audience through an apparatus on stage. It’s a type of art, illusionist and sensational. The con and the conning of the scene for a gag require deftness in scrutinizing the moment’s opportunities as well as the nimble cunning of legerdemain for pulling a stunt. For all this agility then, a gag will be need to be as practical as it is cerebral.

When you get taken in by a gag and compelled to bellow at it, it’s a belly-laugh of recognition even if it gets muted into a snicker or smirk. You laugh from the indecorous stomach, rather than with the decorous lips, and so it makes good sense that the intransitive verb form of the word “gag” is the action of retching, which is a convulsive movement of the belly and a spasm that suddenly opens and closes the gullet. How close, if dissimilar in meaning, is the word “gagging” as a sort of joke at the belly’s expense. As involuntary as laughter, gagging is a responsive disgust that, like laughter, precedes and eludes language. Whatever appreciation is expressed in the laugh’s outburst—just as whatever nausea, aversion or horror is expressed in the retching sound of heaving—this is beyond words. And beneath words, too. An inversion of the sonority of a musical voice, the belly laugh and the gag reflex are social and somatic embarrassments, literalist regressions of bodily utterances to a primitive object, like an infantile collapse of the mouth into the anus, and which can be transfigured into bogan and barbarian bravura entertainments of ostentatious farting, belching, shitting and barfing. What cuts a connoisseur’s taste off at the knees is the gagging induced by a sensation too offensive for words, and the raucous snort or hoot of bestial enjoyment that doesn’t need the discrimination and discretion of language. “Gag me with a spoon!” is an evocative, if now archaic, teen Valspeak conflation of unspeakable gross-out with the civilizing table manners of consumer etiquette. What is also defamed with these inarticulate exhalations by the body is the authoritative and ritual power of voice expressed in prophecy, command and covenant, or law. The gag, in both senses, is an obscene or vain residue of this voice, and also a relapse to its primordial goopy base in unthinking bodily stimuli and response, or sensation.

But there’s another kind of gag lurking in this game of defamation and deceit. This is the gag that also stops language in its tracks, but this time by muzzling it. It’s the gag used by kidnappers to silence a victim, or by government to stifle political debate or by judges to ban public dissemination of court proceedings. It smothers the voice so that only muffled murmuring and moaning can be heard, and its most familiar image is of clothing—scarf-like strips of it—shoved into a mouth like a plug or tied around a mouth like a bandage to seal it off. (A scarf, after all, is a muffler.) In both cases the voice is depicted as a haemorrhage that is discreetly stopped in its flow, as if the otherwise exposed orifice that produces it might be a dangerous wound. This gag cannot truly silence the voice since it doesn’t actually erase the mouth but obscures it, drawing attention to the gag itself as a dressing or even prosthesis for the mouth. There’s a complex symbolization occurring here, drawn out with exemplary sensationalism in the French eighteenth-century libertine novel by Denis Diderot called The Indiscreet Jewels. A sultan possesses a magic ring that can compel the women of his harem to tell truthfully if they are faithful to him—but through that orifice which, unlike the deceptive mouth, cannot deny its true desires. Their vaginas are the indiscreet jewels of the harem, which under the spell of the sultan’s jewel, give away their secret provenance and favours in an excited chatter of vanity and lust. The gag in this novel is the lifting of a gag on the vagina, lifting the censorship on its own name through a joke, and compelling a confessional outburst of sexual desire.

But I’d have to say one of most compelling images of this complex of connotations of the gag comes from the great era of mediumistic spiritualism in Europe and America, from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. It is the recurring figure of female mediums sitting in semi-darkness issuing streams of ectoplasm from their bodies. Ectoplasm was allegedly a silky spiritual substance, an ejaculate manifesting within the orifices of mediums as they communicated with the dead or with otherworldly beings who spoke oracularly through them. Usually this fluid came out of the mouth, but in some cases it flowed out from beneath mediums’ skirts. It was a charming hoax, of course, devised by rolling up scarves and hiding them in the mouth so that at appropriately climatic moments in the séance they would unfurl and, with a gagging guttural sound, would seemingly be drawn out, pulled from the mouth by the medium in her ecstatic convulsion. A magic trick. And one that is, for all its mysteriously emblematic configuration of female desire—its suppression and expression as a gag—wonderfully funny.

by Edward Colless

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