Various authors and scholars have different interpretations on what the grotesque is and how it should be defined. Vasari describes that the grotesque monsters represent originality and awe. In contrast, Kayser [Kayser, W. 1963] believed the grotesque to be full of demonic terror. Horace [Warner, M. 2007] on the other hand takes the view that grotesque monsters epitomise sin as they are out of the boundaries of nature but also reason. Then there is Bakhtin who made the connection between the grotesque and the comic in his book 'Rabelais and his world' [Bakhtin, M. 1968). In his opinion, the grotesque is full of Carnivalesque laughter and he calls this the Carnivalesque-grotesque accordingly. In this essay I will be looking at Bakhtin's notion and characteristics of the grotesque and relating it to specific examples of comedy. When dealing with the grotesque and comedy it is a fundamental question that I wish to answer, why do we find the ugly and disgusting amusing?
'Primitive grotesque' is where Bakhtin believe the grotesque started. It was centred on the cycle of the seasons such as conception, life and death. As the grotesque evolved the cycle of seasons are still present but in festivals instead. The first of the festivals are those concerned with Holy days. These festivals contained no laughter, lack of change and showed how humans were not equal in the social order. In complete juxtaposition are the folk festivals which include carnival and entertainment in the marketplace. The positive aspects of the carnival is what Bakhtin focuses on assuring that the humour of the carnival can go two ways, 'it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time, mocking and deriding' [Bakhtin, M. 1968]. Bakhtin's notion of the grotesque is centred on the idea of the carnival. Carnival comes from the Latin term carne and vale which literally means 'farewell to meat' [Shafto, D. 2009]. It is the last day of feasting before the solemnity of Lent. It is what happens during the carnival that concerns Bakhtin. Everything is turned upside down, all order is gone and anything goes. Fools become kings and kings become fools. Obscenities and expressions that involve the body are supported and there is equality amongst the people. Bakhtin puts this equality down to the crude discussion of body parts and their functions as these are human traits and through this participation with carnival, there is a chance for unity to occur. Laughter is the key to this carnival body, as through laughter freedom, liberation and healing can be achieved. There are many aspects of the grotesque according to Bakhtin. These include: dismemberment and mutilation, bodily excesses, suspension of the normal rules of behaviour, a topsy-turvy world, disguises and irony and parody.
One of Bakhtin's characteristics of the grotesque is dismemberment and mutilation. In the Carnivalesque-grotesque, the body is always being mutilated by change whether being reproduced or even ripped apart. In the Carnivalesque-grotesque nothing is forever. An example of this in modern day comedy is in the Simpsons. In this particular scene of the cartoon show, the Simpson family are sat on the iconic couch with each other's body parts like some sort of Halloween monster. As part of the sketch, the family move around body parts in order to regain their own but with no success. In addition, in the Montey Python and the Holy Grail, two knights meet each other in single combat and begin hacking each other to pieces, until all that is left of them are two stumps [Davidson, 2008]. The audience always finds this hilarious. The reason why we as an audience find this funny is because we know it is not real. It is a shock to see it and they act like nothing has really changed. If we were to see someone get chopped up in reality we would be horrified. However we as an audience find it funny because we know the actors are not in pain or suffering.
As Phillip Thomas conveys, 'the grotesque is essentially physical, referring always to the body and bodily excesses....' [Thomas, P. 1972]. These bodily excesses refer to defecation, vomiting and urination. This characteristic can be combined with the suspension of normal rules of behaviour. There is no end of examples that can be used to support this characteristic of Bakhtin's theory of the grotesque. In the Inbetweeners (2008), Simon drinks too much alcohol and vomits all over Carly's little brother. In Shrek 2 (2004), we see the fictional ogre and his father-in-law gorging themselves on food in order to be the alpha male of the table. During this scene they eat with their mouths open in a disgusting manner. In American pie (1999), 'Stifler' ends up drinking a cup combined of beer and semen and then vomits all over his companion and he also has someone urinate all over his head in the sequel [American Pie 2, 2001]. Defecation is also common in grotesque humour. Unfortunately again for 'Stifler' he ends up eating dog faeces in American Pie the Wedding (2003). Also, In the Inbetweeners (2009) Will continuously drinks energy drinks to keep him awake which results in him losing control of his bowels during an exam. Furthermore, in Without a Paddle (2004), the hippie women use bags of stored faeces to throw at some men trying to get into their tree. In addition, in Scary Movie 2 (2001), there is a spoof of the exorcist which features three people projectile vomiting continuously on each other; obviously this is not the normal behaviour which makes it amusing as it is so out of the ordinary.
In the Carnivalesque-grotesque, the world is all upside-down and anything becomes possible. Gender roles in society are swapped as women become the conquerors and the lowest of society become the highest. An example of this is Shaun of the Dead (2004). During the movie we are led by Shaun who is the unlikely hero who ends up in a situation where him and his friends are about to meet their end by being eaten by zombies. It is a woman who comes and saves them and uses weapons to fight off the bad guys. Also Johnny English (2004) is an example of an upside-down world. This film is a spoof of British Classic James Bond. However, Johnny English is everything a spy shouldn't be, so in that respect he is the wrong person to be in charge.
Suspension of the normal rules of behaviour are also a key part of Bakhtin's grotesque. This is where the rules of society no longer apply; this could include moral conduct, social conduct and political conduct. Yet another example for the Inbetweeners (2009), Neil punching a fish to death is something that we would not normally condone in society, but for the sake of comedy its fine. In Little Britain, there is a character called Anne who is a man dressed up as a woman who claims to have mental difficulties but is in fact perfectly fine. This sketch is making fun of the disabled and would not ethically be condoned but again for the sake of comedy anything goes. Furthermore, there is another character in Little Britain which emphasises Bakhtin's characteristic of suspension of the normal rules of behaviour as well as bodily excesses. This character called Mrs Emery is an older lady who urinates in public places while speaking to an acquaintance. Similarly, there is a character named Maggie Blackamoor who vomits when she has eaten anything made by a Black person. Obviously this is ethically wrong and racist but it is amusing because we cannot act this way in society and the fact that Walliams and Lucas dare to is amusing. Because it is so unusual and awkward it becomes humorous. Another characteristic that goes with suspension of normal behaviour is cross-dressing.
Cross-dressing in comedy has been done since the beginning. It can be considered grotesque because it is the opposite of what is expected in normal society. Cross-dressing is also typical of carnival. In Big Momma's house (2000), a secret agent has to go undercover as a large Black lady. This is amusing for one because he has to swap genders and two because his character is huge and stereotypical. Back to Little Britain, Bubbles Devere is a rich fat lady played by comic Matt Lucas. This sketch is amusing and disgusting because of the sheer obesity of the character which is highlighted by the fact that she is naked. Also David Walliams's character Emily Howard dresses up as a woman even though it is obvious that he is actually a man. White Chicks (2001) is a rather extreme example of the grotesque. Two black undercover cops have to dress as white teenage girls. This is grotesque because of the fact that not only is this two men dressing as women, it is two men dressing as white women. This is amusing because of the clear juxtaposition.
Characteristics of the grotesque also include satires, irony and parody. Examples of irony in comedy are again in the Inbetweeners (2010). Jay goes to get something from Simon's car pulls the handbrake by accident and locks the car. The car starts rolling backwards towards the river. When they notice, Jay and Neil hold the car from rolling anymore and Simon asks Jay where his keys are and Jay thinks he has locked them inside of the car. Neil and Jay let go of the car and it rolls into the river. The irony of this situation is that the keys were in Jays pocket all of the time. Many films are satires. Dr Strangelove is one of the most well-known satires of the Cold War, and of the foolishness of the nuclear arms race. Monty Python's Life of Brian is a satire on religions and ideologies and their followers, more specifically Christianity. The Truman Show is a satire of reality TV and television in general, yet it inspired the television show Big Brother [Tvtropes.org]. Taking all of these characteristics of the grotesque into consideration they are very disturbing and disgusting, so why is it that we find them funny?
Why do we find the ugly and disgusting amusing? This is simply because we are not meant to find them funny. We feel free to laugh at disgusting comedy because we know that it is not real, it is just a joke. The audience of the joke is so shocked by the material they are hearing or seeing they have no other response but to laugh. It is ok to laugh at the material as long as we know that no one is really getting hurt and that the situation is not real. We laugh because this type of comedy violates social norms. The public is taught how to behave in social situations and when we see the opposite it is humorous because we would never ever consider doing this.
Peter McGraw conducted an experiment in order to find out why we find the disgusting funny. The first experiment was to give the volunteers a scenario to read: one describing the company Jimmy Dean using a rabbi as spokesman for a new line of pork products; or one where Jimmy Dean hired a farmer as spokesman. The results showed that more people were likely to laugh when the scenario had a moral violation; the scenario where the rabbi was promoting pork. The next experiment centred on the idea of bestiality. Again volunteers read a scenario in which a man rubs his genitals against a kitten, with some participants reading a version in which the kitten "purrs and seems to enjoy the contact," while others read a version in which the kitten "whines and does not seem to enjoy the act." The results showed that 72% of the participants believed that act to be wrong, however 61% were more amused by the harmless version where the kitten enjoys the act. The man in this scenario is morally wrong but because no one is actually harmed, the behaviour becomes comical and acceptable. "We laugh when Moe hits Larry, because we know that Larry's not really being hurt, It's a violation of social norms. You don't hit people, especially a friend. But it's okay because it's not real" [LiveScience.com, 2010].
In conclusion, Bakhtin puts forward a strong notion of the grotesque which can be related to modern comedy. Characteristics of his notion of the grotesque are easy to see in comedy sketches and movies. The more grotesque something is the more we as an audience seem to laugh. This is because is it not socially acceptable. Freud would argue that our primitive urges are shown through comedy, we laugh because we know that it is wrong but also harmless. When someone is obviously racist or sexist in comedy we know that it is all in jest. We as a society are bound by societal chains and morals to act in a certain way and comedy is the opposite of that. It allows us to see and hear the behaviour that is usually restricted without feeling judged. Comedy resorts back to the primitive days of carnival in order to appeal to people's inner conflictions of what is acceptable and what is not and turns it on its head.