Tag Archives: Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith Loves Monty Python

From the New Yorker, “Dead Man Laughing” is a personal essay by author Zadie Smith exploring her family’s fondness for British comedy. Her father, a lifelong “comedy nerd,” memorizes sitcom tapes and sketch LPs with the avidity of a collector. The darkness and resignation of British humor gives him a context to engage his own disappointments, all the way to the end.

“Genealogically speaking, Harvey had his finger on the pulse of British comedy, for Hancock begot Basil Fawlty, and Fawlty begot Alan Partridge, and Partridge begot the immortal David Brent. And Hancock and his descendants served as a constant source of conversation between my father and me, a vital link between us when, class-wise, and in every other wise, each year placed us farther apart. As in many British families, it was university wot dunnit. When I returned home from my first term at Cambridge, we couldn’t discuss the things I’d learned, about Anna Karenina, or G. E. Moore, or Gawain and his staggeringly boring Green Knight, because Harvey had never learned them—but we could always speak of Basil.”

After her father’s passing, Smith shifts the second half of the article to her brother’s attempts to become a stand-up comedian. In chronicling his efforts, she examines the framework of stand-up comedy, exploring how comedians create their material and often, finally, desert their craft in anger and sadness.

“Audiences love death-defiers like [Russell] Kane. It’s what they pay their money for, after all: laughs per minute. They tend to be less fond of those comedians who have themselves tired of the non-stop laughter and pine for a little silence. I want to call it “comedy nausea.” Comedy nausea is the extreme incarnation of what my father felt: not only is joke-telling a cheap art; the whole business of standup is, in some sense, a shameful cheat. For a comedian of this kind, I imagine it feels like a love affair gone wrong. You start out wanting people to laugh in exactly the places you mean them to laugh, then they always laugh where you want them to laugh—then you start to hate them for it. Sometimes the feeling is temporary. The comedian returns to standup and finds new joy in, and respect for, the art of death-defying. Sometimes, as with Peter Cook (voted, by his fellow-comedians, in a British poll, the greatest comedian of all time), comedy nausea turns terminal, and only the most difficult laugh in the world will satisfy. Toward the end of his life, when his professional comedy output was practically nil, Cook made a series of phone calls to a radio call-in show, using the pseudonym Sven from Swiss Cottage (an area of northwest London), during which he discussed melancholy Norwegian matters in a thick Norwegian accent, arguably the funniest and bleakest “work” he ever did.”