Comedy becomes a serious business

August 25, 1995

If the likes of IBM and the FBI can take humour seriously, so presumably can universities. Lancaster University is hoping to house the first British comedy archive and Leeds Metropolitan University will play host in the autumn to some big names in the business community who want to follow the United States's lead and try to restore laughter in the workplace.

Jeffrey Richards, professor of cultural studies at Lancaster, said that the idea of studying humour was often regarded with scepticism. But higher education was coming round to the view that comedy produced key insights into societies.

"There has been a certain puritanism in British universities which dismissed popular culture as unworthy of academic study," Professor Richards said. "But this is now an evolving academic culture rich with insights into changing attitudes and preoccupations - which students thoroughly enjoy."

Humour is still a neglected field of study. "The British have been renowned for their sense of humour since the Middle Ages, it is part of the British image and goes with the stiff upper lip and self deprecation," Professor Richards said. "Comedy is an essential element of the British way of life and deserves a place in the nation's heritage."

Marilyn Fryer, a psychologist at Leeds Metropolitan University and head of the centre for creativity there, is another academic interested in humour and laughter. She believes that individuals use humour to relieve stress and also to break down prejudices and barriers, perhaps without realising it. "Life is a serious business but too many people tend to regard humour, like creativity, as a frill, whereas it is central to what it is to be human," Dr Fryer said.

American humour guru Joel Goodman will be at Leeds in October as part of a conference on humour as a life skill, organised by Dr Fryer. The business community is being targeted. In the US, companies are turning to humour consultants to reduce stress and inject the restorative powers of laughter into the workplace. Satisfied clients include IBM, the CIA and the FBI.

Surprisingly perhaps in Britain there is no national comedy archive, and no centre of comic studies. But plans for a national museum of comedy could change that. The archive could be an integral part of the project devised by Jeremy Gomm, editor in chief of Lancaster and Morecambe Newspapers. Mr Gomm is planning a national museum of comedy and laughter pavilion on Morecambe seafront, probably in the Winter Gardens.

The multimillion pound project would celebrate the work of comics and British humour. A charitable trust is being set up to run the scheme and an application for feasibility funding has been made to the Arts Council. Further backing would come from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Millennium Commission.

Professor Richards stresses that the archive is years away but when it arrives it will mesh with the university's theatrical holdings.

The archive would house a workshop and a visitor centre. It is also possible that the first chair of comedy will be created. Professor Richards says: "You could look at the evolution of performance styles, at the subjects that humour takes, at how comedy has depicted men and women and how it has defined national and regional identities."

Professor Richards recently published Stars in our Eyes, a history of stage, screen and radio stars like George Formby, Hilda Baker and Gracie Fields.

Another Lancaster academic, John Walton, has written on the history of Lancashire's seaside resorts. And the university is proud of the glittering cast of comedians in its list of honorary graduates, including Eric Morecambe, Victoria Wood and Thora Hird.

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