This is no joke

Lesley Harbidge argues that comedy is a legitimate discipline that shouldn't be dismissed just because it is enjoyable

September 17, 2009

British comedy has long offered the nation a chance to ditch the stiff upper lip but, according to Lesley Harbidge, it is also an area ripe for serious scholarly inquiry.

The film studies lecturer at the University of Glamorgan, who specialises in comedy, has organised a symposium due to take place this week to analyse the impact of Bafta-winning sitcom Gavin and Stacey.

In spite of the light-hearted subject matter, she is adamant that fellow academics should acknowledge the important role that humour, and in particular stand-up comedy, plays in British society.

"It's often difficult to get people to take comedy seriously. It tends to come pretty low down on the scale," she explained. "But why shouldn't it be an academic endeavour? It's just as significant as any other discipline, it's just we have the added bonus of it being enjoyable."

Dr Harbidge's academic interest focuses on the relationship between comedy and national identity, and on the ability to unify communities with different outlooks.

"There's a lot of interest in uniting Welsh identity and comedy, but I'm not sure if regionality is any more significant than the differences in race," she said. "Gavin and Stacey (set between Wales and Essex) overrides the distinctions - love overcomes the Severn Bridge.

"Instead, we see Welsh stereotypes, such as the Welsh mum and Welsh notions of masculinity, but these are very knowing stereotypes."

On the topic of stereotypes, Dr Harbidge, who is Scottish, challenges the "dour" reputation often attributed to her fellow countrymen and women.

But when put on the spot she admitted she is not much of a joker herself."I can't think of a joke about the Welsh, or the Scots for that matter," she said.

The conference will see authors and academics discussing comic traditions and humour among the Celtic nations, among other topics.

Dr Harbidge's PhD focused on the work of the American comedian and actor Steve Martin, assessing his crossover from stand-up to film. She said her interest in the comedian, who gained a cult following for his stand-up routines in the 1970s before moving into a more mainstream acting career, was enduring, even though his output has been less edgy in his later years.

"He's a really interesting figure as he challenges and asks people what comedy is. Not many people do that," she said.

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