Should Writers Always Try to Entertain?

Origins and definitions of the word…ENTERTAIN (v.)

late 15c., “to keep up, maintain, to keep (someone) in a certain frame of mind,” from Middle French entretenir, from Old French entretenir“hold together, stick together, support” (12c.), from entre-“among” (from Latin inter; see inter-) + tenir “to hold” (from Latin tenere, from PIE root *ten- “to stretch”). – from the Online Etymology Dictionary
Entertainment is a form of activity that holds the attention and interest of an audience, or gives pleasure and delight. It can be an idea or a task, but is more likely to be one of the activities or events that have developed over thousands of years specifically for the purpose of keeping an audience’s attention.  – ScienceDaily.com

Recently, I have been returning to my theatre roots a little more.  And, even more recently, I decided to try my hand at stand-up comedy again. And just when the world has gotten pretty seriously towards monumental problems, concerns and complete division this sense of humour thing is getting pretty interesting.

With the unusual Presidency of Donald Trump, when it is easy to say things have gone bat-shit crazy, I started noticing that I was getting some of my news from the comics of late night TV.

Most of the time they were just taking his tweets and analyzing them from a Say-What? sense of humour that underlines the ridiculousness of what was being said. Not to mention, the blatant lies. In short, they are having the easiest comedy writing times in recent history. But, they were also making quotes from other  sources, dare I say, more reliable sources and from reports and documents that the average person may never be aware of, let alone read (think Mueller Report, etc.)

Serious Comedy

So, the question I started to ponder is how important are these entertainers to focus on all of this serious stuff? And, what can we learn from making the serious entertaining? Should we always be gong for the laughs or entertainment as writers? Is there any sacred ground or not? What is the history of writing things for entertainment?


Whenever I do some serious pondering I go back to my word origins and definitions to see if I can glean any clues that are not always obvious (see above).

Aha! To entertain is to hold one’s attention. It also is to hold together. Given the world is being described as very divided these days, and also, lacking an attention span, to entertain may be a way to pull people together and at the very least keep their attention. But, no one is laughing if they (or their people) are the butt of a joke, they are, in fact, being shamed, but in politics that can be a positive too.  Lots of historical / political strides were made via political cartoons, humorist writings and humourous speeches. In Canada, suffragette Nelly McClung gave her famous speech, Why Men Should Not Be Allowed to Vote, to hilariously underline how ignorant arguments can easily be twisted both ways.

What I am saying is, you can use entertainment for writing about the serious as well as not so serious, and if you can do it well you can make your point better and more viral.  Or, if you can at least make half the room laugh,  you can make your point of view the fun side. James Comey said of Trump that he never saw the man laugh. He saw him smile, take delight, but never actually laugh and take pleasure in something he could see as humourous.  Perhaps the ability to laugh ( and laugh at yourself)may be the way to pick our leaders. And to entertain may be the best way to find happy followers who want to share the joy. But, should you be cautious in writing humour or forge ahead? It turns out humour can often reveal truth better and faster than any argument.

Can an off color joke be good?

Here is an actual example of two jokes in rapid succession. Please, please, remind yourself that these jokes are in poor taste on both sides and one is only in defense of the attack of  the other.  A group of four men are telling jokes with two women present. One says, “Do you know why men beat women? … Because they are so fucking stupid.” (Yes, this was considered funny and the men laughed, the women did not). The one woman asks the man who told the joke, “Do you know why women have two nostrils? … Because if she had only one, men would try to fuck that too.” The women laugh, the men are silent.

That was an example of fighting fire with fire that we might call the quick come back, or, playing offense versus defense.  I think the second joke just reveals how bad the first joke is by saying, you would say that, and find it funny, because you are people who are completely insensitive and being labeled is not much fun, is it? But did these jokes bring people together? Perhaps not. The women defended themselves and shamed the boorish men. The men may not have learned, but they got a mirror held up that was unflattering at just the right moment. The women were held together. Was either joke funny? No. They had underlying anger that is impossible to miss, but it was a case of a bully beating up the bully who picked on the little guy. It was just necessary.

Humour can be a powerful teacher and binder. Not everyone will get your idea of entertainment but  universality is not the big lesson here.

If you use humour to entertain it will be the quickest way to find your audience, your readers, and can be a powerful way to keep the attention on the truth of what is right. So, if it is your gift to have a sense of humor, keep working it and do like the comics do, hone it by sharing it. That is the only way to know for certain if it is resonating in that magical way that comedy can, laughter.

***

One ‘truth’ about our humanity may be how we feel rewarded by believing in the value of something – culture, knowledge, love of beauty – even if the Universe seems beautifully indifferent to us. I saw an old BBC ‘Face to Face’ interview from the 1950s I think, where Carl Jung in his old age was himself asked personal questions. At one point, the interviewer asked “Do you believe in life after death?”, and Jung replied something like: “The unconscious believes in life after death, so anyone who does not will become ill.”
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The RhymeCatch Art Installation

This art installation was one I created in the early 1990s at Simon Fraser University where I studied second year visual arts. The location of it was in the campus area called the quadrangle.

In this installation, named “RhymeCatch,” I created three figures made from the plastic coated green wire, the kind they use in chain link fencing. Each figure has another element or two added to it.

Figure 1) Baby in the treetops, is a baby, with a soother in its mouth, laying in a see-through plastic cradle hung in a tree. This was referencing the nursery rhyme/lullaby:

“Rock a bye baby, on the treetops, when the wind blows the cradle will rock, when the wind blows the cradle will fall and down will come baby cradle and all.”

I always thought, as a child and even now, that this was a strange lullaby which puts a baby in harm’s way and lets it fall. Rather than thinking of it as the metaphor for falling asleep, instead, it haunts me as something I interpret as both frightening and prophetic, falling from innocence perhaps?

Figure 2) Little girl hiding, is identified by me as a girl, but in fact, the figure is androgynous and could be a little boy or little girl. In retrospect, I am probably identifying it as me. She is hiding behind a tree in her rubber boots, a child’s game and yet  a game with primordial roots. What do we do to survive? We hide and we seek. Yet, in our modern society, I would argue, to survive we also hide “ourselves” and then become seekers of our true selves.

 

Figure 3) Young girl reading, is a young adult (again, androgynous), reading a book for young adults from the 1950s that I found and covered in clear plastic glue so it would survive the weather and viewers could read over the shoulder of this figure the text. The day I took the photos of the installation some unknown person had left a plate with cookie crumbs by it as if the figure had just finished eating a cookie. I was thrilled at this interaction and addition!

The passage that the book starts with that the viewers could read starts with a dialogue between two young adult characters:
“Aren’t the Russians terrible?”
“They certainly seem to be making things as difficult as possible.”
“Sometimes I think that we should just drop the atomic bomb and have it over with.”
“Maybe they have an atomic bomb too.”
It goes on to wonder if Stalin is as bad as Hitler, etc. and is a capsule of the cold war era.

Like the baby in the treetop I was surprised to see a book for young adults with such frightening ideas in it but was also glad there was an open dialogue, whether you wanted to agree with the points of view in the book or not. I essentially included this book as I had been very active in the peace movement for the disarmament of nukes, but also, at the time of this installation, we were heading towards the first Gulf War (Canada did participate in this) and I would eventually create a collaborative theatre piece/video about that, and would decide I did not want to bring children into this world.

The installation as a whole really is about the threat to innocence. The loss of innocence and how human beings try to protect (their people) like crazy and in the process often bring about more harm. This is really a piece about our own craziness. Can it be solved by dialogue? We will find out, because we seem to be at that crossroads yet again.

I also want to say that I loved the aesthetics of this piece. Both the medium and the chosen site have a harmony that people responded to. Note that in the photos, when the sun came out, the shadows of the winter trees mimic the wire of the figures. Likewise, on the cloudy day, photos of the branches of the trees against a white sky mimic the wire of the baby figure that you can see through the plastic.

I was very satisfied with this piece and when I found these photos of it I realized I wanted to show people. I did not want this for my own ego as you might think, but because I could see that the ideas were timely in this Trump world which is now on the brink of more global disasters, this time climate change as well as nuclear war and distrusting our old cold war enemy, Russia. And, I realized that this theme of protecting innocence is still one I am working with to this day and may very well be important to reflect further on. So, I am adding it to my blog, which goes out to some via email and also will go out on social media. Maybe someone will get something out of it?

I am a writer and I don’t consider myself an artist, but I have long since loved to use visuals to help and inspire me to write. Whether it is to add photos and graphics to a blog post or to add elements in my book, like the Loteria cards depicted and created at the beginning of chapters in my book, The Happy Hammock.

I found the art installation photos because I am currently moving, and so scanning a lot of my older works, but I realized the subject is timely to not only what is going on in the world, now,  but thoughts and themes that I am now writing about.  There are coincidences that seem very serendipitous. Remembering this piece not only allowed me to see it with fresh eyes, but reminded me of the importance of innocence as a theme.