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Lesson 15: Bathos (Big/Small)

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

In the previous lesson we discussed transpositions. We’re going to develop this idea and look at a common comic effect that can be achieved through such transpositions: bathos. We have already discussed the simple form of this: essentially build it up/ knock it down. This is more of a one-liner approach. For example, this from the late great Gary Shandling:

“One night I made love for an hour and five minutes. It was the day the clocks went forward.”

But it’s not just one liners. Comics will build whole routines that are bathetic. For example, in his famed Death Star Canteen routine, Eddie Izzard imagines Darth Vader bickering with a canteen worker on the Death Star. A transposition of the everyday world of the institutional canteen into a fantastical sci-fi realm. He begins by pointing out that the people on the Death Star must be being fed, which leads him to the idea of there being a canteen. “Canteen” is a very well chosen world; more utilitarian and institutional than ‘cafe’ or ‘restaurant’.

This gets a laugh just as a verbal concept. Izzard then acts out the premise which is where the big laughs are to be had. The effect of Eddie Izzard’s transposition, bringing a canteen into the Death Star, is to create bathos. Bathos is defined as a ‘lapse in mood from the sublime to the ridiculous’. Once in class, I was talking about this kind of bathetic transposition, and someone in the group said: ‘It'’s big/ small'’, which is a succinct way of capturing what's going on.

This kind of comic effect can also happen in more terrestrial realms. For example, in a Jack Dee routine where he talks about rowing with his wife, he transposes the domestic argument into a courtroom, saying his wife is so good at arguing she’s like a barrister in court: “with a wig and a gown. The family are the jury…” And I was recently working with a newer Australian comic who had a neat juxtaposition about the King of Norway having had an affair (the comic had just been to Norway). Elements from a small scale domestic dispute were transposed into the royal relationship dispute:

“The queen of Norway chucked all the king's stuff out of the palace window onto the parade ground. The guards pretended they hadn’t noticed.”

In all of these cases there are contrasting scales involved in a transposition. Hence big/small. It’s bathos. Here we have the smallness of the domestic argument and the bigness of the royal argument or in Jack Dee's example the courtroom argument.

Steven Wright often does this. For example he transposes the behaviour of someone trying to get into their own locked car without a key, onto an airliner where the pilot has locked his keys in the cockpit and has to climb up to the window and try and get it open with a coat hanger. Satire and topical comedy very often use this kind of big/small bathetic transposition. For example, Rob Newman's US Gangster stand-up bit where the US and other countries' governments are pictured as individuals living together in a Bronx Housing project. Here America has just warned the other residents that they don't want to 'end up looking like this guy': “It's just after Operation Desert Fox and here comes Iraq limping back to his job at the petrol station forecourt bloody and battered...”

Mark Thomas does something similar where he transposes the behaviour of nations onto children on a school bus. “Israel are you sitting in Palestine's seat?” You can also transpose the present into the past and vice-versa to anachronistic effect. In another Bill Bailey routine, this time about the Christmas story, he transposes modern times into Biblical times. In the routine, Mary and Joseph do get a room at the inn - thanks to their fast, cocaine fuelled donkey. And it also has all the features of a modern-day hotel. For instance: “Mini bar, trouser press, baby Jesus in a bidet.”

And Bill Bailey refers to a fellow guest at the Biblical hotel as a: “Fifty-two-year-old bucket salesman from Ipswich.” A very specific designation, and this specificity is part of the funniness. Always be specific. Here then we see the bigness of the Bible stories bathetically transposed into the small realm of the modern day hotel. Homework:

If you want to talk about a big topic, geopolitics say, try taking an element of it and put it in a very small context like Mark Thomas did with the world leaders on a bus. Or if you have something small and every day to talk about, try putting it in a bigger and grander context. For example, Jack Dee does this when he discusses rowing with his wife and he says she is good enough at arguing to be a barrister. He then imagines their domestic row playing out in a courtroom with her family as the jury.

You can take a similar approach with the past/present angle. Take something from now and put it in the past—e.g. hoodies in Tudor times. Or something from the past into now, like public executions happening at Marble Arch in London on a Saturday afternoon. Who would you want to see executed? This in itself could present a big/small opportunity. The ‘bigness’ of the punishment could be incongruous with the smallness of their perceived crime (eg being annoying on daytime TV.)

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