Adventures in Edinburgh 2: Pushing the Envelope

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One of the events that got me thinking on my recent trip to the Edinburgh Fringe was the last of a series of lectures about comedy and culture from researchers at Brunel University’s Centre for Comedy Studies and Research. The one we went to was by Leon Hunt, and as well as focusing on the work a particular comedy duo, did some nice analysis of the concept of dark comedy. I do like a spot of theorising, as you know.

The thing that particularly got me thinking was the phrase ‘pushing the envelope’. This is a formulation that gets bandied around a fair bit in comedy, and you also hear it all the time in barbershop’s various debates about style. There are some interesting parallels and differences in the way the phrase gets deployed in these two worlds, and I have been saving the idea up to have a think about. Now I’m home again, it’s time to mull.

(Tangentially, I can’t help noticing that these two subcultures in which I hang out - comedy and barbershop - both feature men who wax their moustaches. Or maybe moustache-waxing is something men in any and every subculture do to express a particular level of commitment to the genre?)

(Moustache-waxing is different from leg-waxing, by the way. Getting the two processes muddle up risks either a sore upper lip or laddered tights.)

So, in the world of comedy, pushing the envelope is about transgression, about saying or doing things that risk offending people. But the goal isn’t just shock value - it’s not just about being as rude as possible, otherwise you just immediately lose your audience.

The thing I wanted to know was: what constitutes the envelope that gets pushed? Is it genre conventions? Is it critical and/or audience responses? There are formal systems to mark boundaries of ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ in the mass media such as film classification, the criteria for the 9 o’clock television watershed, and adjudications by Ofcom. I guess these both shape expectations and respond to public pressure in defining the edge beyond which the envelope would be considered to be extended.

Some of the comments Leon made on the subject were quite intriguing. It happens, for instance, that if comedy pushes the envelope too far, it may find itself simply moving into another genre (such as horror in the examples he discussed). He also talked about the way that the transgressive or dangerous elements are framed by traditional comedic devices so as to render them safer, to signal that they are intended as jokes and as such not designed to upset the audience. Indeed, one of his categories of dark comedy, the grotesque, was defined by the incomplete mediation of the uncanny by the comedic, so that the audience was never quite let off the hook of anxiety, but also never totally freaked out.

As such (and this is getting into the bit that I find really interesting), when comedy that pushes the envelope ‘goes too far’, this may in fact signal that it has the wrong audience. People who know how to read the conventions that mitigate the transgression are unlikely to be offended; the people who react badly are those who miss these signals.

Pushing the envelope is thus about creating a niche audience; it is about connoisseurship. People who get it enjoy not just the comedy itself, but the feeling of being part of a culture that shares the signals required to get it. They can feel a bit set apart from the mainstream, and pleased with themselves for being so. They create and share bonds with others who also get it through in-jokes. Cult comedy, that is, relies on deliberately playing just beyond the edges of the mainstream, and needs the normality of the mainstream nearby for the shared pleasures of transgression to have their effect.

Now, some of these remarks also apply to the world of ‘pushing the envelope’ in contest barbershop. The envelope is defined through formal mechanisms (Contest and Judging systems), but these are inflected and enacted via custom and practices that respond somewhat dynamically from audience and critical responses. The Kibbers* and the Progressives inveigh against each other and the contest judges endeavour to keep the outrage of both reasonably balanced.

The relationship with genre boundaries also has some useful comparisons. It does, sometimes (though not often), happen that a chart works just fine as a piece of music, but has abandoned too many of the genre markers of barbershop and has just moved next door into a different idiom. More often, though, you get this flirtation across boundaries with references to other styles, but with significant barbershop thumbprints placed in conspicuous places to reassure a clued-up audience. A nice I - III half dim - VI7 on the home run into the tag plays the function that canned laughter does in a sketch show.

But there is a crucial difference in the way that transgression is framed in barbershop world compared to comedy. The barbershoppers who pride themselves on pushing the envelope do so in the name of the style’s popularity. They see themselves as trying to expand beyond a set of outmoded restrictive practices that they fear will put off outsiders. They are trying, that is, to become more, rather than less, mainstream.

But when you stop to think about what you actually hear in a barbershop contest, especially at International level, the stuff that is the most adventurous in terms of the style definition is also the most rarefied, specialist and complex in the way it deploys the style’s elements. It is hardcore, niche material, designed by and for those who like to revel in their barbershop geekdom. It’s gorgeous, but it is not middle-of-the-road; it is certainly not a gate-way drug into the style. The pleasures it offers are to those know the style well enough to feel the dangers of stylistic subversion.**

The comparison with comedy has been a useful way to identify an aspect of barbershop culture that I have suspected for some time is a bit mixed up. Pushing at the boundaries of the style to become more creatively interesting is a rewarding thing to do. Aiming to be more accessible to general audiences is also valuable. They are pretty much opposite things, though; Disney doesn’t gain its market dominance by pushing the envelope after all. I’m happy for both things to happen, but just don’t be surprised if you can’t do both in the same song.


* Kibber = someone who wants everyone to Keep It Barbershop, a slogan of the rather hardline years of the late 1970s and early 1980s that can be used as either a term of pride or derision, depending on who wields it about whom.

** Much like those pleasures of late-night tag-singing, which I describe in Chapter 7 of my barbershop book as ‘illicit dissonant intimacy’.

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