The Place of the Child in Comedy

By Casey Wilson

On Friday night, another UF children’s lit grad and I attended a stand up comedy gig by John Oliver (The Daily Show, Community) down at the Hard Rock at Universal Orlando. The show itself was fantastic – Oliver’s comedy is incredibly smart and he handled the…unique challenges of a Florida crowd with a deft touch. But I noticed something incredibly interesting as the evening wore on, and that was the way in which children and children’s books are appropriated in the name of comedy.

Which is not to say that it was child-friendly; the tickets said “mature audiences” and they meant it. But many of the jokes relied upon the transgression of the sanctity of childhood and the child’s texts. Oliver’s opener, Mike Lawrence, wondered what would have happened to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as they aged, imagining Raphael as a drug addict; he later took the theme, meter and style of Dr. Seuss’s Sam I Am and rewrote it in the service of one of his more sexually explicit jokes. Oliver tossed off a casual reference to Chronicles of Narnia and told an elaborate story that traced back to the Build-a-Bear workshop. With the possible exception of the Narnia reference, they all twist the supposed safety and innocence of the culture that surrounds children in favor of a darker image of these cultural artifacts.

But it’s more than just looking for the underbelly of a children’s book. Lawrence spoke of being nostalgic because he “had to believe he had a good childhood”, a comment that helped infuse that stretch of his set with a sense of melancholy. Later, Oliver presented a memory from his youth as one where he became disillusioned with heroes – a moment that fundamentally supported the overarching theme of his set. In both of these instances, childhood becomes an integral part of the humor they’re presenting, but it’s done in a way that indicates the long-term influence that even a single event from childhood can (supposedly) have.

If much of comedy is about engaging with the taboo, then puncturing the bubble of innocence we place around children seems a natural place to begin. In a rant about the importance of cursing, Oliver tells a story of how one eight-year-old boy regained a friend by using a single expletive; the joke wouldn’t be as funny or effective if it was about an adult, or even a teenager. Without the child, that joke would fail. Without the romantic notion of childhood innocence, that joke would fail.

Thanks to the rise of podcasts, it seems that we are in a new comedy boom. Not only can a comic now put together a show on his or her own terms, but, to our benefit, the shows aren’t as fleeting as they once were. Comedy podcasts can be owned and analyzed relatively easily, unlike when much of comedy was limited to the occasional television special and live performances. Because of this ease of access, perhaps it would be worth turning some of our scholarly attentions to stand up comedy, to see just how comics are using the child and children’s literature to add depth their acts.

Casey is a PhD student.

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