Rejoice! The new issue of Copper Nickel is out. It includes an essay of mine called "Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington Wrestle in Heaven," about comedy, populism, globalism, and, of course, Karl Pilkington and Reggie Watts. It starts like this:
They don’t wrestle, and they aren’t in Heaven, but it’s a better title than “The Wind and the Lion, or: Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington, an Essay That Gets a Little Dark and Political at the End.The issue can be ordered here.
At the end of The Wind and the Lion, a mid-seventies orientalist extravaganza of a film, a Barbary pirate king played by Sean Connery writes to a distant Teddy Roosevelt, whose warships and Marines—representatives of modernity and the budding American empire—threaten to destroy him and his people. “I, like the lion, must stay in my place,” intones Connery in voiceover, not quite managing to get the Scotland out of his voice, “while you, like the wind, will never know yours.”
There are many ways to understand comedy. There’s Hobbes’ way, which is all about feeling superior to the schmuck who took a pie to the face; Kant’s way, which is about the unexpectedness of using a pie as a projectile; and Freud’s, which says we’re just giggling with relief when we stop suppressing our forbidden aggressions and smash a pie into some fool’s face. But if you want to understand two of the most striking figures of contemporary comedy, Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington, you could do worse than to start with the words of a fictional Barbary pirate.
To be clear: Pilkington’s the lion in this scenario. The bald, Mancunian lion. And Reggie Watts, whose voluminous afro differentiates him from Pilkington as much as his apparent cosmopolitan placelessness, is the wind. Let’s start with the lion.
Everyone who stumbled through graduate school in the humanities knows Kant credited David Hume with awakening him from his dogmatic slumber, but few know that he cribbed from another Scottish philosopher, James Beattie, when he put together his theory of the comic as the incongruous. Laughter, Beattie says, arises when things that don’t belong together unite—and Kant said much the same, more prominently and with far less clarity. And incongruity does explain a great deal of comedy, from Steve Martin wearing an arrow through his head while playing banjo in old Saturday Night Live episodes, to any solemn cleric or public speaker letting loose with a burst of surprisingly audible flatulence. It would seem to explain much of the comic effect of watching Karl Pilkington travel the world in the Sky TV series An Idiot Abroad. When, for example, Karl Pilkington stands on the Great Wall of China, looking out over the vast, venerable, and sublime fortification as it snakes away over the mountains of the Chinese north, we’d expect something like awe from him. He even seems, for a moment, to provide it, saying “It goes on for miles, over hills and such,” before deflating it all: “but so does the M6” (a perpetually traffic-clogged British motorway). The reaction is incongruous in a way Beattie and Kant would understand. And it involves something like the special kind of incongruity Mikhail Bakhtin saw as central to comedy—the “transcoding” in which something grand or sacred is juxtaposed to something banal or (in the most powerful cases) obscene. But if we understand Karl Pilkington merely as a producer of incongruous comments, we miss what’s special to him. We miss what makes him a lion.
You want to understand Karl Pilkington? Then you want to understand the power of narrowness. You want to understand the brilliance of narrowness....
Another essay of mine on comic poetry is here.