The Eurovision Song Contest can mean all manner of things to people. To some, it’s about nine hours worth of light entertainment television each May, an occasion to break out their miniature flags and come up with cocktails and appetizers to serve to their friends while the votes roll in. For others, it’s serious business, even a pursuit worthy of intensive study – isn’t that right, Dr. Eurovision? And to still others, it’s a target of disdain: an all-too-political, all-too-cheesy, all-too-flamboyant train wreck of a spectacle.
But for many entertainers over the past few decades, the Eurovision Song Contest is a comedic goldmine. After all, what’s not to laugh about? For those who haven’t wrapped themselves in a true love for the Contest, the frenetic costume changes, oversized props, and inflatable hammers are more than a little risible. But when the Contest is used as comedic fodder in the media it’s not really the contest that’s being mocked. Rather, it’s indicative of a number of deeper sociological trends that we, as consumers of comedy, tend to respond to.
Comedy Is A Serious Business
It may seem counter-intuitive to go all academic in order to discuss what makes people do something as natural as laugh, but in his book ‘Quirkology’, author and Professor of Public Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire Richard Wiseman takes a few chapters to focus on what makes a joke funny. He established an internationally-sourced database of jokes called LaughLab, which not only allowed users to submit their favourite rib-ticklers, but also allowed them to assess what others had submitted.
After a year, over 40,000 jokes were sent in and approximately 1.5 million ratings were recorded. While very few jokes were universally embraced, many of the ones that trended positively did incorporate a common thread; according to Wiseman “they create a sense of superiority in the reader”.
For example… a mark appearing stupid:
“Did you hear about the man who was proud when he completed a jigsaw puzzle within thirty minutes, because it said ‘5-6 years’ on the box?”
…an ego getting deflated…
“Texan: ‘Where are you from?’
Harvard Graduate: ‘I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.’
Texan: ‘Okay – where are you from, Jackass?’”
…or authority being questioned…
“A teacher decided to take her bad mood out on her class of children and so said, ‘Can everyone who thinks they’re stupid, stand up!’ After a few seconds, just one child stood up. The teacher turned to the child and said, ‘Do you think you’re stupid?’ ‘No,’ replied the child, ‘but I hate to see you standing there all by yourself.’”
The Division Of Humour
People often use comedy to create subconscious divisions between ‘us’ and ‘others’. This isn’t limited to Anglophone humor; while jokes about the English and Irish fly back and forth between the two nations and Polish jokes are all-too-common in American comedy, the French often poke fun at the Belgians and the Germans have a plethora of jokes about the East Frisians.
Soon after the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ not only used a cavalcade of clips from the show in Stockholm to highlight the goings-on (including, of course, raucous laughter and howls after presenting Ivan’s nude hologram with a wolf), but then insisted that America could do it better and win Eurovision 2017, revealing the stylings of Nórnaäs’s ‘The Living Life’.
To all appearances, it looks like Colbert is poking fun at the Song Contest directly, but this clip has a bit more under the surface, especially in the context of other popular American comedy motifs. While we Americans love our friends across the Pond, it’s not uncommon for our humor to bend towards skewering Europe. From the Festrunk Brothers on classic episodes of Saturday Night Live to Family Guy’s Tomik and Bellgarde, some of our closest diplomatic allies are often our deepest sources for comedic fodder.
Eurovision, as an entity, isn’t well-known enough Stateside to be seen with the same automatic lightheartedness that a British or Irish audience might see… at this point, it’s just something “those wacky Europeans” do, like having different plugs, avoiding high fructose corn syrup, or providing citizens with reasonable healthcare.
Comedy is not only used to mock the differences between groups, but it is also used to galvanise and emphasise commonalities from within. The usage of the ‘inside joke’ among groups as small as a pair of siblings or as large as the Eurovision fan community is nothing new.
Looking at the smallest of scales, an niche inside joke about how the lead singer of Hotel FM’s favourite instrument is actually the children’s TV character Pingu may make absolutely no sense to the world as a whole, but for the members of the press corps who were sitting at a specific table in Düsseldorf in 2011, that will always be something shared amongst that incredibly small group.
Expanding the lens from macro to panorama, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’ did the exact same thing for Eurovision Song Contest viewers. For fans from all over the world, it was a treasure trove of references that we all keep in our memory banks, from the flaming piano and hamster wheel to Loreen’s choreography and Carola’s wind machine. While any viewer could enjoy the song, it was truly a love letter to the global community of fans.
Stop It, This Is Getting Far Too Silly
Wiseman’s study also touched upon using comedy as a way to take down the establishment, and few were as deft at this in general as the men behind ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the troupe’s sketch show was televised, the United Kingdom was on a bit of a Eurovision hot streak, with its first win coming only two years before the show initially aired, and the second just a few months prior to the show’s premiere.
During the time that Monty Python was on the air, the UK never came any lower than 4th. The Contest was a part of the cultural landscape, especially on the BBC, yet it was still seen as a fun bit of light, fluffy entertainment. That easy-to-watch, lighthearted television fare, therefore, stood in a perfect contrast to the serious nature of law enforcement and Cold War-era politics. The Pythons, no stranger to poking fun at the institutions that surrounded them, took aim and fired.
In November 1970, as Terry Jones, dressed as a member of the Metropolitan Police, belted out ‘Sgt. Duckie’s Song’ his entry in the ‘Europolice Song Contest’, only to lose to Monaco’s Jean-Paul Zatapathique’s ‘Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong’’. Not only was the troupe playfully ribbing the nonsensical nature of recent winners (this is right around the time of ‘La, La, La’ and ‘Boom-Bang-a-Bang’), but also taking the often-staid law enforcement establishment down a peg or two by having them perform silly songs for the amusement of the masses. (That being said, I still personally think that Graham Chapman’s rendition of ‘Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong’ should have gotten him a direct ticket to the 1971 Contest…)
Similarly, just a few weeks later, the ‘World Forum/Communist Quiz’ sketch brought heavy-hitters Karl Marx, Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong around the table, seemingly to discuss and debate the heady sociopolitical topics of the day, but the scene quickly devolves into a quiz about FA Cup history and, yes, the Eurovision Song Contest. However, it should be noted that while Chairman Mao’s answer of ‘Sing Little Birdie’ was marked correct by the moderator, any Eurovision fan worth their salt knows that Teddy Scholten’s ‘Een Beetje’ actually won the Song Contest in 1959…minus five points to you, Eric Idle.
Watching the ideological standard-bearers of Communism tartle and flail as they fail to come up with the name of Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson’s Eurovision evergreen brings up feelings of schadenfreude, especially given the context of the Cold War and the early days of NATO. As far as taking sober, austere concepts like law and order and global geopolitics and deflating them, these sketches in Monty Python’s arsenal are just as effective as the ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ or the ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’, only using Eurovision as the comedic theme, rather than physical humour.
It’s certainly not a tactic that’s limited to Monty Python. While American institution Saturday Night Live may not use the Eurovision Song Contest, pieces like ‘Janet Reno’s Dance Party’ where the then-Attorney General of the United States danced the Mashed Potato with a bunch of teenagers use the same approach. The contrast between high culture and pop culture is really what makes sketches like these shine.
Horses, Tents, And Airline Stewards
Comedy isn’t always about highlighting the positive; it can also draw attention to an individual’s foibles and failures. Rodney Dangerfield’s classic self-deprecation is a great example from the world of stand-up, and the misanthropic, deeply flawed, yet lovable character of Bernard Black from Black Books falls into this pattern.
One of the most successful jokes in Wiseman’s study plays on this concept, as well:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said:
“Watson, look up at the sky, and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied: “I see millions and millions of stars.”
Holmes said: “And what do you deduce from that?”
Watson replied: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth out there. And if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”
And Holmes said: “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”
Arguably the most famous piece of comedy involving the Eurovision Song Contest is the Father Ted episode ‘A Song For Europe’. The premise parodies the perceived embarrassment of riches of the real-life Irish delegation at Eurovision during the mid 1990’s, when hosting four contests in five years became as much of a curse as it did a blessing. The running joke was that RTÉ would intentionally try to throw the Song Contest at some point so it would not go bankrupt.
Not only does ‘A Song For Europe’ take the lessons of our last section, taking the decorous concept of the clergy and turning it on its head, but it also highlights very humanising flaws. Dougal’s naïveté, Ted’s impatience, their shared inability to create a song. We laugh at ‘My Lovely Horse’, but in all honestly, many of us (myself included) could do no better… and it remains one of the UK’s most loved Eurovision songs, even though it never entered the Contest.
Interestingly enough, a full year earlier, the short-lived BBC 2 sitcom ‘The High Life’ starring a young Alan Cumming toed a similar line and sadly, ended up with a similar nil-points result at a fictionalised Scottish ‘Song For Europe‘ National Final. While the scene ends with a more poignant, humanising tone about the nature of disappointment and self-confidence (granted, while completely drunk following their televised humiliation), the story of the rise and fall of ‘Pif Paf Pof’ still plays on the same themes as its counterpart from Craggy Island, as well as the tale of Sherlock and Doctor Watson.
And Now For The Punchline
Comedy fulfills more roles in society than just an endorphin release. It’s a shared experience, one that creates a community yet has the power to create rifts between populations. It creates the opportunity to laugh at another’s shortcomings, but also forces us to consider our own. It highlights the divisions between highbrow and lowbrow, taking the institutions of our society down a peg. In various forms of Anglophone humour over the past six decades, the Eurovision Song Contest has managed to be used as a way to play with these concepts by being the medium of the joke, rather than being the butt of it. It might not have been part of Marcel Bezençon’s initial vision of the Contest, but, in a way, this unintended side-effect fits perfectly into his dream of bringing the people of Europe (and now, the entire world) together. After all, what’s more indicative of our shared humanity than laughter?
Writing this article has got me wondering: do the patterns that I’ve been seeing in anglophone comedy play the same way in other languages and cultures? Leave us a comment and let us know about your favourite ESC-focused sketches, parody songs, or other bits that maybe have passed me by!