When life is serious, comedy nose best

Comic Relief will today aim to raise millions for charity - let's laugh injustice away! But comedy and politics have a long history. And that's no joke.

At Belmont Infant School, near Durham, they’ve all come dressed as clowns today. Why? Because when it comes to putting things right, comedy is often the best way. Oh no it isn’t! Oh yes it is!

It’s all about the nose today — red, of course — as Comic Relief sets out to raise more money to combat poverty and social injustice in the UK and around the world.

It has done pretty well so far. Since the annual campaign began in 1985, £650m has been collected; the money has found its way to 76 countries through 12,597 different projects. And unlike us taking part for just one day, through these channels our donations are working 365 days a year.

But comedy has provided a relief for many centuries. In the courts of medieval Europe, the fool or jester was allowed to take great liberties and speak home-truths to the monarch when no one else dared to.

The tradition continued into the Tudor era, when Elizabeth I is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her!

Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, also had a fool called William Sommers. Henry was an autocratic ruler who tolerated no opposition at court; but he did tolerate William.

On one occasion, the king threatened to kill the fool with his own hands, after Sommers had gone too far with a joke about Anne Boleyn, the second of his six wives, and the baby Elizabeth. (He questioned her parentage.)

But he didn’t kill him and the shrewd Sommers remained in Henry’s employ throughout his reign — a rare achievement for this particular king’s courtiers, many of whom ended up with their head on the block.

But the link between comedy and politics is not confined to royalty. Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the world’s most famous comedian, took it to Hollywood and the silver screen.

In his day Chaplin, an icon of the silent movies, was the most recognised person on earth. But he was thrown out of America as an ‘undesirable’, after he began to introduce politics into his comedy.

Reflecting on his life, the comedian regretted that he’d never really married his genius with his passion. He had made people laugh, but he’d wanted his comedy to change the world.

Funny? With reforms to the National Health Service in the news and causing a major political argument, even this simple joke can carry an edge of anger. Comedy is good at getting serious.

Doctor, doctor!

With or without a red nose, the clown must make us laugh. Wherever they find us, they must take us to a different place, somewhere where perhaps we can lower our guard. Once there, the clown is suddenly more powerful than the audience.

‘Doctor, doctor! I only have 59 seconds to live!’ ‘Wait there and I’ll be with you in a minute.’

You Decide

  1. 'What has poverty got to do with these attention-seeking comedians? We just want a laugh!' Discuss.
  2. Comedy is a powerful tool to be used carefully. Can you think of examples of a negative use of laughter?


  1. Share your favourite jokes: can anyone come up with one with a bit of a sharp edge? A joke that makes a political or other serious point?
  2. Do some research on Comic Relief and the charities it supports. Write a short piece 'Comic relief: Hype or Hope?'

Some People Say...

“Poverty is too serious to laugh about.”

What do you think?


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