Updated: May 3
A Broken Sand Radio & A Painful Loss Creates Cathartic Laughter
What interested me when I started to really watch and study FAH's videos, and not just run through them quickly for laughs, was the way that some of their sketches are incredibly emotional. There is almost a sense of Shakespearean tragic comedy in certain pieces that give them a level of complexity in their content. There is a definite story arc that sets forth a reasonable narrative, but then changes directions to shock the emotional system and even brings the audience to a place that is entirely unexpected: sorrow, pain, and laughter all mixed together.
I guess this sounds rather heavy about material that FAH has resolutely claimed to be silly and without much meaning in their interviews, except an expectation for laughter (see blog post #2 for my analysis of their supposed "no message comedy"). But I beg to differ. Interpretation takes many forms, and I would argue that once an artist's material has left his, her, or their hands, or been put up on social media for public consumption it can be evaluated by others. Comedy is art after all. And what I see often in FAH's sketches is an insight into what makes us laugh, not just that we do laugh, but what boundaries can they push to get us to the point of laughter even when that laughter is about tragedy, pain, anguish, extreme emotion, and human connections.
I want to examine one of FAH's sketches in this post, which is called Sandcastle Competition (2014). This sketch is filled with incredibly emotional moments of extraordinary pathos, especially in Hog's character, Jason. This sketch hinges on an understanding of basic human connections, a father and a son, and the pain of loss between the two.
Here is the sketch below.
The plot at first seems rather simple. It's a sandcastle competition. One person, Arms, thinks he's a rock star in the sandcastle making business, but he is outdone by Dad played by Foil, whose son, Jason/Hog, is also a budding inventor of things made of sand, most prominently a sand radio. There are of course lots of leaps of faith here; there are no props at all, everything is shown in pantomime, and through physical actions and facial expressions.
The audience is asked to believe what we see; we do, and it is easy to take on board the plot's narrative. Early on in this sketch there are several emotions introduced; tension between the competitors (Foil and Arms), jealousy on Arms's part of Foil about his better sandcastle and also his close relationship with his son Jason/Hog, and finally the love and devotion that exists between the Dad/Foil and his son Jason/Hog. We're told by his dad in an admiring tone that Jason is "a little wizard with a bucket and spade". This relationship is especially poignant because Jason/Hog has intense emotional feelings around his inability to make a working sand radio, one which he declares: "I made for you Dad because I thought you would like that type of thing."
However, as soon as his radio breaks, he is utterly distraught like so many young children, and turns to his father for immediate comfort and care. Dad/Foil provides this comfort with loving gentleness, touching him kindly and making his son, and in turn, the audience feel both an emotional connection between father and son and also relief that the "child" will not suffer further because of his failure to make something work. Jason/Hog reiterates the loving response of his father, by declaring, "I love you dad," and then saying, "we have such a meaningful relationship."
Like so many of FAH's sketches this could be a moment of improvisation on Hog's part, it's hard to tell, but certainly Foil doesn't have a verbal response. Jason trots off the stage, declaring he is happy. The middle of the sketch focuses on Foil and Arms as they continue to spar, at one point literally, and square off about the quality of sandcastle craftsmanship. This is actually a fairly long section, considering the entire sketch is just *6.24 minutes. But the stronger emotional content concerns Jason, and his Dad. It is the return of Jason and the introduction of a "truth" about him via Arms's character, (this is a narrative trope used in other FAH sketches, namely Irish Intervention, and Paper Bag Hats), that causes a total shift in the emotional feeling of the sketch.
The pivotal moment in the narrative arc arrives when Jason announces that "the tide is coming in" and his dad tells him to "stay out of the water, you know you can't swim." FAH achieves in setting up a transition here that melds comedy with tragedy. We are aware something is going to happen, but we don't know what yet. We are cued both by the start of suspenseful music and the awareness of the danger of that something as embodied in Arms and his facial expressions, and physical movements. And then he drops the bomb: "why don't you just tell him the truth?"; Foil responds like any concerned parent, "stay the hell out of this." And we're off down a path of tragedy, never to return to the idyllic father/son bond.
Danger is just around the corner in the form of the tide coming in, but also in Arms, who has information for Jason that is going to change everything. In fact, Arms's role throughout this sketch has been to introduce tension, and unease in the plot and, in turn, in the audience. The danger plays out when Arms states, "think about it Jason, you're a clever lad. What did you do yesterday? And the day before?" The music emphasizes the drama at this pivotal moment, and there is a sense of impending loss hovering over the scene. Moreover, there is a literal loss of memory and life, since Jason declares that "I can't remember Dad!" To emphasize the closeness between father and son, Jason responds to his father rather than to Arms, a stranger, about why he has no recent memories. As well, Dad is clearly in real parental anguish here, struggling to help his beloved son.
The truth, as it is revealed callously by Arms's character, is that Jason is made of sand! Arms takes no responsibility for breaking down the child's knowledge of himself and introducing a sense of pain into his world that before this had been incredibly idyllic. The heartbreak of Jason is evident as he pleads with his father, "it's not true Dad, is it Dad, tell him Dad." To emphasize the truth that Jason is made of sand, Arms's character touches Jason's shoulder, clearly picking up some sand, and blowing it into the air casually.
It is a very stark moment of Arms's character being unfeeling about the father / son relationship and the love that they share. His facial expressions during this entire scene have been fairly blank, and he shows little emotional response to Jason or his father's pain. The effect of this is that Arms carries the burden of the sketch to play the straight man; the one without emotional resonance, and therefore, the one person who is ultimately directing everything. For from the beginning, Arms's character has undermined both the father and the son, manipulating the emotional tension in the sketch and driving along the breakdown of the family unit.
When Jason asks, "why didn't you tell me Dad?" echoing every child's accusation of his or her parent, this is the ultimate stab through the heart, and we feel through Hog's voice, his desperation and anguish at learning the truth about himself. Jason's response to the revelation that he is made of sand is almost guttural, as we see him begin to disappear into the water and fade away, until his father comes to his rescue and saves him, and he declares, "I love you daddy." Jason's final declaration that "I'm not a real boy!" brings the scene to a head of pathos and loss. And to drive home the point, Jason/Hog does not immediately stand up at the end of this scene, but lies limply in his Dad's arms, as if he has really died.
So, let's introduce a question here at this point: why are we laughing at this sketch? Considering the pain that has been woven in and out of the plot narrative, what is it that makes us laugh at this tragedy? Absurdity is one answer. It is all overly dramatic, with almost a soap opera quality to the denouement. Everything is too big, too loud, too much, and when Jason collapses into his Dad's arms, we feel the tragic moment but we laugh because it is so over the top in terms of plausibility. But what of the emotional reckoning of the pain between a father, who is lonely and has lost his wife, and a son who is made of sand.
FAH seems to be suggesting that we can have it both ways here; we can feel the deep emotional connection between father and son, but we can also let ourselves laugh at the comic tragedy of the narrative. Laughter is cathartic and lets go of tensions; FAH have raised the comedy stakes by creating a sketch that brings us full circle in terms of our investment in their characters, so that we experience a range of emotions: pain, sorrow, sympathy, empathy, and laughter. Comedy to tragedy complete, FAH gives us permission to laugh at this calamitous moment because of the way they have manipulated our emotional responses, calculating brilliantly what an audience's reaction might be to certain narrative plot lines.
As I have argued previously (see blog post #2 "Comedy for Comedy's Sake, Not" ), we have faith in FAH to do two things for us, as viewers: challenge us with their offbeat, wacky humor, and instill trust in them as performers. This trust is vital as well to our equilibrium as participants in their humor; they keep us on the straight and narrow, so that we may embrace the reality that they've created on the stage, as well as have the leeway to explore our deeper emotional feelings. They have many goals in their sketches, but of course the main one is to elicit laughter. In the Sandcastle Competition this laughter just happens to occur through the vehicles of a broken sand radio and a painful loss.
Footnote: *This version posted to YouTube is actually edited; the entire sketch can be seen in FAH's live show from 2014, called "Foil Arms and Hog Live," which is available to people who subscribe to be patrons on their Patreon page, and "Live at Vicar Street (2014)", which can be found on their website and purchased for €10.