Is FAH really "no message comedy"?
In a 2020 interview for ComedySnaps, which was published on YouTube, Seán Flanagan, one third of Foil Arms and Hog, when asked whether they "find some subjects particularly touchy or particularly difficult . . . politics being the obvious one," stated that the trio have always held to the tenant that they are about "no message comedy . . . it's funny first, think later." I have been thinking a lot about this statement ever since I heard it and although I really respect Flanagan, (Hog), for his point of view and of course wouldn't try to change his mind about his own comedy, I would like to explore the premise of what it means to accept that the group is about "no message comedy" in the first place.
I have called FAH comedy artists, a phrase that I have not seen used even in their interviews. I am using this term because I understand that like an artist whose intent is to craft something over a long period of time, their writing, and in turn, their comedy is something that they take very seriously and work on in a daily capacity. Indeed, FAH have repeatedly pointed out that they work consistently 11 - 7pm every day, that their writing takes place individually and as a group, and that it can "take months to nail a sketch" (Veronica Lee, Chortle, 2019). In the ComedySnaps interview, Foil explained that they spend, "months and months and months writing the stage sketches" (2020). Does this not describe the artist's process in creating something meaningful for others? And in creating something meaningful for themselves and the people who view their work is that not suggesting a message of some kind in their comedy?
I would argue that even though Flanagan in his "no message comedy" comment is probably thinking about a political message, as the interviewer intended, or a bold statement with some kind of grandiose meaning, in fact FAH is creating definite messages in their comedy and one of the most important is to laugh. Laughter is not a given at all times. It takes real skill to get people to laugh. And FAH say to us: please laugh, we want you to laugh, we hope you laugh because if you don't, we have not succeeded in our message to you that it is okay to laugh at the crazy stuff that we're putting together up here on the stage or in this video.
I would further argue that their message is not "comedy for comedy's sake" (modeled after art for art's sake, of course). The message is not that comedy is divorced from all meaning, but that instead the comedy itself is meaning. In their live shows, FAH asks us to embrace the premise of their respective sketches, believe in this scene without any props because we are creating in your imagination a sandcastle competition or a man being shot dead by a border control officer (see my other blog posts for discussions of these two sketches). The message is: listen to us, take a journey with us, and we will bring you to a state of cathartic laughter, and feeling; you will remember our comedy because we've brought it alive for you through our artistic endeavors, comic timing, and interesting writing.
An even more powerful message that they have in their live shows is the intent to create a community in and out of the audience itself, for without the support of the audience their sketches will not succeed. They need the audience to laugh, to participate, and to respond to their work. Even in moments of improvisation, the message from FAH is to go with the flow, embrace the unknown, and trust us as performers; we will take care of you and lead you to some place funny.
A message that also exists in their comedy is the necessity to feel sympathy, or empathy for the characters that they have developed and are presenting to the audience. It is their doing, their acting, and their own interpretation of human expression that make it possible to see and understand meaning in their comedy. A sense of deep feeling is necessary to engage the audience and ask for their participation, their trust; FAH must literally bridge the gap between the stage and the audience by creating intimacy through their representation of emotion in all its complexity in their sketches. Even the most silly or basic sketch that is successful is premised on achieving an emotional connection with the audience.
The videos that they post to their social media sites ask for an even greater measure of faith and belief in them as comedy artists. I cannot speak of course for a live audience entirely, having never seen them in person, but I would argue that it is actually in the online videos that we really get a chance to understand the intended messages that FAH are trying to convey in their comedy. There is even more trust asked for and expected by the virtual audience, for if FAH's intention is to pack their live shows with people who watch their videos then they must create incredibly funny and meaningful comedy that engages on an even higher level so that the viewer remembers the work and takes an interest in seeing them live. What does it take to do this? Simply showing sketches from their live performances can't possibly manage this feat. So what else is involved?
Labor and consistent, timely production of material keeps them in the public eye and works to create a consistent message: we are here for you, we are not going away, we are not faltering, or leaving you in the lurch, we are grateful for your time and the energy you are spending watching this video, now think about us and come to our live shows. Or, since the coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives and theirs, think about us and support us on our Patreon page. Either way, the message is to take action to do something for FAH because they are thoughtfully and consistently doing something for us, the viewers.
Part of this is simply a good business model, but it also seems to reflect their genuine desire to achieve connections within their community of viewers and a growing international fan base. This cannot be achieved by creating material that is without depth, and messages, or meaning. It can't just be that these are three cute guys floating around on the web, putting out weekly videos and doing live comedy shows every year. There is no survival in that model in a world that races along at an incredible speed of information and things to watch on social media sites. There are many people who come and go in the world of comedy, who enter as sensations and then exit just as quickly. There are also huge numbers of people on social media who are vying for the attention of viewers.
So what sets FAH apart? This is my argument: their messages in their comedy draw viewers to them, to help us think further about their work and the world. There is a lot in their comedy that makes it possible for some people to just laugh and others to really ponder and think. Their sketches are often very complex and sophisticated. A lot of the material is silly or odd or strange and weird but it's also unbelievably varied and dynamic. Their range is vast, and their comedy accessible, this is a real strength of their work. Even their Irish comedy is understood across the world because they often deal with universal themes: cultural misunderstandings, relationships between parents and children, or family gatherings gone awry.
Certainly, the act and art of creating something funny challenges the idea that they are “no message comedy” for it is very clear listening to FAH speak in interviews about their writing process that they are serious, methodical, and committed when putting together their sketch material. It is true that an hour-long show, which might take a year to create, does get tweaked and rewritten before, during, and after performing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (they’ve stated this in interviews), but it is still a process of finding funny, interesting, and memorable material to perform, and in turn, thinking about this material for a very long time. That human component of care and concern about their own work comes through in the way that they convey their comedy to others in their live shows and their weekly videos.
This message of conscientiousness pervades everything that they create, so that our engagement with them is not experienced in a vacuum, it occurs because of the comedy art that they have thought about extensively, themselves. While laughter is the conduit through which we initially encounter their sketch material, it is the thoughtful, emotional, and even silly messages in their comedy that keep us connected to them on a human level and also keep us coming back for more.