The Subversive Power of Comedy in Tai Chi
“The only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can't fake it...try to fake three laughs in an hour -- ha ha ha ha ha -- they'll take you away, man. You can't.”
Let’s just get one thing straight from the beginning. I don’t mean comical in the Frankie Howard, Carry On up the Kyber, Bennie Hill, Fawlty Towers, Monty Python sense. Well, maybe a bit of Monty Python
Nor do I mean in the "2 Taoists and a giraffe walk into a bar and one says to the other…" No, not that sort of humour either.
What I mean is a style of humour that enables or liberates. Humour that dispels tension, breaks down stuffy and artificial boundaries between people and ideologies, a humour that dislodges stances and unbalances staged postures. Thats what I mean. Thats the humour I’m referring to. Thats the subversive power of comedy.
Because a world without humour is a world without lightness of being, a world without self-effacement, a world dry and barren occupied by a zombie race with a serious face, a serious expression, a serious stance, a serious shirt collar. And what happens when people and places take themselves too seriously? What happens when the shirt collars of the world are in charge? Well, I’m glad you asked. You get people like Boris, Donald or that M Rajoy in control of your life. You get the Dead Walking. You get stagnation of movement, stagnant waters beneath your feet and ideologies that have become far too starched to do anything with. Thats what you get (so thanks for asking).
So Why are Tai Chi People So Serious About Themselves?
"I recognise that some of you probably went to China and studied with a grandmaster in some monastery or hermits cave for 15 years and survived on just donkey-pooh and panda air"
It doesn’t help if all you read is the Tao Te Ching. You see, everyone and their dog can insert Lao Tzu into their manifesto or class curriculum - thats the attraction of the book - but you don’t chuckle much when you read it. It’s not a page turner. For that you need to visit the comical genius of Chuang Tzu
When I say “comic genius”, bear in mind everything is relative and when you are chatting to a Taoist, you have to have a pretty broad range of reference points.
Now I do know what you are thinking - Taoism and Tai Chi are serious, subjects, so it isn’t fair to treat them in this superfluous manner. I hear you, honestly I do. I recognise that some of you probably went to China and studied with a grandmaster in some monastery or hermits cave for 15 years and survived on just donkey-pooh and panda air. At home these days, you wear white robes (and not after having just stepped out the bath). You proudly sport a pony tail and are growing your eyebrows as long as you can, just so everyone knows how radical, yet reliable, light-hearted yet wise you are when you teach. I get it I really do.
But, and heres the thing: This eyebrow thing - and calling yourself master this, sifu that- it's not doing a lot for the future of the art, and, well, to be frank, it's a bit comical. .
For those of you suffering from unwanted bouts of seriousness, I’d suggest going to live in Andalusia and try teaching Tai Chi there.
For 8 years, thats what I did. The people there embody noise, disruption, and chaos in all its glory. There is an absence of respect for hierarchy and hair styles - all very sound qualities for a people with long anarchic roots. As a teacher you must learn to adapt.
For example, you may try to explain the concept of sticking or the duality principle behind yin and yang, and whilst you are pondering over a simple translation of wu wei into Andalou’ you become aware that most people have wondered off to the loo, broken open a packet of choccy-biscuits and are handing them around whilst someone else is showing the rest of the class a YouTube video of their 3 week old kitten. Worse still they are not even looking at you. You - the enlightened one! You up there on your stage, you, with your pony tail neatly tied back and your satin suit ironed just that afternoon.
Under such very un-northern cultural conditions, you must learn to yield, and you must learn, above all else, to laugh with people and to step off your pedestal - for they are there to teach and well as to be taught. Stepping off your pedestal is greatly advised. Get down there amongst everyone and get your hands dirty. Embrace the fact that it doesn't make much sense, but then again, it doesn't have to.
THE POWER OF COMEDY
“Life doesn't make any sense, and we all pretend it does. Comedy's job is to point out that it doesn't make sense, and that it doesn't make much difference anyway.”
Comedy is far a greater tool to demonstrate in a class than a lethal front kick. Comedy is a disruptive force. For Comedy says: ‘hold on a moment, just listen to yourself - none of this is real, it’s all just one way, one perspective, one stance. As much as you might think what you are teaching or learning is of global importance, it isn’t. Most people in the world will never try a class of tai ch, especially with you - no disrespect - but statistically it ain’t gonna happen.
And, you know what. they’ll get by just fine as they are.
But comedy is not just a means to lighten an atmosphere. Embracing Comedy enables you to commentate from another angle - Comics see the tragedy of their times. Shakespeare used comedy to critique the establishment. Think Jon Stewart. Think Russell Brand. Think Monty Python.
Oh and One Last Thing
Think One Last Thing - that classic philosophical parody by the teapotmonk (in all good ebook stores). A comical look at the martial arts - a book that takes our cherished Tai Chi history and blows it up into small ludicrous pieces so we may reinterpret personal histories, distorted timelines, and regurgitated words.
One Last Thing was my attempt to debunk the frowns and scowls from certain quarters of the Tai Chi community. Debunk the movement of serious internet memes and slogans because only though comedy can you do this. Only though comedy can you show it’s ok to let up, to relax. And If you’ve lucky enough to have enough hair on your bonce, to let it down a little.
So learn to laugh with your class, its a precious tool to pass on to others, they will love you for it. It shows that they don’t have to always be right, always be correct, always be on time, always be in attendance, always be attentive to your every word,
And neither do you.
ONE LAST THING is available here.
This article is also available as a podcast here.
Watch the series of fictional interviews with tai chi masters here.
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