The Ultimate Guide to Absurdist Comedy

Absurdism is, in a philosophical sense, the idea that there are no gods, higher purpose, or order to things. At least, that’s what Wikipedia told me. With that in mind, it’s pretty easy to find humor in the mundane. For example, consider a rubber duck. Humans tend to be highly sociable but frequently feel self-conscious; hence the substitution of human interaction for a little plastic replica of a semi-aquatic being. It’s ridiculous and hilarious! There’s the rational brain (I like splashing in the water) and the irrational (rubber duck will make me feel less awkward about being in the bathtub naked) in perfect, insane harmony. Therein lies the absurdist comedy. 

bath and rubber duck

Absurdism is often used interchangeably with surrealism, which has roots in Belgian and French philosophy. Still, it’s likely that people have been laughing at ridiculous situations since we all learned to chuckle. There is some overlap between absurdist comedy and satire (we’ll get there in a bit), and we’ve all always relished the opportunity to compare our leaders or icons to something farcical. For example, if you Google former prime minister of the UK David Cameron and ‘pig,’ you’ll find that many comedians didn’t even know where to start with the jokes because they simply came so thick and fast. Nothing they could imagine would have come close to the truth. If there are no gods, we look to the next most powerful thing: the upper echelon in society, and find ways to ridicule them through the absurd things they do. There is no order, only chaos (and, occasionally, accusations of sexual activities with a dead pig). 

absurd nose with legs and glasses

 Absurdist humor is a genre of comedy, but it’s not the only one. Nobody seems able to settle on an exact categorization, possibly because the idea of humor is itself absurd and defies organization. Spare a thought for the confused computer in Spotify HQ trying desperately to organize everyone’s musical taste and imagine what Marvin the Paranoid Android would say. Other genres include burlesque humor, great for allowing one to squirm in a perverted and pleasant manner; gallows humor, which attempts to find the fun in morbid events or ideas – think The Adams Family; farcical humor, often used in Oscar Wilde’s plays and involves increasingly ridiculous situations – “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness;” highbrow humor, which is only for nerds; self-deprecating humor, which is only for the wildly insecure; and satirical humor, which is what our Lord and Saviour John Oliver do. 

 There’s also slapstick, which is exactly what it sounds like (sometimes quite literally) and involves comic violence – think The Chuckle Brothers, The Three Stooges, The Play That Goes Wrong, or even some parts of Shakespeare. Dry humor or deadpan humor is when one says funny things without reacting to what they say, like Captain Raymond Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “I can’t hear you, Kevin, you’re dead,” although the delivery might be what makes that funny. 

 Absurdist or surreal humor originally came from the surrealist movement. Initially developed after the First World War and influenced by it, surrealism was seen as a way for the unconscious mind to express itself. It challenged the clear thinking many soldiers may have come across while in the military. A famous surrealist picture is The Treachery of Images by Rene Magritte, which features a pipe drawing labeled “this is not a pipe” in French. It’s pretty easy to see how this could have evolved into humor without much trouble. 


 As I’ve tried to establish, absurdist humor may have become part of the surrealist movement of the mid-20th Century, but that doesn’t mean it’s limited to that period. Proto-surrealist spirit is often found in literature, and some people point to the work of Edward Lear or Lewis Carrol to suggest that the core principles of absurdist humor predate the 20th Century. To my understanding, Alice talking to an opium-addled caterpillar has more to do with Carrol’s drug use than post-war trauma, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely funny and full of bizarre situations and non-sequiturs. Another example comes after the surrealist movement: Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which has existed in different mediums and was first published as a novel (part of the trilogy of five) in 1979. Adams also worked with Monty Python, who massively influenced the absurdist humor movement. In general, many novelists wrote as part of the surrealist movement… Still, it’s difficult to tell if their work was intentionally funny: many people struggle to understand the texts because of the surrealist idea that everything should be presented as it is and not organized in any way. By the way, many pretentious children have attempted to use this reasoning to excuse messy bedrooms.

 Comic poetry is often seen as a slightly strange thing. We’re used to listening to people tell jokes or perform in funny films or TV shows. So, reading humorous prose is fine, but that’s probably because we’re accustomed to novels. Comic poetry takes solo, silent humor (unusual) and adds it to a medium that is a pretty niche. Yet surely absurd humor expects the weird, and so I believe we should embrace the poem as something with comic potential. Take Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat or The Old Man of Aosta, which is funny, charming, and utterly underrated. If an aspiring comic wants to pay tribute to one of the original greats truly, perhaps they could try their hand at a limerick and throw in a strange illustration. 

 The medium most people associate with absurd humor is film and television. Because the format mixes sound and picture, it provides a great opportunity to juxtapose one thing with another, changing the context. Some iconic absurdist films include Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Airplane! TV shows include The Mighty Boosh, The Eric Andre Show, and Spitting Image, and the latter crosses over with satire.

Another film that crosses satire with absurd comedy is The Exterminating Angel. Unlike many of our other examples and absurdism in general, this film is not set in Europe or made by Europeans. Widely considered a surrealist masterpiece, this film shows the hypocrisy and double standards of life in Mexico in the 1960s. The comedy is subtle and often overshadowed by troubling aspects. More obviously, humor is found in A Hard Day’s Night, which attempted to capitalize on The Beatles’ fame by making a cheap and quickly produced film where each band member gets into shenanigans. The reboot of Spitting image and original shows Bojack Horseman and Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy proves there’s still interest in the genre. However, I think there’s certainly room in the market for more surreal comedians willing to plunge into a ridiculous pool.

Puebla streets, Mexico

 In our modern days, absurdist comedy is quite popular. The genre has evolved and has fewer poets but more playful explorations of the philosophical concept. One example (which seems absurd in itself) is Spongebob Squarepants. Now, technically, Mr. Squarepants arrived on the scene last millennium (1999), but he’s still going strong, living a very normal life… The show features regular shots of underwater fire and fish learning to drive cars, all presented with a completely straight face. For the grown-ups, we have Tuca and Bertie,semi-anthropomorphized birds who catch the train, have jobs, and eat their eggs on one odd occasion. There’s also Random Acts of Flyness, which showcases black comics, who have been conspicuously absent from almost all of the other projects I’ve mentioned. The initial series had six episodes, and although it was renewed in 2018, we haven’t yet seen more information about a release date, guest stars, or anything else.

 Modern absurdist comedy seems keen to return to surrealism’s troubling roots. As I mentioned earlier, many surrealist works, including comedy, seemed heavily influenced by the trauma of a world war. Ok, it’s not obvious in Spongebob Squarepants… Still, Bojack Horseman openly discusses addiction, mental illness, intergenerational trauma, gun rights, and abortion whilst humanizing the characters and keeping cutaway gags involving increasingly ludicrous signs. Random Acts of Flyness does the same, although it’s had less time. Skits available on Youtube and HBO satirize white privilege, institutional racism, and street harassment whilst still being extremely funny.


caricature, 1773

 When many think of absurdist comedy, they automatically go to Monty Python. Whilst the troupe was amazing, there are many more comics who deserve just as much fame and adoration. Eric Andre is a modern example of an absurdist comedian who is still making shows (the sixth season of The Eric Andre Show will be available in 2023). Still, if you prefer something more retro and aren’t afraid to mix up the mediums, The Fireside Theatre made dozens of absurdist albums, working together and individually for five decades. There must be something in there to tickle you! Not only that, but I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson features the hilarious Patti Harrison. Whilst Robinson and Harrison might not yet be solidified into “icon” status (although I did describe a goose as “iconic” yesterday, so we may be working to different standards), that doesn’t mean they won’t be there soon. A more widely known pair credited with bringing absurdism to millennials is The Mighty Boosh, but sadly they seem to be involved in other individual projects for now. And, of course, we still have Bill Bailey, combining surrealism, ridiculous, and satire, on tour with his “Boris Johnson randomizer” button.

 It seems absurdist philosophy started to wind down a bit, but I believe that surreal – satirical – absurdist comedy (as a literary genre) is still going strong.

Written by Clara Godwin-Suttie


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