Just what exactly is humour?
The Macquarie Encyclopaedic Dictionary describes humour as, “one of the four chief bodily fluids, blood, choler or yellow bile, phlegm, and melancholy or black vile, regarded as determining, by their relative proportions in the system, a person’s physical and mental constitution.”
Like the humours which make up our healthy body, Red Dwarf is made up of different proportions of humour.
Kryten knocking seven shades of shit out of Rimmer
One of the most basic forms of comedy, yet still hilarious if done well, and Red Dwarf does it well. From falling off gantries, sliding through snow in gale force winds, to trying to knock out a hard light hologram with a lump of metal, slapstick is an important part of Red Dwarf, without being overused. It has even been combined successfully with sci-fi humour, like when the Cat hits the simulant over the head with a shovel in Justice World, only to knock himself out due to the self inflicting nature of the justice field.
An anachronism is a misplacement of time within context, like having ancient Romans parking their chariots in a drive-in amphitheatre, or the various modern appliances that appear on the Flintstones. With its futuristic setting, Red Dwarf is able to poke fun at our own customs and habits, and those of the past. A great example of this is in Timeslides, when Lister appears at Hitler’s side and steals his briefcase, or when the Dwarfers get involved in John F Kennedy’s assassination.
This is a very sophisticated form of humour, and one which is rarely executed successfully, yet Grant and Naylor do it well. The early examples revolved mainly around the ideas of being trapped in deep space, surrounded only by three other disparate personalities, all of whom are also physiologically different from each other – a human, a hologram, a humanoid cat and an artificial intelligence. However, as Rimmer’s character evolved, so too did the psychological humour surrounding him. The insights achieved when Rimmer lives with himself in Me2, or the way that his personality is so focused on failure that a video game designed to fulfil a person’s deepest desires turns into a nightmare not only for him, but for his companions also, are intelligent and thought provoking. Over time, we are given a deeper insight into Arnie’s past and personality, in a way which is rarely seen in situation comedy.
He’s scuffling with Adolf Hitler!
Science and Science Fiction
This is where Red Dwarf towers over all others. There has been a number of science fiction comedies produced for various media, but not one has the sophistication of Red Dwarf’s sci-fi. Grant and Naylor have the understanding of any of the best serious science fiction writers. Their science is very accurate, and their understanding of modern theory is superb. Then, they take all this knowledge and tie it in knots! Even from one of the earliest examples, Todd Hunter’s explanation of stasis to Lister in the End. The speech provokes a great laugh, yet it also makes perfect theoretical sense. There are so many examples of this that an entire essay could be written on this subject alone, so I shall list some examples instead.
When Lister erases Agatha Christie from Holly’s memory, and Holly’s immediate response of misunderstanding. The way Kryten can sometimes be seen processing information, or when Lister tries to teach him to lie about bananas. Kryten’s instant recognition of the Marilyn Monroe droid. A vending machine developing a lisp. A toaster with artificial intelligence developing an identity crisis. Lister being his own father. A hard light hologram. Kryten feeding a man to the crew because his inhibition chip was turned off. . . the list is almost endless! Every example deserves its own thorough explanation, so, in the interests of keeping this essay below ten billion words, I had better leave it at that!
A good comedy is driven by character, not by situation. Even though Red Dwarf uses an exotic location, the unlimited situations this provides are simply used as ways for the characters to interact with each other. How much of Red Dwarf’s humour is made just from the play between Rimmer and Lister?
Unlike many comedies, Grant and Naylor haven’t really gone for a traditional “straight man.” Lister would come closest to this role, but there is enough eccentricity in his character to be able to make him funny by himself. Each character is different from the others in their personality, and the clashes between these traits are the staple of Red Dwarf’s humour. over time, and with superb input from the actors, the characters have continues to evolve and have never grown stale. So often have I seen or heard, “who’s your favourite character?”
Kryten trying to force out a big… erm, lie
Not, “what’s your favourite situation?” or, “which adventure do you like the best?” We have grown fond of all the characters, even Rimmer; indeed, Rimmer seems to be the character that most people claim as their favourite.
The Macquarie Encyclopaedic Dictionary’s first definition of humour is, “the quality of being funny.” The bottom line is that Red Dwarf makes us laugh. Other people will find different reasons than those I’ve listed as to the why and how, and others still will deduce that I’ve spent too much time thinking about this and need to get out more. The important thing is that Red Dwarf does make us laugh, and what greater gift can an artist provide to us than laughter?